Grace Beyond Burnout

Reading the warning signs and embracing hope. Here's practical help for all who know what it means to feel depleted.

Research distilled from Barna, Focus on the Familyand Fuller Theological Seminary reveals approximately 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month because of moral failure, spiritual burnout and strife in their churches.

Dr. Richard Blackmon, a Southern California psychologist, finds pastors to be “the single most occupationally frustrated group in America” resulting in 30 to 40 percent of them dropping out of ministry altogether.

The problems are not new. By 19th century standards, Robert Murray McCheyne quickly reached the peak of success. Having graduated from Edinburgh University when he was 14, McCheyne was leading a church of 1,000 people at age 23. It might have been the first megachurch—who knows?—except for one problem.

McCheyne died at age 29. He worked himself to death.

“God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride,” an ailing McCheyne wrote shortly before his death. “Alas, I have killed the horse, and now I cannot deliver the message.”

Increasingly, delivering the message of Christianity leads to a similar poor state of health—physical, mental and spiritual—among 21st century pastors and church leaders.

Members of the clergy now suffer from higher rates of obesity, depression and hypertension than most Americans, reports Paul Vitello in The New York Times. At the same time, he says, use of antidepressants has increased, while life expectancy for pastors has decreased.

More than 90 percent of people entering ministry quit, burn out, get fired, die or suffer a disqualifying moral failure before retirement, according to Perry Noble in the Resurgence blog.

The stresses of leading ministry have long been commonly understood.

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CNNMoney.com listed “Minister” as No. 10 of the top 15 “Stressful Jobs That Pay Badly.”

Writes researcher George Barna: “Most pastors work long hours, are constantly on call, often sacrifice time with family to tend to congregational crises, carry long-term debt from the cost of seminary and receive below-average compensation in return for performing a difficult job. Trained in theology, they are expected to master leadership, politics, finance, management, psychology and conflict resolution.”

Misplaced Identity

For Brent Lindquist, the contemporary equivalent of killing the horse is a misplaced identity.

“We have a tendency to put leaders on the pedestal,” says Lindquist, a licensed psychologist and president of Link Care Center, a ministry of therapists and professional counselors focused on recovery and renewal in Fresno, Calif. “The problems start when the leaders believe they are on a pedestal.”

Nearly 50 percent of pastors experience depression or burnout requiring time away from ministry, say H.B. London and Neil B. Wiseman in their book, Pastors at Greater Risk (Regal).

Lindquist believes our culture’s equation of success presents the most appealing idol. “The pastor is tempted to believe that success equates with numbers.” Life is essentially a measurement of bigger, richer and faster.

In Christ’s kingdom, the focus remains on one. Instead of a focus on building a large, “successful” church, ministry remains focused on loving one person at a time. The value of each human life, created in the image of God, is nothing less than Jesus on the cross.

“We all need to be pointed back to our real savior,” Lindquist says. “As a therapist I pay attention to how the clinical work furthers someone’s relationship with Christ. If it doesn’t do that, I’m not helping them as I should be.”

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