On the line: How the burnout epidemic is affecting your pastor

“‘I seem to be paralyzed at times with such fits of exhaustion, that I end up merely plodding along, and my sermons reflect it. I should say my spirit reflects it, and its carried out into my preaching.’” Father Tim explained to his bishop that, while his small Episcopal parish in the quiet town of Mitford seemed to be flourishing, he was not. Too long had he gone without a vacation. Too long had he neglected his health. Too long had he prioritized the well-being of his congregants far above his own. He compared his “feeding of the sheep” to offering “stale crackers and a cheddar so hard it broke the cheese knife.”⁠

I know a thing or two about pastoral burnout. I have witnessed it up close a few times, and I have written not one but two grant proposals centered around it. So I could spot Father Tim’s burnout well before page 369.

Burnout and Flourishing

What is burnout? According to the Wellbeing at Work project at Notre Dame, “Burnout occurs when people experience chronic emotional and physical exhaustion plus a growing sense of depersonalization in work. Burnout is accompanied by reduced work effectiveness, difficulty in making decisions, decreased creativity, and increasing difficulty in adjusting to changes.” According to Barna, “more than one-third of pastors are at high or medium risk of burnout, and three-quarters know at least one fellow pastor whose ministry ended due to stress.”⁠

Notre Dame professor Matt Bloom and his colleagues looked intently at the wellbeing of pastors. They asked pastors to rate their happiness and measured pastors’ satisfaction with life. They measured pastors’ subjective well-being, satisfaction with family life, and sense of work-family balance.

Bloom and his team also looked at burnout. What were the levels of burnout among pastors? How exhausted were they? How effective were spiritual disciplines at contributing to a pastors’ wellbeing?

While their research showed that pastors experience, on average, only a moderate level of burnout and exhaustion, most pastors experience a “moderately high” level of stress in their jobs. The researchers cautioned that “it is hard for most people to detect burnout in themselves.”⁠ And, as if burnout in and of itself is not bad enough, it can have further negative consequences: “For pastors with higher scores, burnout is one of the most detrimental factors to their overall level of flourishing. Burnout seems to be an insidious factor: it sneaks up on us, quietly tearing away at our well-being.”⁠

Avoiding Burnout

Avoiding burnout may not be as easy as it seems. The factors leading to burnout can be myriad, and some cannot be controlled by the pastor. For example, a pastor’s burnout may result from poor job fit or a personal conflict with a co-worker. It may result from workaholism or unchecked compassion fatigue. But church culture can also contribute to pastoral burnout. Bloom and his team noted that churches that do not actively welcome their pastors, do not invest in their pastors’ lives, or expect too much of their pastors can erode the wellbeing of their pastors.

Still, pastors can take an active role in avoiding burnout.

In their work on what it takes for pastors to thrive in ministry, Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie found five themes among what pastors told them about thriving in ministry. Pastors who thrive attend to their own spiritual formation; practice self-care; develop their emotional and cultural intelligence; maintain healthy relationships with their spouse and children; and grow in leadership and management competence. These pastors not only thrive but have a resilient ministry. Barna president David Kinnaman also affirms the need for resilient ministers. In Barna’s State of Pastors report, Kinnaman concluded, “Christian ministers are as likely to be ignored and insulted as they are to be admired and revered. It’s not a job for the thin-skinned or the weak of heart. It’s a job for the resilient.”⁠

Assessing Burnout

Our doctors warn us of the hazards of diagnosing ourselves using WebMD. Likewise, Bloom and his colleagues warn us of the hazards of diagnosing our own burnout. We are not always the best judges of our overall well-being, so assessing pastoral burnout may require the help of a spouse, a trusted friend, or a mentor.

The conversation should begin before the burnout does. Based on Barna’s risk metrics for burnout,⁠ I have developed this list of questions as a conversation starter. This is not a diagnostic tool. The idea is to work through these with a spouse, a trusted friend, or a mentor.

  • How much confidence do you have in your calling today? How does that compare with when you began ministry?
  • How would you rate your mental health? Your emotional health?
  • To what extent does your ministry work energize you?
  • How often do you feel inadequate for your calling or ministry?
  • How often do you feel mentally exhausted? Emotionally exhausted?
  • Have you experienced depression sometime during your ministry?
  • To what extent are you satisfied with your pastoral vocation?
  • To what extent are you satisfied with your current place of ministry?
  • To what extent has your experience at your current place of ministry been marked by disappointment?
  • To what extent has your experience at your current place of ministry increased your passion for ministry?
  • To what extent do your day-to-day task fit your sense of calling? Your gifts?

Artisan Bread

Father Tim knew his mandate. Jesus’ call to Peter was Jesus’ call to him: “Feed my sheep.” Yet, in the midst of burnout, Father Tim felt he could offer only stale crackers when his people needed real sustenance. They needed a rested and restored, energized and enthusiastic pastor to point them to the Bread of Life. What are you serving today? Stale crackers or artisan bread?

Topics: Overload and Burnout, Pastoral Practices, Personal Wholeness

About the Author

Through her teaching, writing, and research, Meryl Herr equips individuals and organizations to excel in their good works. She is as an adjunct professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Cornerstone University. And, although not currently a pastor, Meryl is married to one. She, her husband, and two sons reside in Grand Rapids, Michigan.