Another short gem from Thom Rainer, this one based on his “autopsies” of pastors whose ministries – and persons – were rendered “mission incapable” by their inability to cope with the cumulative pressures of parish life. Please note that only two of the factors: serving dysfunctional parishes and being poorly remunerated (and possibly #9, failure to take a sabbatical) are under the direct control OF THE PASTOR. This is not to say that those two are less important than the others (in fact, when they are present they serve as catalysts on the others, magnifying their negative effects; conversely, pastors can get away with bad habits for a while if they serve healthy parishes that pay them well), but to point out that we have much more control over our spiritual health and the quality of our ministries than we often assume. This can be empowering.***
The acquisition of the Holy Spirit does not only allow us to assist in the salvation of all those around us (to paraphrase St. Saraphim of Sarov): it promises us the kind of peace that is immune to external threats. The cultivation of our families, Bible study, prayer, skill development, empathy, and time away are all part of The Way to that kind of peace.
*** Pastors of healthy parishes should be very cautious when giving advice to (much less judging!!!) those who serve dysfunctional parishes; there really are situations that are so toxic that the only solution is for the minister to leave before he and his family are themselves poisoned by them. Alas, some waited too long. See the comments to Thom Rainer’s articles for examples. Remember that healthy priests are a truncated sample and their experiences cannot be generalized (as are burned-out ones; as such, this article is only suggestive).
Perhaps the autopsy metaphor is not the best choice. After all, the person is not deceased. But the pastor who is burned out feels like life is draining out. Unfortunately, I have spoken with too many pastors for whom burnout is a reality or a near reality.
What lessons can we learn from those pastors who burned out? Allow me to share 13 lessons I have learned from those who have met this fate. They are in no particular order.
- The pastor would not say “no” to requests for time. Being a short-term people pleaser became a longer-term problem.
- The pastor had no effective way to deal with critics. I plan to deal with this issue more in the future. What types of systems do effective leaders put in place to deal with criticisms so they respond when necessary, but don’t deplete their emotional reservoirs?
- The pastor served a dysfunctional church. Any pastor who leads a church that remains dysfunctional over a long period of time is likely headed toward burnout.
- The pastor did little or no physical exercise. I understand this dilemma, because I have been there in the recent past.
- The pastor did not have daily Bible time. I continue to be amazed, but not surprised, how this discipline affects our spiritual health, our emotional health, and our leadership ability.
- The pastor’s family was neglected. “If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5, HCSB).
- The pastor rarely took a day off. No break in the routine and demands of pastoring is a path for burnout.
- The pastor rarely took a vacation. Again, the issues are similar to the failure to take a day off.
- The pastor never took a sabbatical. After several years of the intense demands of serving a church, a sabbatical of a few weeks is critical to the emotional, spiritual, and physical health of a pastor.
- The pastor never learned effective relational and leadership skills. When that is the case, conflict and weak vocational performance are inevitable. That, in turn, leads to burnout.
- The pastor was negative and argumentative. Negativity and an argumentative spirit drain a pastor. That negativity can be expressed in conversations, sermons, blogs, or any communication venue. Argumentative pastors are among the first to experience burnout.
- The pastor was not a continuous learner. Pastors who fail to learn continuously are not nearly as energized as those who do. Again, this disposition can lead to burnout.
- The pastor was not paid fairly. Financial stress can lead to burnout quickly. I will address this issue again in my next post.
Many pastors are leaving ministry because they have experienced burnout. Many others are just on the edge of burnout. Pastors need our continuous support and prayers. And they themselves need to avoid the thirteen issues noted here.