Burnout Warning

I was asked by a friend why so many people are burning out these days.  Whether it is a moral fall, a mental breakdown, or a ministry burnout, the frequency seems to be increasing.  Why? 

I remember speaking with several friends some years ago.  They had all gone through a ministry burnout in the previous years.  Their circumstances were different, but they had some things in common.  One spoke of two particularly stressful issues in the church that hit at the same time.  He said that one would have been hard, but survivable, however, the two together created a perfect storm that took its toll on him.

I suspect that right now many are living with half a perfect storm already raging.  This means that many are susceptible to the impact of another stressor that, if faced alone, might not be so damaging.

Let’s imagine that Pastor A was recently bereaved, or had a child with cancer, or some other significant emotional weight that was taking its toll.  He might seem to be handling a difficult situation well, but any friends with sensitivity to his situation would want to protect him from a second heavy load hitting at the same time.  Now would not be a good time for him to also face new and persistent criticism in his ministry, false accusation, a crisis in the church leadership team, or whatever.  We certainly cannot control circumstances and often the second or even third weighty stress factor will combine.  And sometimes we watch men and women serving God who somehow, by God’s grace, are able to weather the worst of seasons without some form of burnout.  But many do not.

I think we should be realistic about contributing factors, sensitive to underlying stressors, and proactive in our care for one another.

Contributing factors – people involved in ministry may well be more susceptible to burnout.  Why?  Because there is a unique pressure not to be.  After all, if Person B is hit by a perfect storm of stressors, they might go to the doctor, get a prescription for something, and get signed off from work.  When they recover, they can go back to their job.  If they lose their job, there is usually another similar one out there for them.  But for Pastor A, there are some unique pressures of ministry – the person in ministry is expected to have unique access to God’s sustaining power, plus they don’t want to let others down (often because they love the people they are serving), they feel they are not supposed to resort to medication, also that the church will suffer if they stop doing their job for a season because the church is not prepared for a sudden “sabbatical,” and if they do burnout there may be no way back into the vocation to which they have given their life – and then how can they provide for their family?  Plenty of people in ministry carry stresses in life that we humans are not created to carry alone.

Underlying stressors – some stresses are more obvious.  When a church is filled with division and tensions, that can be obvious.  When a family member is suffering from a serious illness, people tend to be aware of that.  When an ageing parent has had to move into the family home or a difficult season is entered with a teenage child, or the person is diagnosed with a serious health condition, etc., then others tend to know.  Some stressors are more obvious and the person carrying that load might receive some extra support and help (although I am amazed how often churches expect ministry folks to just carry the extra load and press on!)

But there are also underlying stressors that tend to be less obvious.  Some have always been in the ministry mix: financial anxiety (who cares enough to ask the questions, because the person in ministry will tend to feel unable to raise it), marital tension (again, those in ministry can fear opening up about struggles because of multiplied consequences), private sin struggles (same again), ministry team tensions, chronic health concerns, parenting challenges, etc.  Any one of these can weigh on the soul of the minister and become half of a perfect storm, just waiting for another stressor to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as it were.

And currently, there are new underlying stressors that we cannot ignore.  In the last five years or so, we are experiencing a hyper-fast change in our culture, as well as two years of Covid-19, of course.  Many are living with an ongoing, underlying weight of stress.  There is anxiety from a culture that no longer needs to wait for a mistake to pounce – the preacher is already on record over many years for believing things now considered “hate speech” that can lead to being cancelled retroactively.  There may be anger at the injustice of the new morality that is taking over society (academia, the media, social media, etc.) – a new morality that determines what can and cannot be believed, spoken and shared.  The loss of free speech and the death of healthy debate weighs heavily on some: if you disagree, then there are many ready to label you with the worst labels and who might also seek to eliminate your opportunity to express your opinion.  And when people in our own churches are trained to act in this destructive manner, more and more people will be carrying growing anxiety and/or anger within.

Covid-19 has been ongoing stress for those in ministry.  There was initial uncertainty about the virus. Then there was the government interference in church world that most of us have never experienced before.  Where we can work, what we must wear, whether we can gather to worship, if we can sing, even when we can walk outside and workout, what medical procedure we must receive, who we can welcome into our homes, etc – these are unprecedented measures.  We have had to adapt continually in ministry: going online, in person with restrictions, changing rules, etc. while trying to lead congregations that might hold very different views on what is happening, and what should be happening.  Many have lived in fear of the virus, others in fear of the government response, and far too often, in fear of each other. 

As we move forward we are now in a different and divided world.  Many in ministry are living with some combination of underlying anxiety and anger (at the injustices that are either flagged or suppressed, the lack of transparency over pandemic decision-making, the apparent disintegration of civil liberties in western countries, etc.)  We will be ministering in a context that is becoming increasingly antagonistic to the Christian faith, with increasing controls on information, communication, thought, etc.  Then there are new chronic illnesses that we are told have always been there.  And just to add to the stress – lots of people are ready to dismiss any concerns because they are reliably informed by the media that everything is normal, and every fear is irrational (apart from the officially sanctioned fears, of course). 

Be Proactive – What should we do to help prevent the rising levels of burnout, breakdown, and flame out in ministry (and other spheres too)?  This post is already far too long, so perhaps I will just say this: be proactive.  If you suspect your pastor is carrying underlying anxiety, tension, or even anger, then be proactive.  Pray for them, but also talk to them.  Make sure they are not carrying burdens alone.  They tend to be ever ready to draw alongside others in the challenges of life.  Make sure someone draws alongside them too. 

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