Burnout Is Not the Martyrdom Jesus Meant

Heads up! This post was published about 12 years ago.

There has been an unseen burnout epidemic among pastors for years, and it’s finally getting noticed and discussed on a wider scale, spreading through the blogosphere and even making the New York Times.

After reading some of the articles, I stopped to see what the Mayo Clinic had to say about burnout. They list a number of risk factors, and at least three of the five are practically built-in to being in ministry, at least in our cultural mileu. The top one? “You identify so strongly with work that you lack a reasonable balance between work and your personal life.” Sound familiar?

The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: 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.
Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work
(NY Times, via Jeremy)

  • 80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with spouse and that ministry has a negative effect on their family.
  • 40% report a serious conflict with a parishioner once a month.
  • 33% say that being in ministry is an outright hazard to their family.
  • 75% report they’ve had significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.
  • 58% of pastors indicate that their spouse needs to work either part time or full time to supplement the family income.
  • 56% of pastors’ wives say they have no close friends.
  • Pastors who work fewer than 50 hrs/week are 35% more likely to be terminated.
  • 40% of pastors considered leaving the pastorate in the past three months.
    Death by Ministry
    (Eugene Cho)

Until the 1920s, the pastor was a cura animarum, the “cure of souls,” or “curate”—a person who cared for souls by helping people locate themselves in God’s greater story. The first step in this work was the pastor’s own attention to her or his soul-care through an intentional focus on her or his personal relationship with the Holy. Yet…seminaries focus on academics and do not train Protestant clergy in spirituality or spiritual formation. At most, even in 2010, only a handful of seminaries require a semester of study in this essential subject.

The rationale for this omission is the assumption…that clergy receive spiritual formation in their home congregations. However, as Ezra Earl Jones…points out, churches are “places for programs” and because of this, pastors themselves “haven’t known the church to be a place of spiritual formation.” As a result of their own poverty in spiritual formation and relationship with God, pastors are not prepared to help people build relationships with God.
Soul Care and the Roots of Clergy Burnout (Anne Dilenschneider)

If you are involved in ministry or have a close friend who is, probably none of this is surprising to you, although it still might disturb you (as it should). My point in sharing these quotations is not to shock anyone or to gain sympathy for pastors; rather, it is to highlight two things: 1) There is clearly something broken. Maybe it is the way many pastors go about their jobs/lives, or what “church” has come to mean in America, or something else we haven’t put a finger on yet—but something is broken. 2) I know it has been said before, but it needs to be said again many times: The statistics above might be common, but they are not normal or right. This is not the abundant life that Jesus intended for us.

Yes, Jesus said that we must take up our cross in order to follow him and that we should expect persecution. Jesus, the apostles, the prophets—they all experienced hardships and suffering. My sneaking suspicion, though, is that the problems described above result less from persecution we face while doing God’s will than from our (collective and individual) choices about priorities, lifestyle, expectations, ministry styles, and church systems. Yes, that’s a loaded statement. No, I’m not going to unpack it right now. But you should.

The fact is that Jesus’ description of the Christ-follower’s life sounds awfully different from our lives:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry. (Matthew 11:28-29, NET)

He spoke these words to people who were overwhelmed by the burdens placed on them by their religious systems and religious leaders. Rabbis often spoke of their “yoke”, by which they meant their interpretations of Torah and other Jewish teachings. Jesus’ yoke is easy. How did we make it so hard? What have we done? Jesus regularly took time away for prayer, rest, and spiritual renewal (Luke 5:16). Why do we feel guilty doing this? Because it takes us away from our “job”? What has our job become, anyway?

I know one thing it is not: Our job is not to perpetuate religious structures. It is to lead people to Jesus; which requires a degree of spiritual health, maturity, and margin; which, in turn, requires living out (living in?) the spiritual practices Jesus lived out, as our primary (meaning first, and foremost) responsibility.

If we are to live abundantly under the light burden Jesus describes and fulfill his commission, it’s about time that we started acting like Him instead of like overworked CEOs. When you have a minute, check out the article Soul Care and the Roots of Clergy Burnout and consider its implications for how churches should evaluate success and what we as pastors should consider our primary role/calling.

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