Sometimes the expectations and demands of church life can lead to burnout in Christians – particularly those in pastoral or leadership roles.
“We just can’t do it any more! We’re so exhausted and we haven’t had a break in year. We feel swamped; there’s always more to do than we can manage – the need is so great but we are ‘burnt-out’. We feel like such failures and our health and family life are suffering. We’ve been in ministry for the past 8 years. I’m on call around the clock and it’s hard to say no, to urgent need. Leadership is a lonely place – who can you go to, to say “I’m not coping or I need help?”
Sadly these are statements made frequently by pastors and leaders in Christian churches today. In spite of better technology and communication, improved quality of life and more access to information, there is more depression, stress and dysfunction than ever before. People report feeling isolated and ill-equipped to function in our modern world. How much more tragic when this is the case for those leaders in caring professions and pastoral roles.
A 2013 study from the Schaeffer Institute  reports that 1,700 pastors leave the ministry each month, citing depression, burnout, or being overworked as the primary reasons.
According to the study, 90% of pastors report working 55 to 70 hours a week, and 50% of them feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
Brian Dodd  states that pastoring has one of the top three suicide rates of any profession. He admonishes congregation members for not supporting their faithful leaders. He claims that complaining, often inconsiderate members increase the stress and expect too much of their pastors.
Reasons for Burnout in Church Leaders
Some of the common causes for burnout in church leaders include :
- Being on call 24/7;
- Criticism and poor conflict resolution skills;
- Trying to please or solve everyone’s problems;
- Not delegating tasks;
- Poor social networks;
- Not equipped for all aspects of ministry;
- Limited social life outside the church.
What do burnout symptoms look like?
- Irritability, negativity, inadequacy;
- Reduced empathy;
- Reduced sense of gratification, reward or pleasure;
- Reduced productivity;
- Sense of overwhelm/despair;
- Feeling isolated;
- Relationship conflict, withdrawal, reduced intimacy;
- Headaches, stomach upset or blood pressure;
- Mental health problems: anxiety, depression.
What does the Bible say about helping others?
In Galatians 6: 2 & 5 we read: Carry each other’s burdens and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ … AND each one should carry their own load.
In other words, it is scriptural to help others. However the challenge is to alleviate the individual’s “burden” which is the “more-than-they-can-handle” weight of life, but hold them accountable for their own load, which is their “God-given-responsibility”.
Here are some practical tips for combating burnout for those in church leadership:
- Know your job – have a job description, clarify new responsibilities.
- Check in regularly with your leadership, quarterly meetings.
- Get routine health checks to rule out underlying medical conditions.
- Seek social connections outside church.
- Take leave at least twice a year with family.
- Take time out for self care – have a regular hobby or annual retreat.
- Seek peer mentoring, and book regular debrief sessions.
- Exercise – 30 minutes per day.
- Eat well; a balanced diet with recommended portion control and protein/carb/fibre ratios.
- Pray daily; individually and with spouse or leader support.
- Journaling prayer  helps to “hear” God in a tangible way.
- Delegate – particularly activities that are not your strengths. Have leaders with the relevant skill set to do the task and share the responsibility. Rotate the responsibility of menial tasks and look for opportunities to train emerging helpers.
- Say no. God does not say yes to all our demands, sometimes the no is to help people grow.
- Have a large referral base, so that the burden of pastoral care can be shared – particularly if you are a small independent church, with limited resources. Utilise community resources and government or private run supports . Know your local kingdom family and the ministries in your local area – even if it is other denominations.
- Link in with other pastors, clergy or leaders – look at leadership training opportunities for yourself or church members .
- Have written policies for conflict management, OH&S and each ministry arm .
- Recognise the warning signs of burnout.
- Seek counseling , support.
- Rest and recharge – even God rested after creation. If you’re not taking a day off every week, you’re breaking one of the 10 commandments.
Rick Warren  discusses the story of Elijah and how he got burnt out after achieving God’s challenge to the four hundred Baal prophets, which culminated in the nation returning to belief in God. Elijah was exhausted and drained and when the queen threatened his life he ran away to hide and pleaded with God to end it all (1 Kings 19:5-8). God’s prescription for Elijah’s burnout was to let him eat and sleep.
Warren recommends the following strategies, to resolve the distress and resume leadership roles:
- Release – Telling God about your worries and frustrations lets Him know that you trust Him with your feelings. Twice God encourages Elijah to “tell Him what’s on his heart” (1 Kings 19: 9-19). God can handle anything we give to Him and isn’t shocked or overwhelmed when we do.
- Refocus on God (1 Kings 19:11) – Get your eyes off your problem and onto God. God loved Elijah so much he sent multiple storms to demonstrate His awesome power and ability. Burnout happens when we are trying to be God.
- Resume serving (1 Kings 19:15-16) – Elijah was given a new assignment.
John Eldridge  suggests there are two types of prayer. The first, a cry from the heart that releases God to do his will in our lives; and the second the prayer of authority and spiritual warfare. Both forms of prayer are grounded in the Christian principle of submitting to Jesus: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
Praying daily with purpose and intentionally listening for God’s direction are empowering and effective approaches for prayer. Linking into a prayer group and sharing how God is working NOW can be a way of attending only to the work that God places on your heart.
As a Christian Counsellor, I can help pastors and church leadership with overcoming burnout, and living an enriching life in God through prayer and counselling. I have training and experience as a facilitator in women’s healing ministry through the Search for Significance program (A. Meyers), as well as a Certificate 4 in Pastoral Care. I can relate firsthand to the challenges of expressing and practicing one’s faith in the sometimes complex and contradictory roles and issues we are faced with on a daily basis.
As a mother and professional, I am experienced in balancing roles, juggling time management and relationships with the joy/burden of a growing family. I can listen to your worries, concerns and beliefs, explore where you feel you are up to with your relationship with God, challenge misconceptions around shame and guilt, and explore strategies for deepening your faith.
Strong emotions such as fear, betrayal, grief and anger can lead to bitterness and resentment. This in turn can derail your faith, undermine your confidence and immobilise you, or cause Dis-Ease. Talking through concerns in a safe environment, where you will be respected, can help you to find meaning and significance in your life within the context of your faith.
Author: Julie Fickel, RN, PG Cert Health Science, PG Dip Midwifery, Cert 4 T & A, Cert 4 Pastoral Care.
Julie is an experienced Christian Counsellor, and together with her husband is in a position of leadership at their church. In addition to providing Christian counselling, Julie is a midwife who has completed additional training in counselling for a range of women’s issues eg birth trauma, menopause, intimacy and post natal depression.
NB Julie Fickel’s books are closed, however we suggest that if you are looking for a caring Christian female counsellor, that you book with Sharyn Jones, Hannah Jensen-Fielding, Wendy Smith or Fiona Muller instead.
- http://thegazette.com/subject/life/people-places/pastor-burnout-who-helps-the-helpers- 20150213
- Luke 10 ministries: http://www.lk10.com/church-101-resources-2/
- Lifeline, Anglicare, St Vincents, Christian care line: 0755 283555
- Julie Fickel M1 Clinic