Life | Focus on the Family Australia
The roads in and out of burnout
By Wendy Kittlitz
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Pastor Joe sat listlessly in his office all morning, grateful for his administrative assistant who had agreed to hold all of his calls and give him privacy for the sermon preparation. As he glanced at the clock, he realised that he had done little but stare off into space for the past three hours. He felt drained, discouraged, numb and exhausted, even though he had not spent any energy at all. The thought of having to preach on Sunday made him feel almost panicky and he wanted nothing more than to run away and hide.

Pastor Joe is burned out. For him, ministry has become painful, tiring and draining. He is not sure how he got here and he is even less sure of what to do next. He contemplates leaving the ministry, questioning why he ever felt called to be a pastor anyway.

How did he get here?

Three common reasons may have led Pastor Joe down the road to burnout:

1. Burdens of work
While ministry can be very rewarding and stimulating, especially when people seem to be growing and churches are thriving, there are times when leaders feel little control over what they are doing. They may be lacking in encouragement or positive feedback. They may have ministry expectations that are unclear or overwhelming. Some pastors feel driven to meet the expectations, spoken and unspoken, of many in their church. Some feel weary from doing the same thing repeatedly with few apparent results. On the other side, ministry can feel chaotic and unmanageable, creating a continual state of high pressure to perform.

2. Unbalanced lifestyle
Some pastors simply work for too many hours with not enough downtime. They fail to observe God’s rhythm of Sabbath rest. They respond to needs of others instead of taking care of themselves. They try to meet all of the unrealistic demands heaped upon them, without setting clear and necessary boundaries to protect themselves and their families. In fairness, they often do this out of genuine desire to serve and love people, but they fail to realise the price this will cost them in the end.

Other chronic lifestyle deficiencies that pastors wrestle with are basic issues of sleep, nutrition and exercise. Another challenge is the difficulty in cultivating safe, close, supportive relationships. While the majority of pastors are happily married, spouses cannot be the only place a pastor can go for support. This places an unrealistic burden on the marriage. Pastors often report that they find it hard to find a safe place to share their personal struggles, cares and needs.

3. Personality
Pastors are often people with high expectations of themselves and others – perfectionism is a commonly noted trait. While pastors function much of the time as extroverts, some are truly introverts by nature. This creates a tremendous energy drain on the individual. After a long day of interacting with people, these pastors come home exhausted and unable to meet the needs of family, even though she or he may want to.

Additionally, some pastors have a high need to be in control. They may have difficulty delegating tasks to others or working collaboratively with a team. Some of these qualities make them effective leaders (e.g. high-achieving, driven to succeed, vision-casting, etc.), but also make them more susceptible to burnout if it’s all not kept in balance.

What can Joe do now?

Joe has recognised that he has many of the symptoms of burnout. This includes feeling chronically tired; frequent headaches and muscle pain; getting sick frequently; not sleeping well; feeling alone or like he has failed; questioning his call; becoming cynical and negative; feeling unmotivated; wanting to hide; overeating; being irritable; procrastinating; and just wanting to run away. Though he has had occasional, short bouts of some of these feelings before, they are now many and have lasted for quite a considerable period of time. Nothing seems to help much. His wife has even started asking if he should go see his doctor and get assessed for depression.

This is in fact a good place to start. Joe may well be clinically depressed as this is a common feature of burnout. Seeing a medical and/or a mental health professional would be an excellent first step. Joe needs to assess how he got to where he is today and that often requires help. A doctor can diagnose for depression and may recommend medication and/or a stress leave. A counsellor can objectively help Joe figure out which of the factors above have contributed to his state of burnout. Joe could even seek christian counselling through the Christian Counsellors Association of Australia's website.

Joe also probably needs some sort of break in his routine. Depending on how severe his case is, this could be more than just a weekend away. There are many christian retreat centres around Australia that offer pastors weekend or full week retreats. Although, It is likely that just one week away will not resolve a case as serious as Joe’s, but further goals and strategies would be recommended to build on this good beginning.

Finally, Joe needs to re-evaluate his goals and priorities and set some better boundaries in place to protect his physical, spiritual and emotional needs. What has truly energised him about ministry in the past? Is God calling him to make changes of some sort in what, where or how he does ministry? He needs to discuss these changes with his family and the leadership of his church, enlisting their support not only in his health but in the health of the church and the family. Ultimately, these changes will benefit everyone if the pastor makes a commitment to caring for himself well and is supported in doing so.

How can YOU prevent burnout?

If you are on the brink of burnout or wish to prevent it, several lifestyle tips can help you create a strong personal, spiritual and work environment to maintain your energy.

  • Cultivate a deeply personal relationship with God that is all about you and Him, enjoying and loving one another.
  • Spend time with Him often.
  • Work at achieving a balance between personal, family and work responsibilities.
  • Take time off from the demands of your work regularly on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis.
  • Rest, eat well, sleep and do some things just for fun.
  • Learn and teach others about unrealistic expectations.
  • Many pastors have an unrealistic job description that no one could fulfil!
  • Develop a few safe, supportive friendships – ideally both individually as well as with your spouse at your side. Remember to always involve your spouse if these friendships are with someone of the opposite gender.

    © 2011 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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