Ministry Burnout and Depression: Part 1

Like many of my posts, this one comes from personal experience too, my own combined with years of being in church leadership and seminary. I'm also writing on this topic because burnout and a forsaken body go hand in hand.

Maybe you've never heard about ministry burnout. Or, maybe you have and shrugged off the possibility. I was unfamiliar with it even after 10 years in ministry until I spoke to a seminary professor. But had I heard of burnout before - having a tendency to be strong-willed and self-sufficient - chances are I would've dismissed it. Don’t be like me. If you’re in ministry or know someone who is, I hope you’ll read this, and pass it on.

It can be difficult to discuss ministry burnout because it requires vulnerability and honesty about what’s going on with you physically and emotionally. Added to that is the subtle impression that church leaders are extra spiritual and shouldn't struggle with anything. Plus, a lot of people - myself included - battle the mindset that it's weak to share personal problems. To be sure, burnout has nothing to do with weakness. Don't allow these reasons to be a hurdle in broaching the topic with someone or taking an honest self-assessment.

What is burnout?

Psychologists refer to burnout as an occupational condition. They label someone 'burnt out' if the person experiences a threefold cluster of indicators: emotional and physical exhaustion, depersonalization (a sense of unreality about self and your surroundings) and cynicism, and a diminished sense of personal effectiveness.

9Marks defines burnout as the moment or season when a pastor loses the motivation, hope, energy, joy, and focus required to fulfill his work, and these losses center upon the work itself.

From my own experience, I would explain burnout as when the stress from doing too much for too long takes over your thinking, feeling, and acting. Burnout is when your physical and spiritual wellbeing is finally so overwhelmed that you can’t snap out of it and do the next thing.

Not to mention, once you go for so long being so stressed out, your body will eventually fail in some way. For me, it was severe headaches, high blood pressure, and the occasional stress rash.

What are the physical signs you could be approaching burnout?

Fatigue Onset of high blood pressure

Insomnia Low self-esteem or feeling inadequate

Headaches Cynicism

Quick to get angry or emotional Numbness

Addictions to escape reality Lack motivation

Desire to withdraw Unexpected weight gain or loss

Gastrointestinal issues Illness

Disinterested Short attention span

Depression from burnout

Many people who are burnt out go on to experience depression and, unlike burnout, is a psychiatric condition. In some cases, severe depression can lead to suicide, which the church has seen in recent years. For this reason alone, believers should take ministry burnout seriously.

A few years ago, Lifeway also discovered 49% of pastors rarely, if ever, mention mental illness to their church. This is puzzling because Lifeway also found that 1 in 5 pastors struggle with some kind of mental illness, commensurate to that reported in the general population according to the NAMI. So, if 1 in 5 congregants battle mental illness along with 1 in 5 pastors who largely don't address it, the church is ill-equipped to address mental illness in the pews or behind the pulpit. This reality is precisely why we have to do a better job of recognizing and guarding against burnout in church leaders so that it doesn't lead to depression.

In the early 2000s, Knox College in Toronto conducted a study aimed at discerning why pastors experience the same level of mental illness as the public. Of the pastors they surveyed, they found the following:

- 62% agreed that “Sometimes my outward appearance seems happy and content while inside I am emotionally distressed.”

- 75% agreed that“I am afraid to let my parishioners know how I really feel.”

- 80% agreed that “I feel guilty if people see me taking time off during the week.”

This is a sad reality. If ministers are struggling and need a break but can’t be honest about it and feel guilty for taking one, they're setting themselves up for burnout.

Pastor, professor, and author, Lenny Luchetti, has struggled with burnout. You may relate to his story and find it helpful. He came up with a clever concept to manage the stress that can lead to burnout, called SHED:

Sleep for the mind

Hobbies for the heart

Exercise for the body

Devotions for the soul

This is a great place to start if you recognize some of the physical signs of burnout. There are several other steps you can take too, which I'll cover next week. I hope you’ll check out part 2 of this post where I’ll share my thoughts on why burnout happens and how to guard against it.