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Holy Burnout
The dynamics of a church along with the ungodly spiritual forces that can operate in church settings, create an environment that leaves pastors particularly vulnerable to burnout.

When Rev. Harold Scott took his car to the mechanic for repair, the mechanic analyzed the problem and said to Scott, "Your starter is burned out. You need a new one."

"It's a totally different dynamic than the workplace, and this makes church situations prone to create burnout."

When the mechanic explained how a burned-out starter burns out slowly over time, he immediately recognized the parallels with his own life. Scott had recently resigned from planting a church because he realized he was burned out (see related article Beyond Burnout). "I had to remove myself from the crucible of ministry," said Scott.

At the front lines of the care giving business are pastors who are experiencing burnout in record numbers, says Archibald Hart, who has spent the better part of his career ministering to and teaching pastors. Each month he meets with a group of pastors somewhere in Canada or the United States to address issues of stress, burnout and personal care.

"The church vocations have the highest people intensity, and are unique because they're made up of volunteers," says Hart. "It's a totally different dynamic than the workplace, and this makes church situations prone to create burnout."

Churches contribute to clergy burnout in four ways, says Hart:

  1. Unclear and unrealistic expectations. When a pastor moves to a new church, he or she should explore goals and a detailed job description, says Hart. Many pastors operate in a vacuum.

  2. Double messages. "You're not the boss; we are," is the attitude of many churches now, says Hart. But when things go wrong, the pastor is to blame. "There was a time when pastors were the authority," said Hart. "Now there is a crisis of authority in which the pastor is not clear where the authority lies."

  3. Idolization and criticism. "There's a strange phenomenon in which church people idolize their pastor, put him on a pedestal, but keep wanting to pull him off," said Hart. When the pastor's not perfect, congregants become disillusioned.

  4. Removal of resources and support. Hart documented a preacher who was sick for several weeks and was informed by the treasurer that he would not be paid for those weeks because he had not been able to fill the pulpit.

"There isn't a commitment to support the pastor unconditionally," said Hart. "This alarms me."

In his book Holy Burnout, Steve Roll, a pastor, uses his personal experience with burnout to identify six "unholy spirits" in the church that contribute to burnout: The "spirit of rebellion" among people who resist spiritual authority; the "spirit of offence" among people who are easily offended and willing to believe the worst about the pastor and others in the church; the "spirit of criticism"; the "spirit of bitterness"; and, most problematic, the "spirit of control."

"Pastors are being forced out of churches because of ill-defined concepts such as 'administrative differences' and 'leadership styles,' " said Roll. "Actually these are all smoke screens and cover-ups for political power plays."

Pastors also contribute to their own burnout, adds Hart, by taking responsibility for things they shouldn't, for example. They also lack training in dealing with conflict.

Lyle Larson, former University of Alberta sociologist and author of the report Clergy Families in Canada, prepared for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, adds that there are unique factors to clergy life that contribute to burnout. "Ministry is a demanding life; finances are minimal and expectations are high: God expects a lot of them, their churches expect a lot of them, and they expect a lot of themselves. It makes burnout a more likely occasion."

Wounded and weary pastors often bail out of ministry or are forced out by their churches with alarming frequency. Hart claims that the average pastor has tenure of one year and ten months. Who else changes jobs that often? he asks.

Most burnout could be avoided by addressing several issues, argues Hart. "We need a healthier theology of compassion where pastors should minister out of sympathy, not empathy. They can't bear that much hurt.

"We need a healthier theology of success and failure. Sometimes failure is God's plan; some would even say there is no such thing as failure, only forced growth.

"And we need a theology of self-care and support. Most clergy feel guilty taking time off, and they don't have an adequate support system. When pastors have a support group, the likelihood of burnout is dramatically decreased."

"Ministry engulfs pastors. They need to set boundaries and be who they really are."

A strong support system of fellow pastors and friends who will make the pastor accountable is of vital importance. Pastors are encouraged to develop hobbies and outside interests that allow for personal time, space and creativity. Pastors must also set boundaries on family time, recreation time and vacation time. And they need to insist on clear, mutually agreed-upon job descriptions with realistic expectations.

"A major part of it is the failure to detach from the ministry assignment and to enjoy lifelike a normal person," said Scott. "Ministry engulfs pastors. They need to set boundaries and be who they really are."

Scott has recently returned to minister at a Free Methodist church in Calgary and has made a number of changes to avoid a recurrence of burnout.

"I feel the challenge and call to ministry, but I don't take myself so seriously anymore," said Scott. "There's a lack of intensity. I realize God's kingdom will be built with or without me. I make decisions differently, conscious of the issue of balance. I want to enjoy life."

Richelle Wiseman is a writer in Calgary, AB.

Originally published in Faith Today, May/June 1998.




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