Burned-out Pastors: Some Questions
These are good questions! The responses are 'off the top of my head: they're
not exhaustive, by any means. (I'll omit your name and change a few spellings
when I put this on to my homepage):
[A theological student] wrote:
I have drafted some questions to ask you:
1. What do you think are the reasons of burnout?
It's a mismatch between expectations and reality; between emotional input and
Now why the mismatches? Usually something to do with family-of-origin deficits
in terms of unconditional love, a sense of belonging, and a tendency towards
competitiveness to prove one's worth...
Lifestyle issues (rest, sleep, realist goals, exercise, self-awareness etc.
etc. are, I believe, secondary though important factors...)
2. In terms of personality traits, demands of church and pastor's family
developmental needs, how do you think about their contribution to burnout?
Both as individual factors and collective ?
Type A/B/C people have different rates of burnout: Type A's are prime
candidates for stress (as distinct from burnout) but all three types are prone
to burnout... Yes, family pressures are important (some pastors' spouses feel
their partners are bigamous: married to them and to the church!). And in terms
of job-pressures, it's difficult for many pastors to 'switch off' - they
always have the feeling they're on call (and on show!)
3. Clinically speaking, are there two types or more of burnout ? Or a burnout
is a burnout ? - or acute and chronic or more? If so, then how do you tell an
acute burnout from a chronic one?
I'm not sure about the difference between acute and chronic... I'd prefer to
differentiate between stress (often associated with trying to do too much) and
burnout (trying to _be_ too much to too many people). The relevant articles on
our website draw out the distinctions here.
4. How would you counsel a burnout pastor? What are the steps would you take?
What are the key issues would you look into?
First, lots of talking. The pastor needs to be reassured that they're O.K.,
that their experiences are not unusual. I'd prefer to do a 'whole-of-life'
retreat with the pastor, so that I can focus on that person's history etc.
without any interruptions, and put all of their childhood, adolescent and
adult key experiences into a focussed whole. They do a fair bit of journaling:
the 19 questions on our website -
http://www.pastornet.net.au/jmm/ajmm/ajmm0010.htm provides a good
Re lifestyle issues: almost all burned out pastors have these attributes:
irregular if any days off; highly sensitive to negative feedback; somewhat
workaholic; driven to prove their worth through 'success'; sleep problems;
irritability/anger episodes; loss of a disciplined, rewarding devotional life;
they have difficulty, say, reading for pleasure (as distinct from reading for
sermon illustrations), etc. etc.
5. Is counseling for burned-out pastors different from counseling other
professionals - say a lawyer/doctor/teacher? If so, why ? and what are the
Yes: the other professions have some in-built rewards (monetary, holidays,
etc.) or a more clear-cut/ tangible job description. A problem with pastoral
ministry is its intangibility: it's difficult to measure if you're getting
anywhere. There's also the guilt associated with a slack devotional life in
many pastors. And, as one writer (I forget who) defined stress: 'It's what you
need in addition to God.'
6. In terms of the call to ministry, how should a burned-out pastor handle
this? Is the call a permanent one?
Anglicans and Catholics would say 'yes' to the issue of being a 'priest for
life'. Every person is called to ministry; some are called to _pastoral_
ministry. But these days almost no-one is called to the same job for life. And
indeed, the apostles had varied ministries: sometimes Paul was a settled
'pastor-teacher' (in Ephesus), sometimes wandering around provoking others!
All that said, the tragedy for many pastors is that they cannot reconcile
'call' with anything but a pastoral ministry. I have to say to so many after
they've left the pastorate: there's life after pastoral ministry! There are
other ministries! And very effective ones (where the phone doesn't ring
non-stop at nights too!).
7. Once burnt-out, is there any chance of recovery ?
How long at least would it take towards recovery ?
Depends on the person's willingness to seek help, and the degree to which they
have chronic factors associated with the burnout. A man whose father was
violent, for example, and whose family of origin was severely dysfunctional,
will sometimes 'come a cropper' in midlife when it all catches up with him. He
not only has a midlife crisis ('Is this all there is?') but after trying to
prove his worth by what he does well compared with how well his peers are
doing it, and failing, he has a whole of 'changing the tapes' to do. But it's
never too late to have a happy childhood!
What are the factors that decide the possibility of recovery ?
Mainly willingness to get help.
How do you define recovery ? Going back into ministry as to pursue that call?
Not necessarily. I'd say it's having a self-esteem score of 8-plus out of ten;
being content with one's self and one's present calling; enjoying life instead
of pushing it all uphill...
8. How should we educate churches and community to respond to burnout pastors
- both at the time of burnout and those who are recovered and intend to get
back into pastoral ministry ?
See the stuff on encouragement on our website!
Just love 'em, accept them, encourage them to find a small sharing group...
9. To a burned-out pastor, who is thinking of changing career yet all he/she
knows to do is the theological training he/she received in college and
practised all these years, what sort of career or job would you advise he/she
to switch to ?
I don't give this sort of advice, but help the person think through the
options for themselves. They have to own this sort of decision. Giving advice
is too much like playing God for my liking! That said, many ex-pastors do
welfare/chaplaincy work: helping people without the institution of the church
getting in the way. But others go into the construction business (where they
can see some tangible results from their work!)
10. Any other things you'd like to comment on the topic of counseling
burned-out pastors ?
Find a mentor. Do your family-of-origin stuff (see the case histories on our
website). Have a break. See a good counselor regularly. Read some good books.
Find a hobby or two. Enjoy your life: you'll never get out of it alive!
Written by Rowland Croucher, 1996.