Burnout and depression for pastors
In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God. We patiently endure troubles and hardships and calamities of every kind. We have been beaten, been put in prison, faced angry mobs, worked to exhaustion, endured sleepless nights, and gone without food. We prove ourselves by our purity, our understanding, our patience, our kindness, by the Holy Spirit within us, and by our sincere love. – 2 Corinthians 6:4–6 (NLT)
Many congregations and people in your community are unaware of the hazards of ministry and the constant possibility of burnout or depression for you as the pastor. Burnout and/or depression are no respecters of persons and none of us think we are on the path until we are in the middle of it. Many times when people burn out it isn’t totally because they are trying to do too much or be everything to all people, though sometimes that is the case. Often the factors that lead to burnout are outside your control, however there is still a misconception that burnout is for the weak.
Burnout is … a psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation (characterised by the development of an uncaring and cynical attitude towards others, often leading to withdrawal), and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who work with other people in some capacity (Maslach 1993:20-21).
Ellison and Mattila (1983) point to emotional exhaustion as being causal to pastoral burnout through –
- excessive and unreasonable time demands
- unrealistic expectations
- a sense of inadequacy
- fear of failure
- unresolved conflict
- spiritual dryness
- the repetitious nature of the work of the ministry
- the realisation that there is always more to be done
- the difficulty of being able to identify tangible results, and
- the requirement to project a public persona that is emotionally exhausting to maintain
For those in ministry what does this look like?
- reduced job dissatisfaction,
- decreased productivity,
- reduced organizational commitment or engagement,
- moral impairment
- diminished physical health,
- reduced quality of life,
- loss of purpose, emotional difficulties,
- lowered self-esteem,
- marital conflict, and
- a substantial loss of closeness and enjoyment in relationships both personally and professionally (Ayala and Carnero 2013; Guntupalli et al. 2014; Hall 1997; Maslach et al. 1996, 2001; Melamed et al. 2006).
In addition to this, the nature of burnout is that not everyone has the capacity to ‘bounce back’. Capacity to work is often reduced, along with capacity to handle high levels of stress, anxiety, make decisions, or manage conflicting situations.
Tips for coping with burnout
The demands of ministry are constant and relentless. As soon as the building program is over the new music program needs work, a new staff member needs hiring, the next two sermon series need shaping, finances are not tracking well, squeezing in a few extra night meetings will help things tick along – and so it goes. Samuel Chand says that ignoring this leadership pain and just doing more is like leadership leprosy. One day we wake up and realise we have no fingers anymore.
Take care of yourself. No one else will and no one else can. When juggling all the balls we think work is glass and other things like our relationships, health, exercise, and hobbies are rubber. If you drop them they bounce but if you drop the work ball it shatters. Actually it is the other way round. Work is the rubber ball and the others are glass. If you drop the ball on your marriage it will shatter. If you drop the ball on your health it will shatter. If you drop the ball on your relationship with God you will suffer.
Hands and Fehr (1993) identified three practices or behaviours essential for pastoral health:
- spiritual renewal practices,
- rest taking practices, and
- support system practices.
These will assist in building resilience and YOU are the only person in the world who can do them. Each of us needs to take personal responsibility for them. Additionally, BCSA is committed to working with pastors’ leadership teams to create a better understanding of burnout and their role in supporting their pastor.
1 – Your personal walk with God
2 – Investing in your closest relationships (marriage or other)
3 – Time to rest (your Sabbath)
4 – Taking responsibility for your mental health (keep a check on how you are doing)
5 – Eating and exercising well
6 – Getting good sleep (this can be hard for insomniacs)
7 – Hobbies (Have space for fun in your life)
Run at pace – you can’t run an engine on full throttle for extended periods of time or something will break. Yes there are times in ministry when we have to enter the red zone but if we don’t intentionally take time to throttle down after that then we will not be healthy and an unhealthy pastor leads to an unhealthy church.
Check in with someone who has your back. Sometimes when we are depressed or burnt out our emotions are blunted and we cannot see as clearly as others can how we are travelling. Are we functioning as our best selves?
BCSA Resources for pastors
Through the Pastoral Services Facilitator, BCSA encourages pastors to build meaningful relationships with one another and where necessary more intentional support.
The Primary Support services we provide are:
To access these support services, please click here to get in touch with our Pastoral Services Facilitator, Rev Mark Foley.
Resources - Books
Leading on Empty: Refiling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion. Wayne Cordeiro, Betheny House Publishers 2009.
Leading With a Limp. Dan B. Allender, WaterBrook Press 2006.
Zeal Without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice. Christopher Ash, The Good Book Company, 2016.
Leadership Pain. Samuel R. Chand. Thomas Nelson, 2015.
What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary: 25 Lessons for Successful Ministry in Your Church. James Emery White, Baker Books 2011.
Maslach, C., Leiter, M. P. 1997, The Truth about Burnout, Jossey-Bass, CA.
Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2000). Preventing burnout and building engagement: A complete program for organizational renewal. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Hart, A. D. 1984, Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions, Word, Waco, Tex.
_____ 2000, Unmasking Male Depression
Irvine, A. R. 1997, Between two worlds – understand and managing Clergy Stress, Mowbray, London.
Kaldor, P., Bullpitt, R. 2001, Burnout in church leaders., Open Book Publisher, Adelaide, South Australia.
Lehr, F. 2006, Clergy burnout: Recovering from the 70-hour work week and other self defecting practices, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN.
Pappas, A. G. 1995, Pastoral Stress, The Alban Institute, Washington DC.
Peterson, E. H. 1980, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
_____ 1993, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Whetham, P. 2000, Hard to be Holy: unravelling the roles and relationships of church leaders. Openbook Publishers, Adelaide, South Australia.
Willimon, W. H. 1989, Clergy and laity burnout, Abingdon, Nashville, TN.
Resources - Articles
Resilience Factors: Learning how to Bound Back. Rick Lewis
Chandler, D. J. 2009, ―Pastoral Burnout and the Impact of Personal Spiritual Renewal, Rest-taking, and Support System Practices‖, Pastoral Psychology, 58:273–287.
Laura K. Barnard & John F. Curry (2012). The Relationship of Clergy Burnout to Self-Compassion and Other Personality Dimensions. Pastoral Psychology, 61:149–163
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 397–422