Avoiding clergy burnout

According to many studies done over the past couple of decades, clergy burnout is epidemic. At least half of all pastors leave vocational ministry for good after five years of service. (Some surveys put the number closer to 85%.) Fewer than 1/10 of clergy make it to retirement. These are sobering numbers.

Symptoms of burnout cover the range from relationship problems to poor physical health to feelings of isolation from God to anxiety and depression. But what is the root cause of this burnout? According to Sarah Drummond in Discerning Dynamics: Reason, Power, and Emotion in Change Leadership, “A leader becomes burned out not from long hours, but from working under unrealistic expectations set by others or themselves. When responsibility and power are insufficiently proximate in the work environment, burnout is possible.” This means that clergy who are tasked with making congregational shifts (or keeping a lot of people with disparate hopes happy) but who are not given the resources and authority to put changes in place are most at risk.

What can pastors do, then, to avoid burnout?

Get clear. Use every avenue available to you to find out what the stated and unstated expectations of the pastor are. Read old newsletters. Paw through meeting minutes the previous minister left behind. Know what is in legal documents. Information itself is power.

Get curious. Talk with formal leaders, informal influencers, and people who have a long history with the congregation (including those beyond the church, such as judicatory leaders and other clergy in the community). Whenever a weird dynamic pops up, probe what’s going on beneath the surface. Illuminating unhelpful norms is the first step in reshaping them.

Communicate, then communicate some more. Let everyone – especially your core leaders – know what you’re doing. Use the newsletter, the pulpit, and social media. Make your pastor’s reports available to everyone when appropriate. The role of minister is shrouded in mystery for some folks, leading them to believe you only work a few hours a week. That can prompt them to lay on the pressure even as they grab tasks. Sharing what you’re doing can reshape unrealistic expectations.

Create constructive feedback loops. Advertise when and how you hear questions and concerns best (e.g., a Monday morning email instead of a pre-worship ambush). State what kind of feedback is off limits, such as your parenting approach or hairstyle. Say how you handle anonymous notes. Setting boundaries allows you to claim – appropriately – your power.

Build support for new initiatives. Before you take any big steps, identify the people who will be most affected and get backing from them, particularly from those with the most clout. In other words, pool your power for positive purposes.

Say what you need. Could you use more time away for rest and renewal and professional development? An increase to a line item in the budget? Introductions to potential community partners? More layperson power for a particular ministry? It’s ok to ask, no matter what the response is. In fact, it’s an opportunity to share your thinking and to give folks a peek into what happens in ministry.

All of these approaches work toward more alignment between responsibility and power.

The church needs you and all your gifts for the long haul. So while the onus isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – all on you to match expectations and authority, it’s well worth your effort to gain new awareness for yourself, shift others’  understanding, and seek more resources.

Photo by Danylo Suprun on Unsplash.

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