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A new report on pastors and burnout reveals why so many pastors crash and burn and how a support network can be built to prevent it.
Father Tim, the central character of novelist Jan Karon's At Home in Mitford, received a letter from his bishop, Stuart Cullen: "You asked if I have ever faced such a thing as you are currently facing. My friend, exhaustion and fatigue are a committed priest's steady companions, and there is no way around it. It is a problem of epidemic proportions, and I ask you to trust that you aren't alone. An old friend, who was a pastor in Atlanta, said this: 'I did not have a crisis of faith, but of emotion and energy. It's almost impossible for leaders of a congregation to accept that their pastor needs pastoring. I became beat up, burned out, angry and depressed.'"

The bishop's letter could have been written to almost any pastor. Like Father Tim, many pastors fear they are the only ones with this problem, and they are wondering: Where do I turn in times of need? Who ministers to me? What support systems are available to me? How do I grow spiritually in the midst of professional demands?

"Burnout" is the popular term applied to the syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that can happen as pastors work with people. Although the word "burnout" is not found in Scripture, there is a glimpse of its reality in Moses' life. Even though he had led the Israelites out of Egypt, they grumbled and complained about his leadership. Moses desperately cried to the Lord for help.

"'Where am I to get meat to give to all these people? For they weep all over me, saying, "Give us meat, that we may eat." I am not able to bear all these people alone, because the burden is too heavy for me. If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now--if I have found favor in Your sight--and do not let me see my wretchedness!'" (Num. 11:13-15, NKJV). These are the words of a troubled, exhausted leader on the verge of burnout.

My training as a U.S. Army chaplain for 25 years showed me the value of support systems. My experience in the Beeson Pastor Program at Asbury Theological Seminary exposed me to alarming statistics concerning pastors leaving the ministry. The convergence of these experiences led me to ask if there is any correlation between support groups, pastoral burnout and spiritual well-being.

To answer this question, I studied a group of pastors in the denomination of my heritage and ordination, the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC). I selected three instruments to use in the pastoral survey: (1) a spiritual well-being scale, which indicates a person's satisfaction with his or her life; (2) the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which assesses the burnout syndrome of human services professionals and educators; and (3) a support system indicator, which reveals the use of one's support systems.

I mailed a total of 334 surveys to pastors in Virginia, West Virginia, Alabama, Oklahoma and California. I received back 142. The 42 percent return rate is an excellent response for a blind survey. The returned surveys represented 9 percent of the ordained pastors of the IPHC in the United States. Following is a summary of some of my findings.


In my survey, the spiritual well-being scale revealed high levels of spiritual life among those surveyed (spiritual well-being defined as the process whereby Christ is formed and maintained in a believer's life). However, the existential portion of this scale--which indicates a person's satisfaction with his life and direction of his life--had lower scores than the person's cognitive understanding of God.

Christina Maslach did the seminal work in the area of burnout. The Maslach Burnout Inventory attempts to indicate the level of burnout of a professional caregiver in three areas: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and personal accomplishment.

Burnout leads to the situation where a person's calling becomes merely a job. The pastor experiences a loss of enthusiasm, excitement and a sense of mission for his work. In the process of burnout, a committed pastor disengages from his or her ministry with the end result of losing his or her spirit for service.

It is interesting to note that individuals who enter the ministry with a cynical attitude are unlikely to burn out; but those with a strong desire to give of themselves and who feel helpful, excited and idealistic are most susceptible to burnout. People who enter their careers with high ideals, motivation and commitment can only experience burnout; basically, you cannot burn out unless you were "on fire" initially.

We all understand the dilemma of too many demands and not enough resources to accomplish those demands. This emotional exhaustion debilitates pastors at all levels of experience. Another situation from the life of Moses illustrates this point.

Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, paid Moses a visit. Jethro received with great joy the report of how God had led the people out of Egypt. The next day all the people gathered around Moses for judgments, lining up from morning to evening. Jethro observed this process and concluded that this was not good and would only lead to wearing Moses out (see Ex. 18:18). He suggested that others be brought into the judging process so that Moses could be spared.

Pastors need "Jethros" to point out what is happening in their lives and to offer sage advice on how to cope with the demands of ministry and thus avoid emotional exhaustion.

Depersonalization is another burnout indicator. When I served as a chaplain in basic training units, I observed depersonalization at work. I would often spend hours listening to and encouraging soldiers in the demanding first days of military service.

On occasion I would gather with other chaplains, and someone would utter, "I saw cases number 8, 12 and 27 today." This is depersonalization. It was our method of stating that we were seeing again and again the same type of problems. Every pastor can relate to this phenomenon.

Feelings having to do with personal accomplishment also play into burnout. According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the personal accomplishment portion of the query assesses feelings of competence and successful achievement in one's work with people. The higher a person scores on burnout, the lower the sense of accomplishment.

In this inventory the pastors of the IPHC yielded few pastors in the high range of burnout on the emotional exhaustion (14.5 percent) and depersonalization (7.6 percent) subscales. The very low level of burnout indicated in the depersonalization scale possibly shows the strong value that these pastors have for the individuals they serve. This is certainly good news.

The personal accomplishment area, however, did indicate an issue of burnout with the pastors. A total of 60.3 percent of the pastors scored in the high and moderate levels of burnout. This subscale closely resembles the existential well-being scale. Both of these scores indicate that pastors in this survey struggle with evaluating the results of their ministry.

In the book Ministry Burnout, John A. Sanford asserts that the pastor cannot always tell if there are results in his or her ministry. The work of a pastor is never completed. A builder knows when the house is complete; a bricklayer knows when the wall is finished; but a pastor is working on human beings, who are unfinished products. The perceived lack of personal accomplishment is one of the main findings of my survey.

But it's not only the things a pastor sees or feels that facilitate burnout. One of the biggest dangers can be what a pastor doesn't see. In Clergy Self Care, Roy M. Oswald claims that the roots of burnout are almost always hidden from the person experiencing the burnout. The process is so gradual that a pastor may be unaware of what is happening and refuse to believe anything is wrong. That's why pastors need "Jethros" who care enough about them to point out the obvious tendencies in their lives.


The third portion of my survey analyzed the pastors' usage of support systems. The Bible repeatedly reveals the importance of people as a means of undergirding the leader. From the beginning of His ministry, Jesus surrounded Himself with a close group of followers who became His constant companions. The priority of Jesus in establishing this group is evident by the timing. Immediately after the temptation experience, He began calling His closest followers to Him.

The significance of companionship is also revealed in the life of the early church. In Antioch, a community of believers was worshiping the Lord and fasting. The Holy Spirit said: "'Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then, having fasted and prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them away" (Acts 13:2-3). Thus began the ministry of the apostle Paul.

Notice the pattern: Paul and Silas, Paul and Timothy, Paul and Titus, Paul and Luke. It is difficult to find a scriptural reference to Paul without also finding someone else named with him. One of the few times Paul is mentioned as being alone is the haunting scene of his walking dejectedly from Athens to Corinth. Something went terribly wrong, and he was alone (see Acts 17:14-15, 18:1; 1 Cor. 2:1-5).

The Old Testament prophet Elijah classically portrays the plight of the "all alone" minister. After the encounter with the prophets of Baal, Elijah fled in terror from Queen Jezebel (see 1 Kin. 19). In the desert area of Beersheba, God came to the fearful and running prophet. God asked him in verse nine, "'What are you doing here, Elijah?'" The heartsick prophet told Him how the sons of Israel had deserted God, how his work had failed, and now, he says, "'I alone am left; and now they seek to take my life'" (v. 10).

In How to Build a Support System for Your Ministry, Roy M. Oswald emphasizes that the ability to endure crisis and the ability to live a long and healthy life depends upon the quality of one's personal support network. Caregivers must intentionally care for themselves.

Unfortunately, many pastors do not experience the fellowship, nurture and encouragement common even in the general church membership. Personal, supportive relationships are difficult for most clergy to develop.

A number of factors seem to hinder pastors from developing significant support systems. Possibly a major hurdle is the cultural issue of the individualistic nature of the American person. This individualistic mentality permeates all areas of life in the United States, including the pastor's. Breaking through this cultural mind-set is a major victory for a pastor.


Support systems provide at least six crucial functions. Wise is the pastor who develops a network that incorporates these functions.

1. Listening. Support systems are a place for listening. Support is needed from people who will actively listen without giving advice or making judgments.

2. Technical appreciation. This comes from individuals who understand the complexities of a particular job. To provide this type of support, the group must have expertise in the area and must be people of honesty and integrity.

3. Technical challenge. Critical colleagues can provide technical challenge to a person's way of thinking. This type of support encourages the person to attain greater heights, greater creativity and to have a greater excitement for the job.

4. Emotional support. An additional function is for emotional support. This is provided when people are willing to be on an individual's side in a difficult situation, even if they are not in total agreement with what the person is doing. Emotional support does not require any kind of technical expertise; what it does require is someone who cares about the individual as a human being.

5. Emotional challenge. Support systems that provide emotional challenge serve to stretch and expand a person. The purpose is to encourage him or her to consider if he or she is doing the best possible work.

6. Social reality. A final function of support systems is for social reality. A person or group with similar priorities, values and views can be very helpful in grasping the reality of a situation and enable the pastor to view his or her circumstances in a broader scope.

My survey also involved the identification of the different types of support systems and rating of their usage. The six types of support systems considered in the research included the following:

1. Personal support systems. A personal support system recognizes that ministers are human, too, and need times for rest and play (for example, recreation, leisure activities and hobbies).

2. Family support system. The family support system provides intimate care for the minister (for example, spouse, nuclear family, extended family, adopted family and significant others).

3. Congregational support system. A group or relationship within the local church that assists the minister in his or her professional development marks the congregational support system (for example, staff meetings, Sunday school class and committees).

4. Community support system. This offers the pastor counseling resources and services (for example, social workers, psychiatrists, licensed psychiatrists, licensed psychologists and clinical pastoral education).

5. Denominational support system. This system is found within the judicatory and provides opportunities for counseling and continuing education (for example, pastoral counseling, spouse/family retreats and ministers' schools).

6. Interdenominational support system. This involves sharing available resources across denominational lines (for example, ministerial associations, ministers' conferences and prayer groups).

The various literature written about pastors and support systems invariably state that few pastors claim any support beyond their immediate family. My survey verified this. The pastors ranked the family support system as their main source of help. After family, they chose denominational, personal, congregational, interdenominational and community.

Family as the primary support system for pastors is problematic. Spouses are the major and sometimes sole confidants for their clergy mates. Roy M. Oswald states, "I firmly believe that if all of your support is coming from one system, you are very vulnerable."

In an interview recorded with Pastors at Risk, Archibald Hart states that when facing burnout, pastors must resist overloading the family system for a solution. A pastor needs support outside the family so he or she is not solely dependent on them for emotional sustenance, spiritual support and needed healing. And pity the pastor whose family is not a supportive means for listening and emotional support.

A support group may provide more than one type of function, but one group cannot fulfill all of them. Healthy pastors learn what is needed for their care and identify which types of support meet those needs. The pastor who does the hard work of establishing support systems derives multiple benefits.

When I correlated the three survey materials (the spiritual well-being scale, the burnout indicator and the support system inventory) the data demonstrated that a higher level of support system usage yielded a higher spiritual well-being score and a lower burnout score. A variety of computer-generated data from multiple angles arrived at the same conclusion: Support systems work. They are a significant means to cope with the threat of burnout.

Ultimately, however, our trust and reliance is on God, and His support is the chief avenue for all pastors. As the psalmist says: "The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped" (Ps. 28:7). Nevertheless, God often chooses to impart His strength through others.

Burnout is the slow death of a pastor. But with the right safeguards in place, you can be sure you're not its next victim.

Lou Shirey served the U.S. Army for 25 years representing the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. His e-mail address is
Nine Ways to Prevent Burnout

Don't wait until you crash and burn to figure out why it happened. Here's what you can do to keep burnout from occurring.

1. Allow time for rest to restore the soul and the body. Our bodies will remind us that we cannot keep running, steadily giving without regularly receiving from God and others.

2. Learn to oscillate between doing and being, times for activity and times for solitude.

3. Maintain balance in life. Fostering friendships and relationships outside of the church community helps keep a pastor grounded. In her book Burnout, a Social Psychological Analysis, Christina Maslach states: "If all the knowledge and advice about how to beat burnout could be summed up in one word, that word would be balance. Balance between giving and getting, balance between stress and calm, balance between work and home--these stand in clear contrast to the overload, understaffing, overcommitment, and other imbalances of burnout."

4. Do the things you delight in doing. All pastors have some responsibilities that are not favorite ones. Healthy pastors make sure a major portion of their time is spent doing activities that bring delight and for which God has provided special giftedness.

5. Find some fulfillment outside of ministry that compensates for the somewhat intangible nature of your spiritual work.

6. Identify your personal means for rejuvenation and give yourself permission to participate in the recreations and hobbies selected. The spiritual giant Fénelon declared, "Take time for harmless entertainment, which will relax the mind and the body."

7. Develop a small group within the congregation who will meet regularly to listen, pray, advise and care for you. This is not a watchdog relationship but a caring and supportive relationship.

8. Find several pastors from other denominations who will covenant together for prayer, Bible study and reflection.

9. Say "yes" to your needs and "no" to excessive demands.

Nine Warning Signs Of Burnout

The following indicators signal how vulnerable you may be to burnout.

1. Chronic tiredness, loss of enthusiasm for ministry, loss of spiritual vitality and confusion with the mission indicate emotional exhaustion.

2. Imbalance in life between work and play, activity and reflection, doing and being, responsibility and sabbath time. The wise pastor charts his or her time usage to show accurately how time is spent.

3. Depersonalization of individuals. When people within the church community are only tolerated and not valued, then burnout is present.

4. Reduced sense of personal accomplishment. An increased effort with lessened accomplishment level is an indication of burnout. A pastor who constantly questions if his or her activities are useful and important is living with a lowered sense of personal accomplishment.

5. Pastors who have limited support systems or who rely chiefly upon the family as the sole source of support are vulnerable to burnout. One support system cannot meet the various functions provided by support systems.

6. Cynicism in the thoughts and words of a pastor may be a demonstration of burnout. Cynicism toward people undercuts the value of the person.

7. Relationship deficit in a pastor's life happens because little time is given to nurture them. Beware when busyness keeps you from family, friends and people you value.

8. The neglect of physical conditioning opens pastors to the possibility of burnout. Physical exercise helps relieve stress, provides energy and allows a proper perspective on life.

9. A lack of prayer time may be a warning sign. It is easy to rely on our own strength and not seek God's guidance and assistance. Through prayer God directs us to use our energies in the same areas where He is working.

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