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Ivan Williams, Sr., D Min, is the NAD Ministerial Director and a United States Air Force Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) in the Maryland Air National Guard. Ivan’s doctorate project-dissertation dealt with pastoral burnout and renewal in Seventh-day Adventist ministry. Ivan and Kathleen, his wife, have two children, Imani and Ivan II.
Understanding Pastoral Burnout (pdf)
Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness, and hold such men in esteem;
because for the work of Christ he came close to death, not regarding his life,
to supply what was lacking in your service toward me.
Philippians 2:29,30 NKJV

Burnout is not a term or phenomenon that is new to contemporary times, but it is a recurring issue in the work of the ministry, and therefore needs to be addressed.
  • What causes burnout? 
  • What about the work of pastoral ministry causes ministers to burn out?
  • What spiritual solutions or practical steps, if any, can be taken to prevent burnout?
  • Is there any hope of renewal for the pastor experiencing burnout? 
  • Can passion and zeal for ministry be rekindled?
Do not be discouraged if you do not have the answers on your own, but continue to read on
and you will find the answers.

In Webster’s New Ninth Collegiate Dictionary, burnout is defined as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength.”[i]   Ralph Douglas Haynes in his thesis entitled “An Outline of Clergy Depression with Suggested Procedures and Strategies for Healing,” reflects on three illustrations of the use of the word burnout by referring to the devastation of a fire.  These three illustrations are exemplified as: a burned building gutted by a devastating fire; a circuit breaker overloaded and blown, no longer able to carry currents; and lastly, a forest devastated by fire, unable to restore itself.

Reflecting on an empty building gutted by a devastating fire, Haynes observes that burnout is like an empty shell with nothing left but walls.  In comparison, the burned out individual feels empty, having all internal resources burned away with nothing left to offer in ministry but external manifestations. This is the act of simply going through the motions, without emotion or passion for the work of the ministry. He suggests that this may be the result of emptiness.[ii] 

By nature, the job of pastors requires that they give of their time; it is a helping profession.  In order to continue giving and helping, pastors must be recharged and renewed personally. This can be done through participation in non-work related activities, vacations, physical exercise, relaxation, and through the spiritual rekindling of their own personal walk with God.  I have found interpersonal reflection and self-disclosure to trusted colleagues to have greatly helped me along my pastoral journey. Admittedly, without addressing the internal person, the pastor simply will function externally; practicing a ministry that is hollow and empty.

 Haynes also compares burnout to destructively high temperatures that have caused electrical circuits to overload and blow, causing all circuit breakers to melt the electrical wires, and making them incapable of carrying any currents. Here the person who experiences burnout is left helpless to continue functioning in a normal manner. The circuits are gone, and they can no longer expend the energy necessary for the task, but they continue on. Haynes suggests, that by the person pressing on, he/she may be in a state of helplessness.[iii]

Many Adventist pastors find themselves trapped in this vicious cycle of continuing on in ministry with nothing more to give. They really wish that they could leave pastoral ministry, but because of educational training, years in service, and the fear of financial loss they remain in ministry. They have no creative ideas to give, no visions for direction to render, and no desire to emphasize mission. They continue on because it is all that they know, and it is all that they have been trained to do. Many remain in ministry years after the passion has dissipated, simply because of their fear of not being able go find other employment and of being perceived as a failure. Others remain in pastoral ministry because they personally believe that to leave is to forsake their calling by God.

Lastly, Haynes sees burnout as relating to a forest fire so intense that it destroys everything, including the life giving humus, leaving the forest without the capacity to restore itself.  Haynes equates this with a sense of hopelessness within the pastor.[iv]  Some pastors leave ministry never to return.  Some even become so disillusioned that they leave the church of their denomination.  Intense ministry for the Adventist pastor must be followed up with intense debriefing and deliberate efforts of seeking help. It is very important that pastors get help along their pastoral journey and long before this stage in their work.

Burnout is therefore defined as a multi-faceted experiential feeling of exhaustion. It is felt physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It drives the pastor to care for nothing and even robs the desire to be cared for. It causes feelings of negativity and feelings of numbness, and may lead to depression.[v] Burnout as described in these patterns of experiences and characteristics involves the body, mind, and spirit,[vi] which equals the total person.  Because burnout is real in pastoral ministry, so is  the renewal and recovery from it. Renewal from pastoral burnout is essential to the hope and assurance of those called to ministry in times of ever - increasing demands.

Understanding pastoral burnout and its symptoms is crucial in its recognition.  Otherwise, as Harold Scott says, “pastors who are experiencing a degree of burnout may actually encounter the term and related discussion, but make no connection to their own personal situation.”[vii]

Gary Collins, a professor of pastoral counseling and psychology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, expressed this importance by stating, “burnout is a common – though often unrecognized – condition of Christian people-helpers.”[viii] Recognition is important because if burnout remains unrecognized, it will continue to damage and destroy the vision, vitality, and zeal of the pastor.  In 1982 John A. Sanford wrote that burnout had become enough of a problem that it attracted the attention of professionals like behavioral scientists, who identified certain typical symptoms of the condition of burnout as “difficulty in sleeping; somatic complaints such as weight loss, lack of interest in food, headaches and gastro-intestinal disturbances; a chronic tiredness of the sort that is not repaired by sleep or ordinary rest and only temporarily alleviated by vacations; low-grade, persistent depression; and a nagging boredom.”[ix]
I agree with William H. Willimon’s perspective on workers in the church that appear to be burned out. He does not necessarily see church workers burned out from overwork, as much as from their being overburdened with the trivial and the unimportant.[x] He also suggests that burnout comes when our commitment dissipates and the smallest tasks like visiting prospective church members, attending board meetings, and filling out evangelism reports become drudgery.[xi] For Willimon, in the world of work, burnout occurs when energy is expended without fuel being added. In his opinion, “The fuel that supplies the energy to minister as clergy or lay ministers is a conviction that what we do has meaning. Energy to stay committed arises out of meaningful attachments. When we no longer find meaning in what we do, even the smallest action drains us. Burnout is the result of a lack of meaning.”[xii]

Brooks Faulkner, describing burnout in pastors professional lives states,

“At its very worst, burnout occurs when there is really nothing that the person cares about.  He goes to his work without any symptoms of optimism. Negative feelings consume the thought processes. He feels depressed. He doesn’t really want to be around the people he works with, but the strange part of it is he doesn’t want to be away from people all that much either. Nothing satisfies his wants and needs. He feels torn apart. He begins to treat people in a dehumanizing way. They are simply a necessary part of getting through the day. Compassion is difficult if not impossible.

He feels put down by others. He feels put upon by persons who seek favors or who want something from him. He begins to feel so used that he suspects others only do him favors for what they can get out of him at a later time.[xiii]

This description is an excellent example of the condition called burnout, because it gives us a much better understanding of how far this problem can go in the life of a pastor. The potential of burnout must be faced and addressed in the everyday life of the Adventist church pastor.  Therefore, it is necessary for pastors to implement measures of prevention and communicate openly to their congregations about delegating in ministry. This will help to bring awareness to this issue.

G. Lloyd Rediger suggests that burnout is a “version of the depressive syndrome, but it is unusual enough to require specialized attention and treatment.”[xiv] Some signs of burnout include increased irritability or becoming easily annoyed and distracted, losing enthusiasm for ministry tasks, and complaining about not being appreciated. Other signs include sporadic efforts such as the increase of days filled with highs and lows. For example, going all out on one task and failing to complete the next task without reason. Another advanced sign of burnout is hostility and cynicism, which alternates without any apparent reason. One may appear mean and mad one day, and sweet and jovial the next day. Still other signs include a deterioration of physical appearance, an attitude of sullen withdrawal, being less tolerant of criticism or advice, becoming one tracked, mentally focusing on one thing for hours, and losing all sense of humor.[xv]

Rediger declares that after seeing and counseling many pastors who are burned out, he is able to describe what the burnout syndrome looks like in pastors. Rediger describes the appearance of burned out pastors as follows:

Physically  *  low energy  *  weight change  *  exhausted appearance  *  significant change in sleep patterns  * motor difficulties such as lack of coordination  *  tremors, twitches  *  frequent headaches  *  gastric upset loss of sexual vigor  *  hypochondriac complaints.

Emotionally  *  apathy  *  one-track mind  *  loss of creativity  *  paranoid obsessions  *  constant irritability  constant worrying  *  loss of humor or development of gallows humor  *  sporadic efforts to act as if everything is back to normal  *  complaints of loneliness  *  Inability to be playful or become interested in diversionary activities  *  excessive crying  *  random thought patterns and inability to concentrate hopelessness.

Spiritually  *  significant changes in moral behavior  *  drastic changes in theological statements 
*  loss of prayer and meditational disciplines  *  development of moral judgmentalism  *  loss of faith in God and themselves  *  one-track preaching and teaching  *  listless and perfunctory performance of clergy role duties  *  loss of joy and celebration in spiritual endeavors   
*  cynicism.[xvi] 
These characteristics, as Rediger suggests, are seldom all seen in one person, but the burned out person will exemplify a combination of two or more from each of the categories.  Having some of these characteristics does not necessarily indicate burnout, because persons who are discouraged, tired, or even bored may indicate these, but it is the combination of these characteristics with depth and pervasiveness that signals burnout.  Burnout is the exhaustion of resources, not just being tired, discouraged, or cynical.[xvii]

[i]    Webster’s New Ninth Collegiate Dictionary, s.v.  “burnout.”
[ii]   Ralph Douglas Haynes, “An Outline of Clergy Depression with Suggested Procedures and Strategies  
        for Healing,”  D.Min. thesis., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1986, 138.
[iii]   Ibid., 138-39.
[iv]   Ibid., 139.
v]      Brooks Faulkner, Burnout in Ministry  (Nashville:  Broadman Press, 1981), 38-39.
vi]     G. Lloyd Rediger, Coping with Clergy Burnout (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1982), 18.
[vii]   Harold D. Scott,  “Personal Reflections on Pastoral Burnout,” D.Min. thesis,  Fuller Theological     
        Seminary, 1994, 19.
[viii]  Ibid.
[ix]    John A. Sanford,  Ministry Burnout  (New York:  Paulist Press, 1982), 1.
[x]     William H. Willimon,  Clergy and Laity Burnout  (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989), 25.
[xi]   Ibid.
[xii]   Ibid. 25-26.
[xiii]  Faulkner, 38-39.
[xiv]  Rediger, Coping with Clergy Burnout, 13. 
[xv]   Ibid., 15.
[xvi]  Ibid., 15-16.
[xvii] Ibid.