My background gives me interest in the clergy. I'd like to take a moment to consider a growing problem among people in this special field of work, although most of these thoughts also apply to other professions.
Among pastors and missionaries there is a phenomenon described loosely as "Pastor Burn-Out". The problem is getting to be very serious. Briefly, it involves a cycle of disappointment, anxiety and depression, failure, and insecurity, that leads to more disappointment, deeper anxiety and depression and more failure. People caught in this cycle are unable to break lose. Burn-out attacks busy, conscientious pastors during their prime years. I see symptoms among men and women who enter the ministry with high hopes and an undeniable love of God. Even Christian pastors of excellent reputation and unshakable faith fall victim to it.
Although the Bible is very sensitive about the psychological needs of human beings, pastors themselves are notoriously slow to practice what they preach. Being a pastor, missionary, or special religious worker is sometimes very hard. Hours can be long, family life suffers, incredibly vicious disagreements can occur within the body of believers, and salaries can be painfully small. Pastors who are involved in counseling ministries, sometimes with a minimum of training, are forced to bear tremendous loads.
As this problem grows, good men and women are leaving the ministry. I know of a good, committed, effective pastor in Indiana who enjoyed tinkering with his car during off hours. (The fact that his salary was very low was also an incentive for him to do his own repairs). Over the years he became a pretty good mechanic. His friends would occasionally see him in greasy overalls, sliding out from under his old car, and they'd stop in to pass the time with him in his garage. No one doubted his love for his flock, and almost everyone liked his sermons. He was doing his job very well.
Years before the pastor came to the congregation, the members had voted to switch the congregation's affiliation from one denomination to another. The vote had not been unanimous, however. Three prominent families in the church had been unhappy with that decision and, whenever family members served terms on the church council, they voted down proposals that differed from the old way the church had done things. Because there were several important families in the anti-change faction, the church council usually had a vocal minority that objected to policies.
Then, for several years, this minority became a majority on the church council. The minister found himself in a crossfire. He was caught between love for the people, a desire to put factionalism aside, his vows as a minister of the particular denomination, and his own convictions that some of the policies of the church's previous denomination were not Biblical. Arguments developed at almost every council meeting as the basic discord affected worship, liturgy, youth programs, hiring an assistant pastor, and even using the song book.
After three years of trying to stay above the problem, the minister burned out in flames. He couldn't engineer a transfer to another church and his denomination did not have a good method of reassigning pastors. He felt as if his ministry was a failure. He lost confidence in his leadership abilities. He began to lose track of details and made slipshod decisions. He spent more time in his garage and less in the study. He questioned the basic call to the ministry he had felt as a young man. Even his best friends began to wonder why his work was drifting downhill. Then came a series of heated arguments in council meetings, some viscous gossip, and a couple of public statements that never should have been made.
A month later the minister was working in an automobile repair shop in a nearby city. His family was on the rack, his pension and benefits at risk, he was barely putting food on the table, and his considerable skills as a pastor were locked away in a closet with a soiled reverse collar. He celebrated his fifty-second birthday in a three-bedroom apartment above the repair shop.
This kind of thing happens more and more. If a burned-out pastor doesn't leave his congregation, he becomes a functional burn-out - going through the motions of ministry. He merely holds onto his position until he can move or until he retires. Love of the work is gone. Survival is the order of the day.
In the situation just described, the pressures were well identified and perhaps unjust. But more and more pastors are subjected to vague pressures that are neither right or wrong - just painful. The pastors may be expected to work long hours, especially in the evening. Or perhaps they are forced to bear counseling loads that are not suited to their talents or temperament. They may be pressured into serving in civic groups or on various boards. There are thousands of ways a pastor can be pushed over the edge. For a moment, please focus with me on some of the reasons for burn-out, ways to avoid it, and ways to promote healing. Again, many of these observations apply to people in other fields as well.
The following personality traits make a person susceptible to burn-out, and if a young minister has these characteristics he should be careful about ordering his life:
- being overly conscientious
- being a perfectionist
- trying to achieve high goals in a short time
- working too hard
- an inability to say "no"
- getting too involved in the serious problems of others
- keeping frustrations bottled up inside
- guilt feelings about resting and relaxing
- inadequate vacations
We are all familiar with over-conscientious people. They try to do their best, even at the expense of their health. They are seldom satisfied with their work. They put in all kinds of hours to do a job in the best possible way. Perfectionism seems to be the problem of many people in our society. Pastors are prone to forget the fact that they are helping 100 people because they anguish over the one who goes astray. doctors want to cure every single patient with no failures. Many times people in Kingdom work set high goals and try to reach them in a relatively short period of time. The goals in themselves are laudable, but the end result of not achieving the goal is unhappiness and frustration.
Some pastors feel guilty about saying "no" to any legitimate request, even if they are tired and need time with their families. How can a young minister turn down a last minute request to share the Gospel with residents of a nursing home (even though he is filling in for another pastor who stood up on his feet and said, "No, I just can't make it")? Some pastors are on call 24 hours a day. They put in an incredible number of hours during a typical week. This does not result in financial benefits. Moreover, the number of hours takes away family time. The pastor becomes exhausted, irritable at home, and unable to fulfill some of his responsibilities as a father or husband.
Even though a pastor advises other to relax and "take a break", he doesn't follow his own advice. "working vacations" find a pastor at a church conference, at home getting calls from parishioners who do not realize he is on vacation time, taking "mini-vacations" during the week that require his being back in the pulpit on Sunday morning, and solving the problems of Aunt Gertrude or Grandmother in Oregon during precious vacation time.
Too many pastors get intensely involved with the problems of members of their flock. They are not able to draw a line between the problem of someone else and their own emotions. After failing to save a marriage or keep a wayward child away from drugs, a pastor may become frustrated and depressed. Failure to prevent a suicide can cause severe emotional damage to a pastor.
Then the poor pastor comes home to his family and finds his wife lobbying for a weekend away in the mountains or a new dishwasher. Her level of empathy may be low, but who ever taught her how to interact with a depressed husband who was taking on the cares of the world? Suppressed emotions lead to anger, rejection, physical breakdown, and emotional breakdown.
Pastors are almost alone in their struggles. There are no built-in escape valves in their profession. Most pastors cannot share their frustrations with members of the church, other pastors, their parents, or even their wives. People expect them to be pillars of strength, and if they appear to be anything less, they create insecurity in the minds of their people.
I meet too many pastors who do not ear regularly, who sleep odd hours, don't relax, and do not take time off to exercise their bodies. These are the same individuals who constantly shortchange themselves on vacation time. Many of them feel guilty about taking any time off for themselves. There is always more work to be done preparing a sermon, reading one more source book, or making two more phone calls. After a call, how much damage could you do by extending the day just long enough to squeeze in a little more study time. Surely God would honor that commitment!
But God does not seem to smile upon men and women who raid their precious supplies of health and energy that way. God expects most of us to live within the physical and emotional limits He built into each of us, and He doesn't necessarily want to perform miracles to give some of us unlimited reserves of energy. So pastors, lay ministers, missionaries, and other Kingdom workers burn-out. They drop out. They fall exhausted on the road. It is time to take some strong measures to restore emotional health to these important people. As I look around, and as I counsel many pastors in my office, I can see that something radical must be done to change things. I don't think I can do much to change the way people perceive the job of their ministers and layworkers. I wish I could. I wish there were a way to make people more aware of the fact that a pastor works very hard. Spiritual and emotional labors draw away strength just like physical works. He can only shoulder a certain amount of work and responsibility.
A Modest Proposal.
I would like to make two proposals for pastors:
You must find someone to talk with.
I know of one denomination that has studied pastor burn-out in depth, and their leaders have set up a system that puts young pastors in contact with "mentor pastors" - older men who have been through a few battles, who can listen well, and who are basically empathic to the frustrations and needs of a pastor and his family. The system is designed to provide an outlet for the young pastor's frustrations, and to discuss problems openly with a person who will not question his commitment or faith.
Pastors who do not have access to this kind of mentor should establish contact with someone like him. Most large urban areas have Christian counseling centers. Contacting a trained counselor is not an admission of defeat - it is, rather, a vital step in surviving the struggles of the ministry. Get to know a pastor, perhaps in another denomination, who understands your problems and can listen. Advice is good, if it is offered judiciously. But being a sounding board is almost as important. Find a good listener.
I have organized an endeavor I call "Ministry to Ministers" that makes time available to pastors or missionaries at no charge at all, or for whatever fees a pastor can afford. More and more pastors come to me to discuss their work and their problems, knowing that I am not about to hit them with platitudes or simplistic advice. They also know that whatever they tell me is kept in the strictest confidence. They need this kind of relationship with another person. They need safety valves.
If you are a struggling pastor, please make this a high priority in your life. Rip away a couple of hours every month to spend time with a friend. Be honest with him about your need to talk. If one relationship doesn't give you the outlet you need, develop a second, or a third, until you find what you need. But above all, find a way to release your frustrations.
Communing with God is vitally important, as every pastor knows. It is important for all of us. If you are trying to apply this advice as a burned-out professional in another field, put prayer and meditation on the list of activities that help prevent burn-out.
Ministers must take time for vacations and general relaxation.
Every few years they should take off an extended amount of time. In our superheated culture this proposal seems impractical. How many little churches can afford to release a minister for a sabbatical year? What would hardworking members of a congregation say about a pastor taking off four weeks of every year to putter around in his garden, write a book, go fishing? How would a struggling little church survive a sabbatical year if they had to hire a seminarian or part-time pastor for 12 months? I realize this proposal raises serious objections, but I think the choice boils down to this: Either a Pastor take time off to relax and recharge his batteries or he faces burn-out and becomes a potential pastoral drop-out.
Large denominations with strong financial resources might be able to develop sabbatical programs and pulpit exchanges for their pastors. Small denominations or independent churches would need to find paying jobs for their pastors during the sabbatical time. Perhaps businessmen in the congregation or the community could plan to hire the pastor for certain kinds of work. Pulpit exchanges with other churches could be organized. The mechanically inclined pastor I mentioned earlier would have welcomed a few months in an auto shop, as long as it was clearly understood that he was not breaking down or retreating from his responsibilities. Some pastors would love to teach, do research, or write. Schools - perhaps a private high school or small religious college in a nearby town - might welcome a seminary-trained pastor's expertise as a part-time instructor in history, languages or philosophy. I know of one pastor who thoroughly enjoyed carpentry work. If members of his church would have been able to release him for the work of house refurbishing he would have paid his own way by increasing values of old homes in the town.
Church leaders must take the initiative in organizing programs like this. Time off must be written into a pastor's job description, and there should be no stigma attached to accepting sabbatical or temporary employment in a completely different line of work. The agreed upon understanding would be that the pastor should enjoy the job and have ample time for spiritual refreshment and a complete change of pace. Again, I realize that this proposal seems at first glance to be naive, but in many situations it is the only way of keeping a man or woman in ministry. Our pastors are dying on the vine.
Jesus Himself ministered with full intensity for a period of only three years, and during that time He took off time to be alone for prayer and spiritual refreshment. He went to the wilderness. he withdrew many times to talk to Peter, James and John. He relaxed with his friends. He took Sundays off. He went to dinners. He enjoyed Himself at a wedding feast. He took long walks. I have a feeling that the Jesus we read about in the Gospels would have some fairly direct words for young pastor about to burn-out because they feel that their church rests entirely on their shoulders. "Whose church is it, anyway?" He might say in response to complaints of overwork and anxiety. "Who makes a church grow - you or me?"
Joseph's little carpentry business in Nazareth probably had ups and downs, probably collecting receivables, and large orders that had to be filled by a certain time. I'm sure that Jesus knew all about completing a job by a due date, budgeting time, and working hard on a project. And that's a minor consideration, compared to His awesome responsibility of fulfilling every Old Testament prophecy and saving His people from sins. Yet, when we look at the way He ordered his ministry, we see that He was in complete control of His work and His rest. He took care of Himself. And so should pastors, as well as the rest of us.