Understanding Pastoral Burnout Part 2
by Ivan Williams
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.”[i]
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.”[ii] 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.”[iii]
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.[iv] 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.[v] 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.”[vi]
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.[vii]
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.”[viii] 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.[ix]
Rediger declares that after seeing and counseling many pastors who are burned out, he is able describe what the burnout syndrome looks like in pastors. Rediger describes the appearance of burned out pastors as:
Physically. Low energy. Weight change. Exhausted appearance. Significant change in sleep patterns. Motor difficulties such as lack of coordination, tremors, twitches. Frequent headaches and gastric upset. Loss of sexual vigor. Hypochondriacal complaints.
Emotionally. Apathy. One - track mind and 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.[x]
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.[xi]
[i] Harold D. Scott, “Personal Reflections on Pastoral Burnout,” D.Min. thesis, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1994, 19.
[iii] John A. Sanford, Ministry Burnout (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 1.
[iv] William H. Willimon, Clergy and Laity Burnout (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 25.
[vi] Ibid. 25-26.
[vii] Faulkner, 38-39.
[viii] Rediger, Coping with Clergy Burnout, 13.
[ix] Ibid., 15.
[x] Ibid., 15-16.