You are responsible for your pastor’s burnout

Burnout is not and has never been an individual’s problem. From the very beginning of the use of the term burnout by Freudenberger in the late 1970’s and Maslach in the 1980’s it has been seen as a problem that is created by workplace conditions and characteristics of the work role. This NZ mental health awareness week we need to start a thorough discussion about the burnout of our pastors and church ministry workers.

Burnout is a response to chronic workplace stress and is characterised by five main responses or symptoms.

  1. Exhaustion
  2. Cynicism, and a general inability to feel. This is often accompanied by a loss of empathy for the people you are working with.
  3. Feelings of being ineffective and/or reduced productivity.
  4. Trouble concentrating, or feelings of brain fog.
  5. Christian workers often experience spiritual struggles, drought and feelings of distance from God.

We all know that it has been a rough couple of years in the global pandemic and it has been very rough on our clergy and church staff. Barna group report that 42 % of the US pastors they surveyed had considered quitting in the last 12 months. While we don’t know that the primary reason for quitting is burnout, the rising number of pastors who wish to quit is still something that we should be concerned about. I am expecting burnout to increase in church and ministry staff over the next few months as we move out of the just getting by phase of the global pandemic and the true impact begins to hit.

As church members, vestry members, and church committee members it is our responsibility to ensure that the workplace conditions and structures that our church staff work within promote and support their health and thriving. Maslach and her colleague’s research identified six important characteristics of the workplace that were associated with increased rates of burnout.

  • Too much work and role ambiguity.
  • Too little control.
  • Insufficient Reward.
  • Lack of Community and connection.
  • Absence of Fairness.
  • Values conflicts.

As I review these workplace conditions that make burnout more likely I am struck by how they are common characteristics of how work is set up for our pastors and church ministry workers. As we develop an awareness of these factors we are able to make changes that can support the thriving of our pastors and ministry staff.

Too much work.
As the number of people regularly attending church drop, the demands for the pastors to do more increase. This is already coupled with a workload that can be unpredictable given the sudden nature of pastoral care needs. We recruit pastors with visions for how to expand and grow our congregations and facilitate people’s spiritual growth. This creates a feeling that their work is never done, they may struggle with feelings that there is always more they could be doing, more they dream of doing. Another key factor in workload is role ambiguity, which is when the outcomes and tasks of the role are not clearly defined. A factor of role ambiguity that frequently occurs in our ministry staff is a lack of clarity around when they are working or not working. For example, when a pastor is taking their 7-year-old to the birthday party of one of the child’s church friends are they working or not working? The boundaries of work and non-work for roles that include relationship building as a key part of their focus are very unclear and lead to a lot of ambiguity and tension.

There are actions that we can take to support pastors in this area. The leadership team (or key authority in the employment relationship) should create very clear and explicit expectations around hours worked, the major priorities and focuses for the pastor’s time and the outcomes that they value. The pastors and church ministry workers should be encouraged to put in place clear boundaries around the hours that they are available and the hours that they are not working each week. The oversight committee should also communicate these clearly and regularly to church members so that they are also clearly informed about the priorities and focus of each role. Complaints from the congregation to the Pastor or Church staff about what he or she hasn’t done are common and demoralising. Those in oversight roles should do all they can to protect the staff from these and to help the staff manage their responses to the complaints.

Too little control.
The pastor may control their daily activities and priorities. But depending on how the church is structured they often have very little control over the direction and priorities of the church. Sometimes even their ability to make critical decisions is hampered by the structures of committees and approvals that are necessary to change direction or start new initiatives. Conflicting demands are also a source of the depletion and stress involved in burnout, they are a common experience for pastors and ministry workers, who can feel pulled in many directions at once.

To support your pastor and ministry workers in this area ensure that you have thorough discussions with them exploring their feelings about responsibility and decision making and establishing what guidance they require. It may be helpful to explore areas in which they are feeling hampered or held back by having to work with and through committees. Consider whether the staff may be experiencing conflicting demands coming from different sections (factions?) of the church. Support the workers to communicate their focus and priorities in ways that reduce conflicting demands.

Insufficient Reward.
It is easy to take it for granted that we are not paying pastors or church staff the big salaries of jobs in corporate, we all know that it is a call and money is not a primary motivation for this work. Yet when did you last ask your pastoral staff (especially in Auckland) if they are experiencing financial stress because of this. Perhaps they are experiencing things like being invited on a holiday or out to a restaurant with old friends and are not able to accept because of the difference in salaries. It is important to assess how their financial position is impacting their relationships. Reward is not just about finances however, reward is also about feeling valued, appreciated and acknowledged for the work given. Reward is about seeing and celebrating your successes. This is particularly hard for church staff given that our mindset is still to celebrate numbers, yet attendance is falling in most mainline churches.

Pastors and ministry workers at this time in particular need help and encouragement to see and celebrate what they have done well. When did you last thank your pastor for all they have been doing? Our churches or ministries often have vague or unclear ideas of what success is. Although we say it is not about the numbers, there are so many factors and comments and structures that make it about the numbers. Putting time into getting a clear idea of what success means for your church will help in this age of declining attendance, involvement and capacity.

Lack of Community and Connection.
Relationships are a key factor in resilience and wellbeing. A great sense of community, connection and collaboration in the workplace helps prevent burnout. Yet many of our church staff feel like they are going it alone, and report isolation and loneliness as some of their key struggles. The pandemic and vaccine mandates have caused divisions and conflict in many congregations. Pastors and ministry staff have had to play a role in supporting and managing people through these polarising times. The boundaries that pastors and ministry staff are encouraged to create with the congregations that they lead can also contribute to the sense of loneliness and isolation that many pastors experience. It is time that we challenged the model of sole clergy in charge of a congregation as a healthy model for churches or staff. Creating teams of clergy creates the opportunity for relationships and teams that many of our pastors long for.

Having a workplace where everyone’s needs are acknowledged and where each person is sufficiently resourced to do the job and management is seen to listen well and deal fairly with employees is important in preventing burnout. Fairness is also related to trust fair systems build trust between different levels of the organisation. A key ingredient to fairness is respect, everyone is able to present their arguments and is treated with respect.

Sometimes I wonder if we really respect our pastors and ministry workers. Their work is very visible and everyone in the congregation feels entitled to offer their opinions, criticism and judgements on what the pastor does, says and is doing. This can result in them feeling unfairly criticised and unsupported in their work.

Values conflicts are a huge source of stress, distress and burnout in ministry workers. These occur on so many levels, disagreements about spiritual convictions, theology, missiology or just the constant battle against ‘but that’s the way we have always done things.” It is common for churches to claim that they embrace and tolerate diversity. But often I observe that they lack the relational skills to do that well. Translating and framing core beliefs and values into expected actions and behaviours helps to reduce the gaps that can occur in different people’s understanding of values and belief statements. Teaching our congregations conflict resolution, dialogue, theology and listening skills can assist with our ability to reduce conflict in our congregations.

The responsibility to introduce change rests on those of us on the committees and leadership teams of our churches. We can review and revise our systems, procedures and structures to ensure that our pastors and church ministry staff are receiving the care and nurture that they need to thrive.

I have briefly introduced some ideas but I am sure you have some great ideas too. How are you introducing systems and structures that support your pastors and ministry staff to thrive?



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