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.

Speaking the truth about power

You have been working with ministry leaders for months on a new initiative. In the process you and your team have carefully gathered input, communicated decisions out in a variety of ways, and provided pastoral care to people for whom proposed changes to the way things are currently done might spark anger or grief.

When implementation time comes, however, the initiative dies on the vine. Why? Well, you’ve attended to reason and emotion, two key aspects of transformation, but it’s possible you and your team overlooked the most potent one: power. According to UCC minister and seminary dean Sarah Drummond in her book Dynamic Discernment, all three areas must be addressed for lasting organizational change to occur.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? You’ve got to have the investment of influencers for anything new to have a shot at succeeding. But here’s the thing, says Drummond: people with power often deny that they have it: “Oh, as board chair my voice is just one among many.” “I haven’t held any [formal] leadership roles for a long time.” “It’s not my fault that others look to me for my opinions.” That’s because those who acknowledge that they have power for whatever reason (position, wealth, gender, sexual orientation, race, age, length of membership, etc.) might be asked to give up some of that advantage, which even well-meaning people are reluctant to do.

Ministers must have a clear-eyed understanding of power dynamics in order to help their congregations live into hope and inhabit new realities. And they have to be able to help others see the forces at work, own where they have clout so that they can leverage it for healthy purposes, and willingly share some of their authority so that new voices can be heard.

As in many matters, curiosity is key, whether you wonder to yourself, “What is really going on here?” or if you ask others to tell you more about people, roles, and expectations to heighten their awareness as well as your own. This questioning not only illuminates previously hidden systems but also makes it possible to note what Drummond calls “pockets of possibility” where established power and grassroots energy could converge.

Who, then, holds the power in your setting? If you don’t know, how will you find out? And how will you then use that information in wise and compassionate ways to affect changes so that your church can be creative and faithful?

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash.