I recently read that stress now contributes to 90% of all diseases. Half of all visits to doctors in the west are stress related which may make anxiety reduction the largest single business in the western world. 25 years ago clergy burnout was very uncommon, but today burnout is affecting ministers at the same rate as other professionals. What is it about ministry and church leadership that puts good men and women into situations where they face continual barrages of stress, anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear and alienation.
In this article I will highlight ten of the leading causes of stress in ministry and then suggest a few practical ways for Christians to exhaust the flames before we burn out.
During our lifetime we meet many challenges, experience many stressful situations, and work through many emotional experiences. That is to say, we have learned to adjust to the problems that we face in life. Psychologists often speak of learning to adjust as coping with the world. Here are a few of those situations that ministers have to adjust to and cope with on a regular basis:
Role Ambiguity – An unclear internal picture of the role of pastor or confusion about what the job really is tends to make us work harder, hoping the extra effort will help us cover all the bases. Many pastors are unclear about what is expected of them either by their supervisors/bishops, congregations or both.
Role Conflict – External expectations often conflict (i.e., being expected to call on inactive members, visit the sick and elderly, attend all meetings, visit church members in their homes, and have a rich and meaningful family life).
Role Overload – Clergy can be overwhelmed by all the expectations of parishioners or the demands of pastoring multiple congregations. Stress research indicates that the more uncertain one is about one’s role, the more stressful the situation.
Time Demands – Clergy are on emergency call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Much of their time is taken up with emergencies, funeral arrangements, and other unexpected events. It is difficult to plan or feel stable about one’s schedule when it is continually thrown off balance.
Lack of Pastoral Care – Who will pastor the pastor? Most clergy do not have good mentors, solid spiritual advisors, counselors, or friends.
Lack of Opportunities for Extra-Dependence – Pastors need opportunities to step out of their leadership role and be taken care of. God created the church as a body with many parts. The pastor is not a superhero; he needs the help, support and care that the rest of the body can provide.
Lack of Training – Far too many pastors are under trained. Education and training is not always available and the need for pastors is always urgent. Therefore, the result is that many pastors and church planters are doing their best but are not fully equipped to meet all the needs and demands that fall to them.
Finances – It is not easy to live on a pastor’s salary, nor is it easy to apply one’s self fully to the role of a pastor when it is necessary to take on outside work to provide for one’s financial needs.
A Helping Profession – Burnout is profoundly more common among the helping professions than among other professions. Pastors often give so much of themselves in helping others that they do not budget enough time, energy, and other resources for their own needs and the needs of their own families.
Loneliness – Very few persons outside fellow clergy really understand the role of a pastor or the demands of pastoral work. The lack of people, with whom a pastor can really feel comfortable sharing his own personal needs and struggles, contributes to the feeling of loneliness and isolation in the midst of meaningful work.
When you are on the verge of burnout, you may feel:
- like a candle burning at both ends
- detached from people and things around you
- little satisfaction from your work
- resentment for having too much to do
- like a failure
- stuck in a situation from which you cannot remove yourself
- unsure about your career choices
- withdrawn, isolated from coworkers and friends
- insecure about you competence and abilities
How can we prevent or treat burnout?
There are several things that we can do to cope with the symptoms of burnout. Some of the physical responses include seeing a Doctor, getting more sleep, eating well and getting plenty of exercise. There are other things that we can do to protect ourselves and reduce the treat of burnout. We need to protect our minds by learning to be more effective with our time management. We should be careful to insure that we are setting realistic goals for ourselves and for our ministries. We also need to take time for ourselves. There is a reason why God said that the seventh day was for rest. We need time off to rest and to renew and refresh our minds and out bodies. Our bodies are not machines, if we treat them like machines they are liable to break down on us.
Another very important way of protecting ourselves from burnout is through relationships. We must place a very high priority on our closest relationships with our spouse, children, and closest friends. Investing time in these relationships actually restore energy and alleviate stress. Developing relationships with other pastors or with a mentor is another good investment of time. Coaches and mentors understand the challenges we are facing and are able to speak wisdom into our lives and help us to set healthy boundaries.
In summary, to prevent or recover from burnout, we need to discover ways of cultivating our own personal renewal. We need to be able to overcome our pride and acknowledge our needs and seek ways to have our needs met. We need to invest our time in the things that are important, including our families and ourselves. To enjoy a healthy and balanced life we must seek to continually renew our mind, body and spirit.
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