Preventing Pastoral Burnout

Three areas to help pastors in particular not only recover from burnout, but also prevent it.

When I counsel pastors with burnout, stress, anxiety, or depression, I often find a strange reluctance to address the physical side of their suffering and an obsession with the spiritual. The spiritual side of things has to be addressed of course, especially because heart motivations are often the root cause of burnout. But even then, heart sins have consequences in the mind and in the body that may be so bad they require medical assistance of various kinds.

 

This is a guest post by David Murray, author of Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture. The statistics cited below come from a survey of over six thousand people Crossway conducted in September 2016.


Prevent So You Don’t Have to Recover

Burnout is a widespread problem not only in our society but in the church. Pastors are not immune to this, with surveys revealing high levels of stress, depression, and burnout leading to broken bodies, broken minds, broken hearts, broken marriages, and broken churches. Burnout is responsible for 20% of all pastoral resignations,1 which is hardly surprising, given that that pastors relegate physical exercise, nutrition, and sleep to a much lower priority than the average worker.2

In Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, I explore a number of ways to help men overcome burnout. In this post, I want to explore three other areas with the purpose of helping pastors in particular not only recover from burnout, but also prevent it.

Hardness

Although Crossway’s burnout research (see the infographic) reveals that the causes of pastoral burnout are similar to those of Christian men in general (work pressure, too little time off, financial need, home pressures, criticism from others, too little sleep, and too little exercise) there was a significant difference in one area: 28% of pastors cited criticism from others as a factor compared with only 18% of laymen making reference to this.

Are pastors more sensitive to criticism, or are they more subject to it? Whatever the answer, a “thicker skin” would appear to be a helpful defensive measure. Twenty-seven percent of pastors admitted that caring less about the opinions of others would have helped prevent burnout.

In making the case for a “thicker skin,” I’m not suggesting that pastors become stubbornly impervious to criticism, but rather that pastors develop skills in discerning when criticism is valid or invalid, in balancing the consideration of criticism with consideration of encouragements, and in keeping the opinion of God in the primary place, with the opinions of others a distant second (Prov. 29:25). This is a mental and spiritual battle that we can become more skilled at with practice, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and perhaps with the help of a trusted elder or pastoral colleague.

Honesty

Crossway’s research suggests that the effects of burnout upon pastors appear to be less than upon men in general. For example, only 18% of pastors admitted that burnout resulted in sin in their lives, whereas 37% of men in general confessed that connection. I wonder if pastors are being honest here, because in my experience of counseling pastors, sin is equally present in their burnouts.

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