Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. (Rom 12:11)
That is Paul’s charge to the Roman church community in the first century—to not just ‘hang in there’ but to be positively engaged in service, feeling energetic and dedicated to the work of God’s kingdom. But for those who serve Jesus in paid church leadership roles, stress from the demands of vocational ministry can considerably impede not only their zeal and fervour, but also the health and longevity of their service.
Stress and its symptoms in ministry
When you enter the word ‘stress’ into Google, predictable cartoons emerge of frantic people clutching their frazzled hair, eyes bulging and with perspiration dripping from the brow. However, stress is a normal part of life for all people. Psychologically speaking, stress is a natural protective response of the body to a perceived threat, loss, or challenge, directed towards preparing the body to meet the situation at hand. It is a normal response, designed to be followed by a period of recovery where the energies expended are then replenished.1
Stress is not damaging to everybody at all times—if it comes from a fresh challenge it may help marshal energy and improve creativity, yielding benefits such as satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. But stress is only ‘good’ if it is short-lived and accompanied by phases of rest. All stress takes a toll physically and emotionally. When there is no opportunity to recover and replenish, the outcome is stress overload.
When stress at work becomes chronic, it results in burnout. Burnout is commonly defined as a combination of three symptoms:2
- Emotional exhaustion: “All my energy has been spent and I just can’t give any more.”
- Increasing depersonalization or cynicism about work: “Ministry would be great if it weren’t for parishioners.”
- Low personal accomplishment: “I’m not having any real impact here anyway!”
In a nation-wide study of 4400 Australian protestant church leaders (i.e. senior ministers/pastors/priests) associated with the National Church Life Survey, around one in four were experiencing burnout as an extreme or significant issue, and a further two in four were just on the edge of it!3 Energy-draining stress resulting in burnout is significant, because it not only impedes Christian witness and work by debilitating the leadership of church communities, but leaves a trail of emotional and spiritual devastation in the families and individual lives of those who are “worthy of double honour” (1 Tim 5:17).
Why are paid church leaders so susceptible to burnout?
While clearly many of the stress factors present in other helping professions are also relevant for religious workers, there are variables associated with pastoral work that uniquely compound their experience of occupational stress.4
Workload: The job is never done, the needs are constant, and churches are always seeking to minister to more with less. A result of which, when combined with the following two points, is that church leaders are notorious for not being able to psychologically detach from work, severely hindering the needed recovery phase.
Time demands: Lack of time is one of the most frequently cited work-related stressors amongst pastors. Time demands are exacerbated by the unpredictable nature of being on call all day, every day.
Poor work-home boundaries: Clergy and their family operate in a unique community context with ambiguous separations between their professional and private lives. Unlike many professionals who may be able to leave their work at the office, pastors can easily find themselves playing the ‘professional role’ as they naturally socialize with members of their congregation, and even their days off are often punctuated (day or night) by emergency concerns.
High expectations: Pastors often tolerate and unwittingly collaborate with expectations that they are capable of doing anything, and should be perfect in all aspects of life and worship. The clergy profession has been labelled a ‘holy crossfire’ as the leader and his/her family attempt to juggle competing expectations of self, family, congregation, denomination and God.
Deficient social support: A pastor spends the bulk of their relational energy engaging intimately and intensely with others, but without reciprocal sharing and support. Deficient levels of social support resulting from these ‘half-intimacies’ contribute to consequences such as marital maladjustment, depression, loneliness, role overload, and inappropriate relationships with church members, in addition to burnout.
Financial demands: Working long hours for comparatively low pay is stressful for clergy and their families. It is not just the financial realities themselves, but the guilt that Christian leaders may experience for being concerned about such ‘materialistic’ matters results in a doubling of the stressor.
The complexity and scope of the role: The professional demands placed upon religious workers are incredibly varied. Team leadership, budgeting, and project administration are often significant demands in a role that requires continual public speaking and individual counselling. Combine that with being a scholar, an effective evangelist on the cutting edge of cultural relevance, and a leader in the righting of social injustices—even the most prepared church leaders are usually left feeling inadequate.
Don’t ignore the petrol light!
The first step towards managing stress is to understand its warning function. In some ways, symptoms of stress are like the low petrol indicator in your car. A light will come on when you are running low to alert you that you need to alter your current course (at least temporarily) and refuel to be able to continue on and accomplish the larger journey. If the petrol light is ignored, you may be able to push on just that little bit further, but such a strategy could result in becoming stranded in a very inconvenient place, facing a long walk before being able to once again resume the journey—if at all.
Stress and burnout symptoms are signals that are important to recognize and act on sooner rather than later. The eventual consequences of burnout if the petrol light is continually ignored are far reaching and include physical, emotional, relational and spiritual aspects of life.
Physical symptoms can include illnesses and fatigue of various sorts. A pattern of increasing absenteeism from work is a common consequence. For some of us, our body tells us we are impaired by occupational stress before we are fully conscious of it.
Emotional consequences can include a feeling that one cannot handle even the work activities that they would normally take in their stride. For people experiencing burnout, regular activities become major hurdles.
Relational consequences can extend beyond the workplace to touch family and friends. Lowered self-esteem and negative attitudes, coupled with cynicism and frustration, become angry and negative interactions with others. At the very time we need support and perspective, the burnout process will often alienate us from our significant others.
Spiritually, those burnt out tend to question their calling and the nature of God. Because a pastor’s work identity is so intertwined with their personal faith, stress from work can often precipitate spiritual struggles (such as feeling angry and abandoned by God, or doubting his existence) that threaten core aspects of a pastor’s personal identity.5
Vocational consequences of burnout include increased turnover and premature leaving of the profession. One study in the United States found that as many as 50% of clergy left pastoral work within the first five years.6 John Mark Ministries claim that for every person who is serving in congregational ministry today in Australia, there is one who has left prematurely. In a survey of ex-pastors, they found that 40% are either no longer worshipping anywhere, or are inactive in the congregation they attend.7
How congregations can support their ministers
So what can you do to support a church leader? Here are four ideas:
- Encourage them to always take a full day off each week to allow them to restore energy and refresh their soul. Enable them to do this by discussing alternative structures that can meet emergency needs that occur on those days.
- Keep church staff accountable for taking their full holiday entitlements, and consider if they can be scheduled to aid recovery following periods of extra work-stress (such as Christmas).
- Aid your pastor by helping recruit other members of the congregation to fill roles. This task, particularly for smaller congregations, has been shown to be a significant (but easily shared) stressor.
- Together, with your pastor’s approval and guidance, aid in the establishment of appropriate structures that focus on planning and direction for the next few years. Leader burnout is lower where there is a clear sense of direction to which members of the congregation are committed, where goals and directions are achievable and regularly evaluated, and community prayer is a significant part of the decision making process.8 A group of people who know where they are heading can more easily ride through the knocks that come on the journey than those who are unsure.
Six tips for managing ministry stress
If you’re someone who works in ministry, here are some tips for dealing with occupational stress when it inevitably occurs.
- Do something about it. There can be a tendency to think, “This problem is just too big; I’m helpless, there’s nothing I can do”. One key is to create a sense of personal urgency and do something. Talk to a supervisor, spiritual director, mentor, or wise friend, and seek their support so that together you can generate changes to alter the feeling of helplessness.
- Be interdependent with God. It is important to target and act directly on the source of the stress in collaboration with God. Paul says, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col 1:29). Those who collaborate with God in their struggles (rather than simply working at it alone or deferring all responsibility) have much better health outcomes.
- Change abstract expectations to concrete expectations. Overly high ideals need to be replaced with more short-term goals. Developing a series of meaningful goals that move toward the cherished ideal creates clearer markers of accomplishment. It’s helpful for each church leader to have a detailed and holistic job description with measurable goals that can be reviewed or adjusted annually.
- Take regular breaks. Learn to completely detach from work. Try to make sure this happens daily. Find places that can be genuine havens of rest that are positive and rewarding.
- Exercise and eat well. Make sure you get eight hours of sleep a night. People who are physically fit manage stress better, and consequently are in a healthier position to help others.
- Know yourself. Know your strengths, weaknesses, and what God has called you to do. This informs you of when to say ‘no’, when to act to develop skills and abilities, when get help from others, and even when to change jobs.
Some further reading may help you take action. I suggest Going the distance by Peter Brain, Growing through stress by Kath Donovan, Burnout in Church Leaders by Peter Kaldor and Rod Bullpit, and Unloading the Overload by Cliff Powell and Graham Barker.
In God’s word, many of our greatest heroes experience symptoms of stress overload—Moses leading the Israelites, Job’s hardships, David’s psalms, Elijah’s despair, Jeremiah’s laments, Paul’s pressures of ministry, and the Lord Jesus himself in Gethsemane and on the cross. Both Old and New Testaments illustrate that stress and overload will happen to many of us. I cannot think of a single example of God rebuking these believers for experiencing such distress. But neither is it ever a state that God calls people to stay in for long—even those who were in ‘full-time’ ministry.
As members of church congregations, we need to love and support those God has called as our leaders by aiding them in recognizing their own low petrol lights, and enabling our church community structures to be modified so that these vital members of the body of Christ can serve sustainably with zeal and fervour. And as paid church leaders, we need to repent from denying the limitations of our God-given physical and psychological humanity, and take responsibility in finding sustainable rhythms of work and life that allow for the natural stress and recovery process to function.
1 Kath Donovan, Growing through stress, Anzea Publishers, Sydney, 1991.
2 Christina Maslach and Michael P Leiter, ‘Stress and Burnout: The Critical Research’, Handbook of stress medicine and health, ed. Cary Cooper, CRC Press, London, 2005, pp. 153-170.
3 Peter Kaldor and Rod Bullpitt, Burnout in Church Leaders, Openbook, Adelaide, 2001.
4 Sarah Cotton, Maureen Dollard, Jan de Jonge, Paul Whetham, ‘Clergy in Crisis’, Occupational Stress in the Service Professions, eds. Maureen Dollard, Anthony Winefield and Helen Winefield, Taylor & Francis, London, 2003, pp. 311-358.
5 Kenneth Pargament, Nalani Tarakeshwar, Christopher Ellison, and Keith Wulff, ‘Religious coping among the religious: The relationships between religious coping and well-being in a national sample of Presbyterian clergy, elders, and members’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 40, no. 3, 2001, pp. 497-513.
6 Katheryn Meek, Mark McMinn, Craig Brower, Todd Burnett, Barrett McRay, Michael Ramey, David Swanson, and Dennise Villa, ‘Maintaining Personal Resiliency: Lessons Learned from Evangelical Protestant Clergy’, Journal of Psychology and Theology, vol. 31, no. 4, 2003, pp. 339-347.
7 Rowland Croucher and Sue Allgate, ‘Why Australian pastors quit parish ministry’, Pointers, vol. 4, no. 1, 1994.
8 Kaldor and Bullpitt.