Clergy burnout

I’m leading a workshop tomorrow for the United Methodist’s Young Adult Seminarians Network on clergy burnout.

So, what would you say are the causes and cures for burnout?

16 thoughts on “Clergy burnout

  1. Poor boundaries. I think our sincere desire to serve God gets twisted into efforts to serve people. We think we should do something because the language used, however subtle, communicates that if we are indeed spiritual, if we are true Christians, if we sincerely love God, we will do ________ (insert ministry position/task/etc. here).

    I think there is also the misconception that the only answers to a request are “yes” and “no.” At least that is one thing I have struggled with. Other good answers are, “Can you tell me a little more about what that would entail?” or “I need to think about that some more” or “I would love to help you with that but I can’t do it right now. Is it something we can do later/tomorrow/next week/etc.?”

    This comment is getting lengthy…I would also add “Performance Mentality,” “Approval Addiction,” and “Savior Complex” to this list.

  2. Disclaimer: I’m definitely not clergy but i have a feeling these things are applicable/transferable though I have dealth with them on the side of laity.

  3. I would second most of what Sarah said. I also believe that we as the church have a bad understanding of what a minister is and does. We need to care for the pastor as much as we demand care for the pastor.

    I also think that the traditional paradigm for ministry is outdated and needs to be revamped. It needs to reflect the changing needs of those we seek to minister to. Tent-making is becoming necessarily in ministry. The places that need ministers can not afford a full time traditional minister.

  4. boy, Sarah’s were good. I think poor boundaries is absolutely right. That is connected to being a “people pleasure”, or addicted to approval, and an idealism that I suppose she calls the “savior complex.” It’s the idea that you can save the world, or the church. Also, the unrealistic expectation that you can ever “be done”. It’s hard to get used to the idea that however much you do, there’s always one more person you “could” visit, or call; you can “finish” the sermon every week, but otherwise, there’s very little sense of completion, and a sense that the work could go on and on.

    I also think a contributing factor to burnout is the reality of the loneliness of the “call” coupled with some clergy’s difficulty in finding support systems/friendships outside of family and congregation.

  5. I hate the idea of tentmaking becoming a norm. Being a pastor is a really hard job, especially if you want to do it well. Even if your church is 26 people, it’s hard. Especially on families.

    The Methodists have a more socialized system where the wealthier churches pay for the pastors of the poorer churches. There are no empty pulpits, and they don’t have a lot of pastors without jobs. Both empty churches and unemployed pastors feel like an epidemic in our denomination.

    Although I don’t like the placement of pastors, I think there’s a lot that we could learn from them. We could at least make sure that our small churches are paying a decent wage.

    The thing that’s wearing me down right now is the loss of holidays. We have to work on Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day–usually there’s something really special going on those days and then there’s no time with your family.

  6. Many clergy are folks with strong achievement drives and good, hard work ethics. However, there are tasks in ministry that will suck you dry if you put more time into them than is warranted.

    Case in point: I have a friend, a solo pastor, who used to spend 5-6 hours a week on the bulletin alone….checking all the announcements so that they were chronologically arranged, making sure there were no typos in each announcement, carefully selecting hymns so that they never repeated within 12 weeks of each other, picking a new cover online every week that matched the theme and was not copyrighted….etc. Lovely, but dude, you’re a solo pastor, you’ve got lots of other stuff to do—spending 6 hours on this task was not a good use of time. Basically, he had to sit down with a couple friends and figure out why he was exhausted and hating ministry—it wasn’t just the bulletin (that was just the beginning of it) but it was that he insisted on doing everything “the very best it could be done.”

    If you seek absolute perfection in every detail of ministry, you are headed down a very scary path–that might end with a nice data entry job in Topeka.

    I’m not sure I’d be so quick to say that being a pastor is hard “especially on families.” Have you ever been a single pastor? Have you come home to an empty apartment, spent Christmas day with a TV dinner?

    I think it’s just hard. There are different kinds of hard, but it’s still hard.

  7. ppb,

    Good point about the families. Thank you.

    As I was remarking, I was thinking about my own “tentmaking” situation. I’ve always been willing to do workshops, seminars, preaching. I enjoy working, I really appreciate the intellectual stimulation, so it’s not so much of a burden on me personally. But I’ve had to step back and reevaluate a bit. I’ve had to turn some stuff down and be wiser with my schedule, because it may not bother me, but I have a family. And it bothers them.

  8. OK, you’re getting all this good stuff from folks, Carol. Great. I was just going to quip: Clergy burnout comes from leading workshops on clergy burnout on a Sat on a major holiday weekend. 🙂

  9. I like the idea of the Methodist system. Where is the mission service to local small churches. I would love to go serve a little church that could not normally afford a pastor. I just cannot afford to do it myself.

    That is why I say tentmaking is going to be the new norm. Only the wealthiest of churches can afford pastors. I ask where is the justice in our system? We are reflecting the culture around us sans the transformative expression available in the gospel. There has to be a better way.

    How do we serve congregations and care for self, famliy? Can we have frank and vulnerable conversations with them? It is like flks want a value in pastor. They have crazy expectations of the pastor. This may be an oppritunity to minister to the needs they are hiding from.

    I would love to see the connection between clergy burnout and congregational involvement or investment in the worshiping community or mission.

  10. Ryan said, “Tentmaking is going to be the new norm.” I don’t doubt it. It just makes me sad and nervous. It seems to add to the crazy expectations that we have of pastors. For me, good pastoral leadership just takes time. Especially if we expect a lot of commitment from our congregations. I have a hard time thinking about adding a shift at Starbucks on top of all of it.

    You’re right. We do need to have some honest discussions between pastors and congregations. And it’s so difficult to do….

  11. Carol, conversations such as this one keeps me moving forward. If there was no hope in ministry than we all are fools.

    I am thankful that as rough as it is God does have a purpose and reason behind it all.

    It is here where I think Levinas’ other and proximity really meet the road. How can we be ministers in our given context and be in proximity to the other as we seek to be prophetic, transformers, and honest. All of this inside of a healthy warm blanket of care.

    I have been thinking about starting a Levinasian pray circle for the other. It runs in line with the stuff I have been saying about evangelical, progressive “ness” that I see room for in the denomination today. How can we re-imagine the role of minister in conversation with the needs of the other and the demands of the gospel?

  12. It seems to me that no one ever asks Paul if he thought tentmaking was a good model for ministry. I think that he had to do it because he didn’t have a consistent income stream. When given the opportunity he advocated for fair wages for young clergy. Plus, he says that no one should despise their youth.

    When we were talking earlier I told you that I thought that part of burnout comes with the nature of our job. I am hesitant to always blame the clergy themselves for their own burnout. Sitting with the dying, weekly public speaking, hearing people’s desperate life situations, countless meetings, conflict management and the list goes on make up a job that at a minimum can be quite hectic. There might be some saviour complex in that, but most ministers that I associate with know only too well their own limitations and that nothing that we say can change others. Mental health groups, clergy cohorts, secular social circles, a personal sacred space, substantive vacations and many other positive actions go into combating burnout. Yet, it may still happen even when we are vigilant.

  13. I think you’re right. There seems to be a huge movement to make sure we take our day off (which is a huge issue…), but rarely do we hear about some of the big causes for burnout.

    According to studies, people usually leave the ministry because of financial stress and family stress (often a result of the financial stress). I would add gender discrimination.

  14. And doesn’t it go beyond gender discrimination in a particular workplace? It’s still true that the larger churches, even in my supposedly progressive denomination, want to hire male clergy if they possibly can. Since they are also the churches that pay better and tend to offer more Con Ed time and other benefits, those pastors have a better shot at finding the resources for self-care than the person serving a small and marginal church.
    I’m sure there are examples that refute my argument, and if so, I am glad of it.
    What I find wearing is the idea that there is some magic cure for the present that will return a church to the “good old days.” How can anyone work in an environment with reverse expectations and not feel fettered and enervated?

  15. Clergy are responsible for clergy burnout. We fail to live lives in balance. We fail to set boundaries.

    Those boundaries need to be set…gently and graciously…but set and held.

    This isn’t just because pastors are looking out for themselves. It’s because they’re looking out for their church, and the role that they play in their church. Good leadership demands creativity and energy, and if you’re running yourself ragged, your capacity to give your church the vision and centered energy it needs from you as a leader is critically diminished.

    The ethos of our culture is that we need to be on 24/7. But when I reach that point when I’m giving 100%, all the time, I know that something’s wrong. You need to hold something in reserve, or when that extra crisis hits, you’re going to be unable to respond.

    In a world where so many lives are filled with stress and anxiety, it’s also increasingly important that pastors model a saner existence.

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