Theology of Joy
6/20/14 at 04:48 PM 0 Comments

Preventing Ministerial Burnout, Part 1

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by John A. Studebaker, Ph.D.

Did you realize that Pastors are real human beings, too? Ok, so this question was a rather poor attempt at dry humor (what do you expect from a theology professor?). However, it brings up a rather serious point. We often expect Pastors to be "superhuman" in some way. If a Pastor internalizes this expectation, they are likely setting themselves up for failure. The typical result, which has now reached epidemic proportions, is what many are referring to as "ministerial burnout." What is this, and how can Pastors recognize it, prevent it, and if need be overcome it? Such is the subject of the following two-part article.


H.B. London and Neil Wiseman's groundbreaking books Pastors At Risk (Victor Books, 1993) and Pastors at Greater Risk (Regal, 2003) expose the burnout epidemic experienced amongst a large portion of today's professional ministers in the USA. It lists the following statistics:

  • 90% of Pastors work more than 46 hours a week
  • 80% believe the pastoral ministry affects their family negatively
  • 50% feel unable to meet the needs of their job
  • 90% feel unqualified or poorly prepared for ministry.
  • 33% confess to an inappropriate sexual relationship with someone in the church
  • 40% of pastors and 47% of spouses are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and/or unrealistic expectations
  • 80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with their spouse.
  • 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend
  • 33% felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.
  • 1,500 pastors leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.
  • 57% would leave the pastorate if they had somewhere else to go or some other vocation they could do.
  • 75% report severe stress causing anguish, worry, bewilderment, anger, depression, fear, and alienation.
  • 45% of pastors say that they've experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry

So, it appears that those who have been entrusted with our spiritual vitality are themselves struggling with their own spiritual--and personal--vitality. Though the statistics above expose the symptoms of this massive problem, we need to define burnout more precisely. In doing so we will begin to understand its root causes. Our vision is not only for Pastors to prevent or recover from burnout but to begin living a high quality-of-life--which (in my opinion) is their greatest asset in ministry.


We have all experienced "burnout" in some area of life at some point in time. A common definition is provided by Doug Sherman: “A state of physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional exhaustion caused by extended and intense levels of stress, causing the body to overproduce adrenaline. It leads to the questioning of one's abilities and/or the value of one's work" (Sherman, Pastor Burnout Workbook). Burnout occurs when one area of life becomes so strained that it begins to impact several other areas of life. Research has shown that "burnout" is a whole-life issue and must be addressed by attending to one's entire humanity. According to Harbaugh, who surveyed 144 theological seminary students, "Research suggests that those who attempt to deal with stress by intervening in only one of the dimensions of life, e.g., the physical, rarely find a long range solution to the problem. The rate of relapse into old ways and habits is remarkably high. . . [A] more appropriate response to stress requires attention to all the dimensions of our humanness: physical, mental, emotional, and social" (Gary Harbaugh, "Pastoral Burnout: A View from the Seminary," The Journal of Pastoral Care, Vol. XXXVIII, 1984). This is quite enlightening. Burnout, as it turns out, as a depletion of our sense of humanness--and perhaps areas of our hummanness that those in professional ministry might consider "less spiritual", such as the emotional, physical, or social areas of our lives.


As noted in the above definition, there are variety of kinds of burnout. These would include:

  1. Physical burnout. Dr. Archibald Hart, former professor of psychology, comments on the close relationship between adrenaline and stress: "Post-adrenaline depression' seems to be the most descriptive term I've found. Most Pastors expect it on Monday, after a demanding Sunday when they have a long, continuous and heavy adrenaline strain." If not managed properly, such strain over time can easily lead to burnout. According to Hart, "In burnout, the victim becomes demoralized and knows things aren't going right. He begins to lose the vision he had for ministry. He loses hope. A burnout out disengages from the main task. And a state of crushing discouragement--almost despair--sets in. Demoralization is a good way to summarize it" (London and Wiseman, Pastors at Greater Risk, 174).
  2. Spiritual burnout. Surprisingly, professional ministry can be detrimental to one's spiritual vitality. Former pastor Daniel Sherman states, "Burnout is a state of spiritual exhaustion. The pastorate rubs a person’s spiritual life raw. The pastor is constantly giving and giving. It’s been said that the pastorate is the best place for one to lose one’s spirituality. That’s simply because of the law of supply and demand. People demand more than a pastor can give. He gives out faster than he can take in himself. Eventually this catches up to him and his spiritual life gets depleted" (Sherman, Pastor Burnout Workbook). As a result, the pastor needs a specific, intentional plan for avoiding burnout and for staying spiritually fresh. This includes not only regular times of devotions but also extended periods set aside for contemplation, reflection, prayer, re-evaluation, refocusing, and goal-setting.
  3. Social/Marital/Relational burnout. London and Wiseman list 14 danger zones for the marriages of those in professional ministry, including sexual temptation, suffering children, lack of emotional support and affirmation, guilt for family time, and emotional separation (Pastors at Greater Risk, 90). The constant demand to meet the variety of needs of those outside the immediate family, along with a lack of strong boundaries, becomes an automatic set-up for a strained marriage and family.
  4. Emotional burnout. This often occurs in conjunction with one of the other areas, but is especially accompanied by a loss of "margin." Dr. Richard Swenson has written the popular book Margin (Navpress, 2004). Without "margin" we experience a depletion of our emotional reserves. We lose the ability to deeply feel those things about which we are most concerned, such as our relationship with God, the needs of our families, our own pain and grieving, etc.

Other factors may also contribute to burnout, including a lack of exercise and proper nutrition, insufficient mentoring, false expectations regarding ministerial "success," unconfessed sin or unresolved bitterness.

Any one of these kinds of burnout will likely result in a lack of time to develop or maintain the sense of a quality life. As mentioned above, the bottom line regarding burnout is that the victim experiences a lack of time and energy to develop and maintain one's most important ministry attribute: a high quality of life. Such a lifestyle includes time to rest, time to reflect on one's life and choices, time to evaluate and analyze one's values in light of everyday issues and relationships, time for family and genuine friendships, time to exercise and maintain good nutrition, and especially time to grow in and enjoy one's relationship with God.

(Part 2 will address my own story with burnout along with solutions to the epidemic of burnout).

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