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According to the New York Times, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”
Rates of burnout among pastors and church leaders are staggering. And most people would initially be surprised by this. After all, the life of a pastor seems serene and joyful. What could be more satisfying than doing the Lord’s work? What’s more fulfilling than shepherding a flock, witnessing sinners come to Christ and helping a congregation to grow in faith?
What people often don’t realize is that church leadership is more than showing up and giving a sermon on Sundays. It’s more than Bible study, baptizing babies and attending potlucks. It’s spiritual attack, theological dispute, interpersonal challenges within the staff and congregation, long hours and often low pay. What starts as stress and some mild anxiety can soon become full-blown burnout, putting the individual, as well as his or her family and congregation, at risk.
Why Burnout Happens To Pastors And Church Leaders
The reasons why pastors and church leaders find themselves in a perpetual state of high stress, depression and burnout are many. It often seems as if everything is conspiring against the individual in his or her work.
Here are some of the common contributors to pastor burnout:
No one will conspire to derail God’s work like the devil. He’ll use circumstances, difficult people, dissension, doubt and any variety of tactics to get you out of the work you’re doing or to divert you while you’re doing it. The more you seek to do God’s work and to walk in His will, the more intensely Satan will attack.
An American Mindset Around Work — Also Known As The “Protestant Work Ethic”
A Protestant work ethic and a very American mindset around work have seeped into the church. Pastors are treated more like CEOs of major corporations than shepherds of a flock. Working “normal” hours or taking time for rest, although biblical, is often seen as weak or lazy. Rather than “Be still and know that I am God,” the message is: “No rest for the weary.”
The Numbers Game
Like any business, the church is plagued with the need to meet measurable goals in terms of members, converts and revenue. Comparison among churches and a need to bring in more members puts pressure on pastors to create yet more ministries. Many are tasked with trying to revive a church in decline or to maintain membership through times of conflict or transition. It can feel like one is never measuring up.
An Undefined Work Schedule
As pastoral work is seen as more of a vocation than a job, boundaries dwindle around working hours. In a sense, the pastor is always “on.” And he or she often has very little power to say “no.” That can mean late night visits to the sick or dying, phone calls from members or staff members at any hour of the day and sermon preparation during every free moment. Typically it is the pastor’s family that then suffers the brunt of an all-consuming schedule.
Church Politics And Dysfunctional Relationships Within The Church
Strained relationships among congregants, within the staff, with the senior pastor—all can be common in the life of the pastor, and these emotional stresses and conflicts take their toll fast. These challenging relationships in which people — even other leaders — often fail to model Christ can lead to significant frustration.
In some cases, it is a dysfunctional hierarchy that’s to blame. Pastors have a very high level of responsibility and an ever-expanding job description but very low authority. The church’s structure of government or power mongering by other leaders can keep the pastor from ever accomplishing his or her goals and tasks.
Endless Auxiliary Tasks
Churches are often financially strapped and thus running on a very lean staff. That means a longer to-do list falls onto the desk of the pastor, resulting in less time ministering to the congregation and more time spent dealing with conflict, administrative tasks, building maintenance, meetings and other seemingly unrelated work.
In some cases, burnout is the result of disappointment and even despair. For many pastors, ministry is simply not what they expected it would be. They aren’t happy, their families aren’t happy and they don’t know what to do about it. Now they face doubt over their vocation and wonder how they’ll spend the rest of their lives in this situation.
Personal Emotional And Spiritual States
In some cases, the sense of fatigue, exhaustion, anxiety and depression may be the result of the individual’s spiritual and emotional condition. Sin, guilt, self-doubt, frustration, sense of defeat, opposition and persecution mount until it’s hard to see where one problem ends and another begins. Perhaps there is spiritual doubt or questioning to add to the mix. Pastors, with their overbooked schedules and their call to take care of everyone else, often end up neglecting their own spiritual care, leaving the door open for sin and spiritual depletion.
By Jacki Christopher