What Is Pastor Burnout?
As we approach the two-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, statistics of pastor burnout are rising, causing many pastors to leave ministry entirely, or at least consider it.
Experts define pastor burnout (also known as clergy or ministry burnout) as a complex set of symptoms that includes emotional exhaustion, a high degree of depersonalization exhibited in negative and detached reactions, and a low sense of personal accomplishment.
All these symptoms working together contribute to the diminishing of one’s ability to function effectively as a pastor, and are detrimental to the pastor’s mental health.
What Causes Pastor Burnout?
Many sources cite long hours, culture wars, the pressures of leading in a pandemic, loneliness, and more as causes of pastor burnout. But, as impactful as these factors may be, they do not go deep enough to address the root causes of pastor burnout.
For pastors experiencing burnout, there is a gap between their expectations for life and ministry and the reality of their life and ministry. This gap between expectation and reality can lead to extreme disappointment, stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout. Pastor burnout is the internal frustration, disappointment, and confusion of this gap between expectation and reality.
While pastors are not the only people who experience this gap between expectation and reality, pastors are highly susceptible to burnout because of the nature of their work and the lofty expectations they and others place on themselves.
External Sources of Burnout
According to the World Health Organization, burnout is now an official medical diagnosis. Numerous models help explain and predict burnout, including the Areas of Worklife model (based on Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter). The Areas of Worklife model identified six areas where pastors (and others) might experience imbalances that lead to burnout.
These six imbalances could be described as causes of pastor burnout.
- Workload: When your workload exceeds your capacity
- Perceived lack of control: Feeling like you lack resources and say in the decisions that impact your life
- Reward: When the rewards of work do not match the amount of energy and time you put in
- Community: When you are unable to serve alongside supportive and trusting relationships on a regular basis
- Fairness: When you feel you are not receiving equitable treatment
- Values mismatch: When your church or ministry does not value the ideals, vision, or practices you highly value
Some of the difficulties of being a pastor include regularly supporting people dealing with a wide range of emotional and spiritual issues while still needing to tend to their own emotional and spiritual needs.
Internal Sources of Burnout
While the six factors mentioned above are essential, what is also significant are the internal factors within the pastor. How do they see themselves? Indeed, there are pressures placed on clergy from the outside, but the reality is, there are internal expectations and pressure pastors put on themselves as well. Who knows of these pressures? Where are they safely voiced and processed?
These unspoken internal pressures are a vital factor to consider as we face the increasing occurrences of pastor burnout.
How Common Is Pastor Burnout?
A 2021 Barna study showed that 38% of U.S. pastors have thought about quitting within the last year. This same study found that only one in three pastors considered themselves “healthy” in spiritual, physical, emotional, vocational, and financial well-being.
With this study being conducted less than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we anticipate that these stats are not improving with time!
Signs of Pastor Burnout
How can pastors tell if they are on the verge of burnout? There are some common symptoms as well as some hidden signs that may be more difficult to notice or identify.
Here are a few of the most common signs and symptoms of pastor burnout:
- Reduced empathy
- Reduced sense of gratification, reward, or pleasure
- Reduced productivity/procrastination
- Relationship conflict, withdrawal, or reduced intimacy
- Headaches, stomach upset, or blood pressure
- Mental health problems( anxiety, depression)
Hidden Signs of Burnout
Some signs and symptoms of pastor burnout that tend to stay hidden include:
- Fear of being known
- Profound shame
- A sense of overwhelm/despair
- Feeling isolated
- Overwhelming feelings of inadequacy
Results of Pastor Burnout
Unaddressed pastor burnout leads to all kinds of severe issues, both for the pastor and their congregation.
If ignored, pastor burnout can lead to pastors functioning in unhealthy and hurtful ways in their churches, and perhaps leave the ministry altogether. In extreme cases, pastor burnout can even lead to substance abuse, infidelity, or abusive relationships.
Resources for Pastor Burnout Recovery and Prevention
All is not lost, though! It is possible to recover from pastor burnout, and it’s possible to put practices into place now to prevent future pastor burnout.
To recover from pastor burnout, a recent research paper on clergy burnout and resilience in ministry recommended:
- Developing models of peer support and relationship for pastors: Pastors need spaces where it is safe to share their feelings of overwhelm, disappointment, and grief without fear of being seen as unqualified for ministry. Often the fear of being rejected keeps pastors silent about their burnout struggles. In their shame, they hide, which only compounds the problem.
- Finding practical training for pastors in conflict resolution, interpersonal communication skills, and setting healthy boundaries: In training leaders at Gravity, we have found it incredibly liberating for leaders to learn how to center their lives in the love of Jesus by being honest about their struggles and desires. This does not mean we always get what we want, but we learn to be honest with our desires and present them to God for his guidance in setting boundaries that preserve us.
As pastors and leaders alongside you, we at Gravity are intimately familiar with the challenges of leadership and the painful path toward burnout. We have found freedom in the way of Jesus and want to walk alongside you.
We offer support and encouragement for weary pastors and community for the isolated. Take a look at some of our resources for peer support and practical training, and reach out to us with any questions you have:
- The Gravity Commons: Our online community of practice to stay connected with others and learn together how to faithfully navigate life and mission amid our current cultural earthquakes
- Gravity Leadership Academy: Our 12-month coaching and training intensive for Christian leaders who want to learn to center their lives in love and show up more honestly and openly in leadership
Finally, here are some other articles and resources that touch on pastor burnout:
- The Resilient Pastor: Leading Your Church in a Rapidly Changing World by Glenn Packiam offers timely insights for pastors who are struggling under the weight of leadership in the present moment.
- An Open Letter to Exhausted Pastors by Gravity coach Justin Wallace
- Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers with K.J. Ramsey from the Gravity Leadership Podcast
- Bethany Dearborn Hiser: Soul Care For Wounded Healers from the Gravity Leadership Podcast
- Becky Castle Miller on the Role of Emotions in Christian Discipleship from the Gravity Leadership Podcast
- Curt Thompson: How Naming Desire Leads to Transformation from the Gravity Leadership Podcast