Last week, I discussed the reality of ministry burnout. If you missed that previous post on what burnout is and its physical ramifications, be sure to read that one first. In this post, I’ll cover factors that lead to burnout and how to guard against it.
Why does burnout happen?
According to the Knox College study mentioned in part one, there are 5 major contributors to burnout.
- Not taking a day off
- Lack of support in times of struggle
- Lack of community
- Marriage problems
- Feeling more like a CEO than a pastor
Recall from part one how this study reported that most pastors are emotionally distressed, fear letting others know their emotional distress, and feel guilty for taking time off. When those findings are combined with the 5 contributors to burnout, it’s easy to see why the majority of pastors responded how they did. It all fits together.
The lack of support and community combined with marriage problems will certainly be emotionally distressing. Then, there's the fear of letting others know about personal struggles coupled with the lack of necessary community. Plus, as the “CEO,” pastors face the pressure of not admitting that they’re struggling. All this combines with feeling guilty for taking time off to deal with the emotional distress. So, they don’t take a break but desperately need one. This is the perfect breeding ground for burnout.
Burnout also happens from neglect. This was my experience. A common thread in burnout is neglecting yourself for work because so much time is spent on praying, reading, visiting, encouraging, calling, preparing, teaching, meeting, hosting, preaching, planning, emailing, correcting, leading, studying, loving, advising, and eating with others. And don’t get me wrong. Christian leaders passionately serve and give themselves to others because they sense a higher calling from the Lord. Ministry is just a different kind of work. One that, on top of regular job demands, also involves time spent caring for the spiritual needs of others. Sometimes, it’s just easier to set yourself aside in the midst of juggling everything else. But God created us as a psychosomatic union - a unified spiritual and physical being (here is a previous post about the mind/body relationship) We have the ability to adapt and endure many things. However, this ability isn’t limitless. Everyone has different limitations and tolerance levels. But eventually, after too much stress and not enough rest, your body will make you slow down.
Burnout also happens due to a lack of boundaries. When I was in ministry, I lacked boundaries big time. Ministry can be a 24/7 job, if we let it. When you don’t rest or have boundaries between work and home, the lines blur and you can’t ever “turn off” from ministry life. And given that marriage problems are a contributor to burnout, work/life balance is critical. The following are a few suggestions on how you might find this balance.
What can you do to guard against burnout?
- Listen to others. Let loved ones speak into your life. They have the best vantage point to see how work affects you. Most of the time, you may disregard or fail to notice the signs of burnout but your spouse, coworker, child, or friend likely sees them.
- Release the guilt. Feeling guilty for taking a break is biblically unwarranted. If you don’t take time to care for yourself, you may end up jeopardizing your ability to minister in the future.
- Get sufficient exercise. The AHA’s minimum recommendation is 150 minutes of cardiovascular work a week and 2 days of total bodyweight training. It may seem counterproductive, but regular exercise helps with stress management, sleep, and reinvigorates the body. Here is a previous post on exercise.
- Drink water. When you go nonstop and don’t sleep enough, it’s easy to rely on coffee or energy drinks to get you through the day. But not drinking enough water could end up creating more adverse physical effects.
- Sleep 7-9 hours a night. One reason God created sleep is to restore the body. Insufficient sleep causes our health, performance ability, and cognitive strength to suffer. Be as consistent as possible with the time you go to bed and the time you wake up.
- Make good eating choices. With a busy schedule, we tend to eat whatever is most convenient rather than what is better for our health. Eat lean meats, a variety of vegetables, good fats, whole grains, and low sugar fruit. You can find more healthy eating tips here.
- Establish boundaries. Talk to your family, friends, elders, etc to figure out what healthy boundaries should look like. We all desire longevity in ministry, but if you lack boundaries, you won’t last.
- Force yourself to rest. Find a regular time of Sabbath rest, and work to protect it. As finite human beings, we require rest - resting in the Lord and resting from work. Resting is a way of trusting God, acknowledging your limitations, and renewing your dependence on him.
- Put electronics away. We all need breaks from the phone, tablet, laptop, smartwatch, iPad, etc. Have some time where you’re not required to be “on,” for your sake and the sake of your family.
- Schedule your day. Have set times that you devote to meeting with others, checking email, or studying Scripture. Without a plan or schedule, your day will likely be less productive and more frustrating. Oftentimes, unexpected distractions arise that make it harder to accomplish what you actually need to get done. Schedule small breaks throughout your day for a walk, to stretch, pray, or eat a snack.
- Do a self-assessment. Are you resting in the God's grace to sustain you during the day, or are you relying on your own strength and willpower to get everything done?
- Be encouraged. Some of the greatest saints endured ministry hardships. Moses faced constant discouragement from unfaithful people. David experienced great loss and betrayal. Elijah got extremely worn down and weary from ministry. Jeremiah’s calling brought him to such despair that he cursed his birth. Isaiah ministered to a continuously rebellious people. Ezekiel was exiled, lost his wife, and endured exceptional challenges as a prophet. Joel ministered during a time of extreme natural disaster. Nehemiah faced a nearly impossible ministry and dealt with frequent threats. Paul experienced exhausting ministry situations and frequent persecution. Yet, they all endured by trusting in the Lord who persevered and equipped them with the necessary grace to complete their calling.
- Read the Psalms. Their expressions of emotion and pleas of desperation will comfort and calm you. The words of the psalmists will remind you that you’re not alone. God is your refuge and knows each tear you shed. You don’t have to be strong enough to endure. But you are to trust the One who is, giving him your burdens and trusting in his strength.
What can the church do?
Protect your staff. Elders, deacons, church leaders, ministry workers, and congregants should all be zealous to care for one another - spiritually and physically. Know the warning signs of burnout. Have policies in place to help your people avoid burnout. Pray for your staff, both for them not to experience burnout and also for the willingness to admit when they need a break. If you work in a ministry setting where the leaders don’t recognize the reality and dangers of burnout, help them understand. It may require some hard conversations, but the health of your church and its leaders is more important than avoiding touchy subjects.
Incidentally, I think seminaries play a role in this too. I attended two seminaries, one of them while I worked in ministry. The only mention of burnout came from side conversations with other students who shared their personal experiences. From my time at both institutions, I'm not aware of a single course that offers proper preparation for the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical challenges of ministry work.
In fact, I would say students are essentially “trained” to expect burnout once they land a ministry job. It was normalized. Between the rigors of balancing work, school, family, and church life, at the end of each semester, many students crash. I knew students who ended up sick and in bed for a week or two after finals because they’d pushed themselves for so long without a break. So in a way, seminary trains future church leaders to push through the factors of burnout as an expectation of serving the Lord. Given that reality, we should at least discuss the potential of burnout in seminary.
Wrapping up these posts, if you or someone you know is burnt out, don’t despair. Trust the Lord, and take the necessary time for yourself to recover. In the end, you’ll extend your ministry effectiveness and ensure your ability to continue making an eternal difference in the world.