Minsters suffer from the same types of chronic stress as people in other high-stress jobs and deal with the same pressures related to overworking expectations.
Recently I attended a workshop for top church leaders to hone their skills while building supportive networks. Leadership can be lonely, and this organization works to support ministry leaders with the skills and support they need.
During a breakout discussion session (before COVID-19), several pastors shared their fear of burning out and the struggle they face on a daily basis. Once one person opened up, almost everyone in the group shared their battle scars, providing a rich space to deal with the issues at hand.
Burnout among pastors seems to be a taboo subject. Time and again, pastors approach me and literally whisper their story of burnout. They’ve often walked the journey alone, afraid to express their needs and ask for help for fear of losing their job, or their feelings of shame feel scarier than the possibility of fully burning out.
What is ministry burnout?
According to the New York Times, minsters suffer from the same types of chronic stress as people in other high-stress jobs and deal with the same pressures related to overexposure to smartphones and overworking expectations. 1
Pastoral ministry burnout is an occupational burnout with specific indicators related to pastoral responsibilities and their leadership position. When I speak with pastors, their reasons for feeling overwhelmed are not due to failure, interest in another job, or a lack of passion. Instead, the reasons cited almost always include words like exhausted, lonely, discouraged, and overwhelmed. They are running on empty and have no time to fill up their tank. Beyond vocational challenges, they worry about the effects of stress and working too much on their family’s lives.
According to an article on ChurchLeaders dot com, “90% of the people entering ministry do not retire from ministry”. 2 Yet burnout is rarely talked about openly among church leadership.
Ministry burnout statistics
The research group, Barna, provides the following statistics regarding pastor burnout. 3
Burnout Risk for Pastors:
- Less confident in their calling today than when they began ministry.
- Rate mental and emotional health average, below average, or poor.
- Seldom or never energized by ministry work.
- Frequently feel inadequate for their calling or ministry.
- Frequently feel emotionally or mentally exhausted.
- Have suffered from depression sometime during their ministry.
- Their primary day-to-day tasks do not fit their calling or gifts.
More statistics: 4
- 80% of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.
- 90% of pastors said their seminary or Bible school training did only a fair to poor job preparing them for ministry.
- 80% of pastors say they do not have sufficient time to spend with their spouse.
Why do pastors burn out?
Overwhelming ministry stress is at the heart of burnout among the clergy. The daily pressures of carrying vast amounts of responsibility, often with inadequate resources, can leave pastors feeling exhausted. This can be true at all levels whether the person is a senior pastor or in youth ministry.
Caring for a congregation requires servant leadership, and clergy often model this tremendously well. At times, however, caring for a large number of parishioners can lead to compassion fatigue. This is commonly seen among people whose job “puts them in situations where they commonly see or hear about ongoing and sometimes unspeakable suffering”. 5 Pastors spend an inordinate amount of time hearing others’ problems, entering others’ crises, ministering to those who are dying, and performing funerals among the grieving. While offering guidance and comfort during these times can be a profound honour, it takes its toll, often as vicarious trauma. According to Psychology Today, “the more such individuals open themselves up to others’ pain, the more likely they will come to share those victims’ feelings of heartbreak and devastation.” 6 Clergy members require self-care and debriefing opportunities just like others in helping professions.
What are the symptoms of ministry burnout?
Burnout in the ministry occurs for the same reasons as for other occupations. An analysis of the symptoms of burnout can be found here.
What are the effects of pastoral burnout?
- Feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and exhausted.
- Withdrawing emotionally from those they serve in order to protect themselves.
- Relational tensions within their home. With so much output to their congregations, pastors may not have the energy to contribute to their family’s relational needs.
- The effects of overtime can ironically lead to a loss of productivity. Effectiveness decreases as stress increases. 7
- According to the World Health Organization, the effects of chronic stress can lead to exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness at work. 8
- The symptoms of burnout can lead to sick days, leaves of absence, and, eventually, resignation.
How does burnout affect pastors’ physical and mental health?
Clergy burnout symptoms affect every area of life. Below are some examples.
- Decreased immunity.
- Sleep disturbances.
- Anxiety or depression.
- Brain fog.
- Cynicism or an inability to recognize how their contribution matters.
- Decreased self-confidence and self-worth.
- Emotional fatigue, otherwise known as Compassion Fatigue or compassion burnout.
- Shame, guilt, or a sense of failure.
- Disillusionment or a crisis of faith.
- Sense of failure.
- Lack of mentorship and spiritual refreshment.
- Sick days without pay.
- Leaves of absence create a financial strain on churches.
- Resignation can lead to a lack of finances and a health benefits package.
- Relational tension or conflict.
- Decreased capacity for family, friends, and parishioners.
- Reduced trust in the workplace.
- Decreased performance.
- Decreased focus and engagement.
- Decreased passion and vision for the future.
How to avoid ministry burnout
The good news is, pastor burnout can be avoided. Following are steps pastors can take to prevent ministry burnout and exhaustion.
1. Take time off.
- Schedule one day off per month to fill up your emotional and spiritual tank. Spend time outdoors. Research shows nature provides health benefits such as reducing inflammation and stress hormones. 9 Enjoy activities that foster play, creativity, and relational joy.
- Take vacations, whether at home or abroad, that provide the rest, connection, and meaningful experiences that will restore you for your next phase of work.
2. Create clear boundaries.
- Schedule time to spend with your loved ones, including family and friends. Your spouse, children, and social relationships are essential and can provide the meaningful relational time you will never regret.
- Set clear boundaries around when you work and when you don’t. Establish daily rhythms of screen-free time when you do not hear or see notifications from social media, co-workers, or those you serve.
3. Prioritize your time around effectiveness rather than efficiency.
- Effectiveness refers to the degree of success to reach the desired result. No matter how efficient you are at low priority work, it will never create effectiveness. Prioritize the most essential work and schedule it for your most proficient time of the day without distraction. Do not let the urgent override the significant.
- Delegate and automate. First, determine what parts of your job are not critical to your top priorities. Eliminate these. Second, identify work that could be automated and find or request technology applications to perform these tasks. Lastly, decide which tasks can be delegated to a dedicated volunteer, administrative assistant, or virtual assistant. Do not delegate anything that can be eliminated or automated. Entrust work to others who will enjoy and grow from the experience.
What churches can do to prevent pastor burnout
Support workplace wellness through the following recommendations.
1. Human Resources
- Provide robust health benefits, including access to mental health supports.
- Support the family unit with health and educational benefits.
- Present recognition in a meaningful fashion. Some options include gift cards for healthy restaurants, gift cards for local book stores or fresh grocers, and extra credits for personal development funding.
2. Clear Expectations
- Provide clear guidelines regarding performance expectations and limitations on working hours.
- Supply policies around clear expectations for non-work hours, including directives for responding to texts, emails, and congregant needs.
- Permit flexible hours whenever possible to allow for greater productivity during peak effectiveness hours.
- Create policies around pastoral care guidelines, including on-call duties. Share on-call crisis management among staff. For smaller ministry teams, partner with other churches to provide pastoral care to congregants on a rotating basis. Consider collaboration with community crisis services.
3. Work-life Quality
- Encourage active meetings. Rather than sitting, boost morale and motivation with walking meetings. Rather than connecting virtually, encourage talking via phone using high-quality wireless earbuds with a microphone so each party can be in their ideal environment.
- Provide ergonomic assistance for physically appropriate workstations, including desks, chairs, and standing desks. This applies to both at-work and Work-From-Home environments.
- Promote mood-boosting working environments by offering natural light wherever possible and introducing living plants. A 2016 study shows that even a small amount of nature within an indoor workspace can predict overall better health and job satisfaction. 10
4. Productivity Assistance
- Provide technology resources and training to inspire automation.
- Provide adequate human resources through administrative or virtual assistants.
5. Time Off
- Mandate breaks, including breaks between meetings and lunch breaks away from the work station.
- Offer monthly and annual time off. Establish accountability for taking time off and utilizing it in a way that restores the pastor.
6. Personal and Professional Development
- Encourage and provide funding for personal and professional development.
- Provide debriefing opportunities with qualified mentors, coaches, or counselors.
1. Vitello, P. (2010, August 02). Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work. Retrieved October 06, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html?_r=0
2. Noble, P., & -. (2012, June 06). Are You Headed for a Ministry Burnout? 10 Ways to Know for Sure. Retrieved October 06, 2020, from https://churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-how-to/154419-perry_noble_ten_signs_you_are_near_a_burnout_meltdown.html
3. Kinnaman, D. (2017, August 22). Burnout & Breakdown: Barna’s Risk Metric for Pastors. Retrieved October 06, 2020, from https://www.barna.com/burnout-breakdown-barnas-risk-metric-pastors/
4. HALLORAN, K. (2019, February 11). Christian Ministry Burnout: Prevention, Signs, Statistics, and Recovery. Retrieved October 06, 2020, from https://www.leadershipresources.org/blog/christian-ministry-burnout-prevention-signs-statistics-recovery/
5. Bourg Carter, S., Psy.D. (2014, July 28). Are You Suffering from Compassion Fatigue? Retrieved October 06, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/high-octane-women/201407/are-you-suffering-compassion-fatigue
6. Compassion Fatigue. (n.d.). Retrieved October 06, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/compassion-fatigue
7. Perlmutter, D., MD, Perlmutter, A., MD, & Loberg, K. (2020). Brain wash: Detox your mind for clearer thinking, deeper relationships, and lasting happiness. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark., pg 67.
8. Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases. (2019, May 28). Retrieved October 06, 2020, from https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/
9. Perlmutter, D., MD, Perlmutter, A., MD, & Loberg, K. (2020). Brain wash: Detox your mind for clearer thinking, deeper relationships, and lasting happiness. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark., pg 86.
10. A. Mihyang et al., “Why We Need More Nature at Work: Effects of Natural Elements and Sunlight on Employee Mental Health and Work Attitudes,” PLoS one 11, no 5 (May 2016): e0155614