Burnout in Ministry Introduction

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You have probably heard that burnout is a serious problem in ministry, especially since the COVID-era has exposed how much churches expect from their leaders. Maybe you are feeling the effects. Perhaps you are concerned that burnout is an imminent danger for you. This short introduction to burnout in ministry can help you identify the causes and consequences of burnout, and give you action steps to take to prevent it, deal with it, or recover from it.

Burnout is a Systemic Issue

Recent research has produced a critically important finding: Burnout is a systemic issue more than an individual issue. It is produced in an unhealthy church that includes unhealthy processes that overload an individual to the point of breakdown. It’s the system, not the pastor. One reason we are hearing so much about burnout following COVID is that the increased workload, emotional challenges, logistical demands in churches created by the pandemic were immediately dumped at the pastor’s feet. And the pastor’s load was already heavy. The overload of COVID issues became the “last straw” for many pastors, and they burned out. COVID didn’t create the problem of over-reliance and excessive expectation of the pastor, it highlighted it.

How does a church system create burnout?

Over-dependence on the pastor

In a church system, the pastor tends to be responsible for too much; all ministry, all administration, all congregational care, all outreach, all members’ satisfaction. No single person can do it all. But, in too many church systems the pastor is passively expected to “pick up the slack.” As individuals, we know that no one can do it all. But when we are part of a system, we allow things to occur that we wouldn’t allow as individuals. So, the system is more often the problem, not the individual. That usually happens because no one is paying attention to the factors that create burnout.

Ignoring factors leading to burnout

The same mindset that passively expects the pastor to keep all the plates spinning also, conversely, doesn’t consider the emotional, psychological and spiritual cost of doing it. Passivity is dangerous. Someone needs to pay attention to the workload and its effect on the pastor. Elders and deacons, concerned members, and staff can all speak up. Having the pastor’s back means paying attention to the factors of burnout.

Three Big Factors in Burnout

Three particular factors contribute to burnout: role ambiguity, role conflict, and workload.

Workload is easily recognized as a factor in burnout. Unfortunately, it is such an obvious factor that we often don’t think about other, perhaps more important contributors. The amount of work is not the only factor, and not always the primary one, leading to burnout.

Role Ambiguity

Role ambiguity means not having clear understanding of the expectations and boundaries of one’s job. Without clearly defined boundaries and expectations, pastors tend to “take up the slack,” which increases the workload. This very often creates a vicious cycle. The more pastors do to pick up the slack, the more they are expected to do. And that sets up the pastor for a destructive cycle of increased expectations, increased workload, increased stress and increasing susceptibility to burnout. A clearly defined job description with defined expectations and boundaries is the obvious first solution to the problem. However, clarity is not the only requirement for a leader’s job description.

Role Conflict

A pastor’s role must not only be unambiguous and well-defined. It has to be agreed upon. Too often, a pastor’s job is agreed upon only by a few leaders in the church who are responsible for hiring. The job description is never explained, supported and clearly defined to the congregation. In fact, in some churches the congregation doesn’t even see a pastor’s job description. Without communicating and gaining agreement with the congregation, the pastor is set up for conflict over the role they are expected to meet.

For More Information

Although burnout is increasingly recognized as a systemic issue, individuals can contribute to the occurrence of burnout. For example, perfectionism is a major contributing factor in individuals. Alan Craddock’s Driven to Despair  is an excellent examination of the impact of perfectionism on ministry leaders.

The HBR Guide to Beating Burnout (2021) covers both individual and organizational issues, from a preventative and restorative perspective.

Christopher Ash’s, Zeal Without Burnout, is a helpful work on preventing burnout through personal practices, like Sabbath, friendship, and inner renewal, among others.

Anne Jackson’s Mad Church Disease focuses on leaders’ vulnerability and restorative practices. The second edition, by Anne Marie Miller expands on healing from burnout in ministry. Miller also has a good online resource, available from Unseminary.

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