Pastoral Burnout: A More Common Problem Than You Might Think
Kenneth L. Swetland, Ph.D.
Senior Professor of Ministry
While burnout is not a common experience of pastors (although some observers think it is on the increase), it is by no means completely absent either. In my involvement for the last seven years with Gordon-Conwell’s Oasis ministry, a counseling support ministry for our alumni, I have observed what seems to be a growing phenomenon that I call “general malaise.” Sometimes it is manifest as depression or anxiety; but more often it is simply a weariness of the soul, wondering if what one is doing is effective, or matters. From this soul weariness, it’s a short step to burnout.
When we speak of burnout, we usually refer to being extremely tired and in need of a few days of rest in order to rebound with our usual energy and vision. But, when the medical community refers to burnout, it is a physical and emotional phenomenon that takes six to 12 months of rest to recover from. I know whereof I speak.
It was 50 years ago when I was a pastor in Rockport, MA, and had just completed my first year of ministry. On a beautiful June Saturday in 1965, I decided to get in shape in one day after a winter of little exercise, and had a vigorous bicycle ride up and down the hills of the town. When I sat down for lunch, suddenly I could not speak (except in gibberish), and this was followed quickly by loss of vision and paralysis down one side. I was rushed to the hospital where I spent a number of days at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital.
The initial diagnosis was that I had experienced a stroke, but the usual tests did not confirm this. One of the top neurologists at Mass General would bring the interns around to see me and ask them for their diagnosis. When they said “stroke,” he called attention to the test results that did not confirm a stroke. They were silent and did not know how to properly diagnosis me. After a few days, however, the doctor came to visit me and revealed that he did not know what the problem was either!
This doctor thought I had a “stress-induced stroke” due to the heavy physical exercise of the bike ride, and that if my body could be rested sufficiently, I would recover. Further, he pointed out that he thought I was carrying the burden of the church myself when that was really God’s job. “There is a God, and you are not God,” he said. His analysis was right. Although I believed firmly in the sovereignty of God, I was behaving as though if anything good were to happen in the church, it was up to me to make it happen.
So, the doctor prescribed a pill to make me sleep 12 hours a night, and another one to wake me up in the morning, thinking that if the body was sufficiently rested, full function would return. Fortunately, the paralysis had gone away in a day or so after the initial episode, but speech and vision were slow in returning. After several weeks, I slowly began to re-engage in pastoral work, but it took about a year to completely recover. My doctor today said what happened 50 years ago was likely what is now referred to as a “neurological migraine variant,” rather than a “stress-induced stroke.” The cause was the same—not pacing myself, but behaving as though I were God, thereby pulling my body under stress that resulted in a physical breakdown.
In his classic book The Stress of Life, Canadian medical doctor and researcher Hans Selye describes what stress and burnout are. His research indicates that everyone has a “baseline” and a “threshold” in dealing with life. Defining stress as “the nonspecific response of the body when any demand is made on it,” he focuses on the physical responses of the body when we hit the thresh-old too often without returning to our baseline. Calling it the “General Adaptation Syndrome,“ Selye says that there is a natural “alarm phase” which is triggered whenever we get close to the threshold in dealing with the stuff of life. This sets up a physical process (interaction of the brain chemicals serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine and melatonin) that is automatic and brings the body back to the baseline (called the “resistance phase”). If this is not done, then the “breakdown phase” begins.
Some people have high thresholds for handling stress; others have low ones. And, unless we stay within our natural God-given parameters, we can push our bodies into the burnout phase. That’s what happened to me 50 years ago.
The primary cause for burnout is unrealistic expectations, both those we place on ourselves, and those we allow others to place on us. Living into these expectations, which are often unconscious, results in burnout by exhausting the body’s natural defense line of knowing that “too much is too much.” Overwork without sufficient rest is the result. (It should be noted that being under-challenged can also contribute to high stress, with the result being what is dubbed “rust out.” But this is also attributed to inner stress.)
Here are the classic signs of approaching burnout:
– Cognitive function slows down: We are not able to think clearly for long periods of time; the mind just seems to be mush.
– Sense of helplessness and hopelessness: the sense that “nothing will work,” a loss of hope. This thinking is the single most debilitating factor in battling stress.
– Regression to a more comfortable behavior experienced in the past: We often ignore important tasks, and are indifferent to significant relationships.
– Become locked into destructive patterns of thinking and behaving: A spiral downward.
– Depression: mild to moderate, often unrecognized.
– Physical illness (not attributed to a “medical” condition): colds, ulcers, headaches, backaches, nausea, weakened resistance system, etc.
The characteristics of people who are susceptible to burnout are those who:
– Over plan, perhaps reflecting a fear of not having enough to say or do;
– Have multiple thoughts and actions simultaneously;
– Have a high need to succeed (as the individual defines it for himself/herself);
– Have a desire to be recognized (often masked in surface humility);
– Easily feel guilty when there is no real cause for it;
– Are inordinately impatient with interruptions or delays; overextend in taking on more responsibilities than their threshold will allow;
– Have a sense of time urgency (“This must be done now!”);
– Exhibit an excessive competitive drive (“I must be the best!”);
– And have a tendency to be a workaholic.
If there is “bunching” of the symptoms, it is time to take stock of one’s way of dealing with life. Studies suggest that there are only two ways of dealing with stress in order to avoid burnout. One has to do with deliberate efforts to reduce stressors by recognizing that the threshold is being pushed and making a conscious decision to “cut back.” This works best when perspective and counsel from others is engaged. Making a decision to “cut back” is not easy, but it can and must be done.
The second way of avoiding burnout is increasing one’s tolerance level for handling stress. Here are the common, and proven, methods for doing this:
– Maintain an active devotional life: Read and reflect on Scripture, practice regular prayer, trust God in all things, even those that are frustrating or baffling.
– Hold fast to your original call from God. Trust God to continue to lead you.
– Take a sabbatical if needed: Time away from regular duties can be restorative in experiencing renewed vision and energy for the work of ministry.
– Deliberately seek out a “soul friend,” one with whom you can be totally honest and who can be a means of support in talking about your inner life and tasks of ministry.
– Work to secure a happy home life for you, your spouse and children. Family problems often contribute to high stress.
– Eat a healthy diet in order to maintain good health.
– Maintain purity of mind in selections of recreational reading, movies, TV, etc.
– Be intentional about taking a Sabbath day in doing things that restore the soul.Learn to laugh and enjoy life. “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov. 17:22).
– Have one or two hobbies that bring enjoyment and a change of focus from daily tasks, and be disciplined in pursuing the hobbies appropriately.
– Learn how to deal with conflict and do not avoid it when it happens.
This is not an exhaustive list, and in many ways is “what your mother taught you.” But research shows that practicing these behaviors can help to ward off burnout. The words of Richard Baxter in his classic work,The Reformed Pastor (1656), are relevant: “If you are burnt to the snuff [the end of the candle], you will go out with a stink.”
And, Robert Murray McCheyne, the early 19th century Scottish pastor who died at age 30, said to a dear friend as McCheyne lay on his deathbed, having “burnt himself to the snuff,” “The Lord gave me a message to deliver and a horse to deliver it with [by which he meant his body, not a literal horse], but, alas, I have killed the horse and can no longer deliver the message.” Burnout can be avoided. It must be avoided. Not doing so exacts a high price.
Dr. Kenneth L. Swetland is Senior Professor of Ministry. Since joining Gordon-Conwell in 1972, he has served in a number of capacities, including Professor of Ministry, Academic Dean and Campus Pastoral Counselor. Now working part-time, he counsels pastors through the seminary’s Oasis program and has taught in a D.Min track. He has been a pastor and chaplain in various New England churches, and a psychotherapist for several counseling centers on Boston’s North Shore. He is ordained in the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference