Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Looking at Clergy Burnout

There is a fantastic article in the NY Times on this issue. READ IT HERE!

I've had countless conversations with people in the field of ministry (doesn't matter pastor, associate, youth, children's, etc...) that have or are experiencing burnout. I know that I have experienced it, not in ministry, but during non-stop semesters of college and straight into Div. School. I took classes every summer and after 8 years, I was showing the signs.

I know ministers who have been at churches 25 years who are burned out, and I know ministers who have been at a church 5 yrs. who are showing all of the symptoms. It seems that you are hearing more and more about clergy burnout these days. I think that there are many culprits here, the biggest being that both clergy and laity are not aware of the symptoms, or even the problem.

Clergy like to go nonstop, they take on the emotional burdens of their beloved congregation. ministers often times have "boundary issues" as is backed up in a study mentioned in the above article. They don't know when to say no to things and don't know when to separate themselves emotionally and physically in order to take care of themselves. I think that this is part of the personality of most ministers, and is simply something of which they need to be aware about themselves.

Laity can help too! Knowing the signs of burnout can help the laity take care of their ministers. It only makes sense. If you have a good minister you want to keep them healthy so that they can continue to be a good minister! It is a win for all. However, the best thing the laity can do is have steps in place FROM THE BEGINNING to PREVENT burnout. It's like heart disease, why wait until you have a heart attack to make a change when you can practice prevention and perhaps keep one from ever happening!

What Laity can do:
Encourage/allow ministers to seek regular therapy.
I have done counseling for a couple of ministers, and I have been counseled professionally. It keeps your sanity. It helps you keep tabs on yourself, and gives the clergy a safe place to express their feelings. Sadly, ministers do not feel that they can open up or explore their feelings with their congregations. I understand this. I can't speak for everyone, but I used to feel that expressing my frustrations, doubts, fears, and troubles would burden the congregation that I loved so dearly. I'm not sure this is true anymore, but in any case, the congregation cannot be a substitute for a professional counselor.

Encourage/allow ministers to meet regularly with other ministers.
Ministers need to vent at times. But they also need to be refreshed with new ideas. Sometimes the thing I get the most excited about is when I share and listen to the ideas of others. I can see what is working for other ministers, get feedback on my own thoughts and frustrations, and then take that back to the congregation. I have found that this benefits both the congregation and the minsters alike. And let's face it. Like any profession, the people that know best what you are going through are the people in the same field as you. Other ministers can also provide a support group and point out what one minister alone may not see.

Make sure your ministers take vacations and sick days.
This is one thing that I see a lot of ministers not doing; taking their vacation. Since only 2 churches I know of let their ministers bank vacation days, if the minister doesn't take it, they lose it. I've worked in and with churches for 13 years now and I know how hard it is to find time to take vacation days. There is ALWAYS something going on at the church, and you always have to coordinate to make sure that only one staff member is gone at a time. I am thinking of a certain pastor (and I know this isn't the only case), who has been called back for an emergency more than once. I remember one time that he had to spend extra money in order to change flights and come back early, leaving his family in the midwest. He never got that vacation time back. There needs to be some protection for the minister. He or she should not go on every vacation with the fear of being called back. This is where the laity and other staff members should step up and give some vacation security!
Everyone needs time away. We all need time to get our mind off of the daily stuff, get away, spend quality time with their family, etc... things that people in other fields of employment take for granted. Think about it, clergy are at church most holidays. And speaking from the experience of someone who's whole family lives out of town, it makes the built-in vacation times over those holidays (after the Christmas eve service I we jet out of town) far from relaxing and rejuvenating.
Ministers need time away. Their families miss them, they need to relax, and they need to come back excited and rejuvenated. The laity needs to be the minister's biggest advocate on this, because ministers often times get to the end of their year and are stuck with more vacation than they can take. Then it is a struggle to get away and they end up losing their vacation. Or the church has lost a minister suddenly for 2-3 straight weeks and becomes frustrated. This can be prevented.

The same goes with sick days. A lot of ministers are stubborn about taking sick days. Let's face it, if you are a pastor, you can't just call in when you wake up sick Sunday morning. This is where having a staff that can jump in as a support system in these times is important. Heck, even laity could still do the worship sans sermon if need be. But most ministers will power through the Sunday morning duties. But many are so overwhelmed with expectations and responsibility that they have trouble taking a day away from the office/ meetings/ visitations in order to take care of themselves. This is really where a staff covenant of helping, as well as a strong laity support system could take that pressure off of the minister. I can remember only one time in my ministry where a person looked at me and told me to go home and they would cover the meeting that night. I felt really guilty. I'm not sure why i felt guilty, I def. don't like being sick! However, she convinced me and I handed her my agenda/notes for the meeting and went home and got rest. What would happen if more laity stepped forward and told ministers who are sick to go home and get rest. Remember, the healthier the minister, the healthier the congregation has a chance to be!

Give comp. time!
This is one that is easily overlooked. As a youth minister I worked it into my contract to receive time compensation for extra time (time outside of my contracted weekly hours) that I worked. Ministry is always a 24 hr. on call job. Now I didn't keep up with every hour I spent over my 20 or 40 hr. work week. However, if there was an emergency that took up a whole night, a week of extra services, a conference out of town, or even a weekend (or better yet, a week-long) youth trip, I would find time to take and rejuvenate myself. I would be out of the office on monday, take an early weekend (being Thurs.-Sat., not Sunday), or just leave early one day.

Now, I never took all the time that was due to me, but that was ok! I was taking ENOUGH. I would go play golf with friends, have lunch with a colleague I hadn't seen in a while, get some stuff done around the house, or simply take a nap! It amazes me how few churches build in comp. time! The few I know have it for their youth ministers but not for the other clergy. Let's face it, many churches expect ministers to be in the office during the day (so we will say 9-5 mon.-thurs.), and then most of the day Sunday. There's the 40 hr. work week right there! However, the majority of the stuff that happens in ministry happens outside of those times. Services, meetings, meals, and ministry are often done when people are off of work. That means either in the evening or on Sat., which is the time the ministers usually have off. This is the nature of ministry and being available when people need you is why I went into ministry. However, being expected to pull "normal" hours plus the other 20-30 hrs. when ministry happens outside of the 9-5 window quickly wears and tears a minister. Giving the minister the option of using some comp. time when needed does wonders when he or she feels they need a breather! It allows them not to feel guilty when their child gets sick, they have a dental appointment, want to take a day to spend with their kids, or when they just need a day of real rest (since the ministers do most of their work on the "day of rest").

Unlike vacation days, most ministers won't feel like they have to take all of their comp. time. They won't feel bad when they have to take an afternoon to themselves and don't have to worry about using up sick days except for when they are truly sick. They can see it as a perk, as being recognized as a human being, not a machine. We all need some time off, especially if we've been pulling extra hours at work. My mom (not a minister) works more than 40hrs a week, and one month a year she is there from 7am-10pm most days. However, her boss makes sure that her and her staff get a break afterwards. My mom takes a week to herself (not sick or vacation days), and then throughout the next month she takes a few long weekends as comp. time for how hard she worked during the busy times. It makes my mom not dread the really tough month, and makes sure she is refreshed and happy when she's at work afterwords. Did I mention she loves her job? What if more churches took this approach? How much healthier would they and their ministers be?

Set up and honor sabbaticals.
This is an important one for many ministers because it gives them a nice long enough that they are usually eager to get back because they miss their congregation and have so much new stuff to share. Let me be clear, A sabbatical is not an extended vacation on a beach. There is relaxation and vacation involved, but this is a time where a person betters themselves. Most ministers will take classes, catch up on some reading, visit other churches to see what they are doing in ministry, visit the Holy Land, take a tour of European Church History, etc...

This is a time where a minister become a stronger and more rejuvenated person. We've all heard of ministers and their "bag of tricks". They have 3-5 years of "tricks" (sermons, lessons, ideas, etc..) in their bag and once they have used them up, the feel they have to move on in order to find a new place where the bag becomes new again. Ministers who are given a sabbatical (usually with the contracted understanding that they will do more than just vacation) come back with fresh ideas. This means fresh sermons, new programs, new ministries, and new experiences to share and discuss. An excited minister means an excited(ing) ministry!!!

In the article above, Rabbi Joel Myers says this: “We now recommend three or four months every three or four years,”. Most churches I know of that give sabbaticals contract one 6 month leave after 5 years at that church, and a 4 month leave every 3 years subsequent. I don't think this is a bad set-up. It means the minister has put in enough years to not be new, but (hopefully) not to long to have begun to burn out. I think 4 years would be better (take the sabbatical on the 5th year), but there is some negotiation here. Remember this will end up benefiting both the minister and the church. I know I would use my time to visit a school and take some challenging classes. Or perhaps I would teach at a seminary in South America. Who knows? But I know I would come back with new invigoration and excitement, wanting to share all of my new experiences with my community.

The problem here is that when a church offers a sabbatical, it is usually only for the pastor. We expect so much out of all of our ministers, why do we treat them they are less of a "minister"? What happens when the youth minister goes to a huge youth ministry conference overseas or on a different coast? What happens when the education minister goes to a seminary to brush up on the latest education concepts and understandings? What happens when the music minister takes a couple of months and does an apprenticeship under another well-renowned music minister? Besides preventing burnout? I think it would benefit everyone, even beyond that specific ministry!

Create an environment where the minister is allowed to be human!!!
This is prob. the bedrock/most important thing a Church can do to prevent burnout. Why? Because this happens on a daily basis! Many ministers are put on a pedestal, expected to be the museum display of the perfect Christian. Remember though, we are all on this journey. No one, not even the clergy, had "arrived" yet. These ministers are not Christ! They are not perfect. Yet they come into the church having to feel like they can't make a mistake. And if they do, people are quick to jump on them. We have to change our expectations!!!

This goes for the ministers too. What happens when you teach your church that you are a simple pilgrim and divulge openly when you make mistakes. What happens when we teach our laity love and forgiveness over judgment especially when it comes to clergy? What happens when we become intentionally authentic (no masks, no pretending, just be ourselves flaws and all) and humbly transparent? It is a scary thing for a minister to do, trust me. But if we work together we can create an environment where it is safe for EVERYONE to be one's self, admit their mistakes, find encouragement, and receive forgiveness. This can happen for both clergy and laity alike. This isn't a new idea, it is the Biblical concept of community!
Creating this intentional place is hard. It means letting go of power, changing one's expectations, and accepting everyone for who they are. It means loving each other, regardless of our differences; the way Christ teaches us to love. If we can't do it in our churches, then how can we do it in the world around us?

Just remember, it is just as easy for a church to get burnout with their ministers as it is for the ministers to find themselves in the same state. These things mentioned (and I'm sure other ministers would have some other great ideas), are just a few easy ways to PREVENT this from happening. A healthy congregation with healthy ministers leads to a ministry and community with vitality! And remember, is what people are seeking when they look at our churches!

Leave your thoughts, and ideas!


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Great ideas for creating a refreshing ministry environment. Certainly, I commiserate with you in the 7 years school burnout as well as the burn out from jumping into ministry young and with big ideas only to become quickly jaded with the political process.

    This exhaustion, fatigue, weariness, etc. is found in almost all work environments, but it seems to be rampant in ministry because there aren't pre-arranged outlets or times for ministers to recharge. Every pastor I've known has had vacation time cut short because they were called home for a visitation, funeral or another emergency.

    Another aspect that is important is training the laity. Having an Associate Pastor is always helpful (if your church can afford one), but having trained lay ministers in your church is a great way to ensure that people receive care and have leaders when the minister needs time away from the community.

    Hopefully, these fragmented thoughts will be met with forgiving eyes.


  3. Hey Tyler,
    I was thinking about you the other day as a matter of fact. I hope you are well my friend.

    I was also thinking after I wrote this article about how every field or career suffers from this same thing. However, I came to the conclusion that, for the most part, companies are aware of this. I would never have said this 2 years ago, as I've had many friends change careers outside of the ministry because of burnout. But after working at the bottom of the totem pole for two corporations, I see how they work their lowest people to death, call them in on their days off, and offer too little benefits.

    However, there were measures in place that the companies provided to prevent burnout. One of those was that vacation was sacred, and short of company collapse, no one was called back. IF for some reason they were, they were refunded their vacation week, and traveled back on the company's dime. Taking breaks and comp. time was mandatory for any over-time worked. There were also a myriad of other perks sprinkled throughout the year to give the employees refreshment and rejuvenation.

    In realizing this (and talking with former coworkers and bosses in said companies), I realized that this article had indeed been a necessary one.

    I completely agree with you about the laity training. A church, if viewed as a community, should adopt a team mindset. Most youth ministries have a team in place that can function in a youth minister's absence. There are many talented people in any church, and everyone has a story to tell. If there is a need for something in worship due to the lack of a sermon, a person sharing their journey (testimony?) can be just as powerful.

    Church staff having a pre-arranged plan for when any of them are out is important too. I remember at a couple churches where I was the only staff member there that Sunday. I led everything: music, prayers, scripture, hymns, and a sermon. I honestly didn't like the (one man justin show), because if felt too much about me and not enough about God. What always brought me comfort was knowing that because I COULD step in and do anything in the worship service, and because I was WILLING to do so, the other ministers could relax and refresh that Sunday!

    I agree that there needs to be laity training, but the deeper implication of why there isn't laity training is what truly disturbs me: The ministers do not know how to evaluate their own health! They don't know when or how (or sometimes even if they can) set boundaries. It was like working in a hospital as a chaplain. I couldn't help but let some stuff get to me, esp. while I was in the midst of a crisis. I had to shove my own feelings as far down as possible. But, after a really tough on-call shift, I was told by my supervisors and fellow chaplains to go home and rest. I would then have time each week for intentional reflection, self-evaluation, and then counseling (the real kind with a licensed therapist) to keep myself healthy. It was this discipline and regiment that kept me sane and healthy through the worst of it... and at the same time helped me to truly enjoy the best of it. Because of this, I became, not just a better minister, but a better person!

    I would love to see more training for ministers to learn and understand how common burnout is in ministry and how they can train both themselves and the laity to prevent this. I would love to see more advocacy from our Seminaries, divinity schools, and associated denominational organizations. That way, when a minister comes in and says they need a break, it won't be misinterpreted and they will have groups and data backing up their health and ministry needs.

    As always, a pleasure buddy!

  4. Something I am a fan of, but have not gotten a lot of traction for is the idea of a Pastor Sabbath. I admit this is difficult at first if you do not have gifted people to help, but it is a goal.

    Pastor teaches solid for 6 weeks. Sunday morning, night etc. But that 7th week an elder, youth pastor, guest evangelist etc takes the week.

    Some may see that as a Pastor abdicating his role as pastor, I say that is a minister looking after his own soul.

    Just a thought.