Sean Nemecek: Wholeness After Burnout

For Sean Nemecek, his first two instances of burnout as a church pastor barely caused a stir; he made a few changes and was back on track relatively quickly. But it was the third bout that shook him to his core. That experience sent him on a mission to understand the root causes of his exhaustion, and to learn and implement sustainable solutions not simply for recovery, but to emerge stronger and healthier than before. 

Nemecek, through no small effort, found the answers he sought, and put in the time and hard work to become whole again. Today, as West Michigan regional director at Pastor-in-Residence (PIR) Ministries, he coaches burned out, overworked, emotionally and spiritually drained pastors who find themselves in the place he once was. His book, The Weary Leader’s Guide to Burnout: A Journey From Exhaustion to Wholeness (Zondervan), is a reflection on his own story of burnout and a compilation of the lessons he’s learned from guiding others on their own healing journeys.

Here, he shares with Outreach some of his best advice for overcoming burnout, and how to prevent it from ever taking root.

Burnout is nothing new for pastors, but the past several years have really brought it to the forefront. Talk about what you’re witnessing when it comes to pastors’ ability to endure and overcome stress and hardship.

Burnout has increased over the last few years, but I think this is actually a long trend that has been building over time. The political environment and the pandemic just ramped things up dramatically. I’m seeing burnout coming from several different directions. A lot of it comes from conflict in churches around political issues. But I’m also seeing burnout come from church culture as well. I have a subset of pastors I’m helping through burnout who are associate pastors in very large churches serving under somewhat narcissistic leaders. It’s really taking a toll on those pastors.

And then there’s just the regular stress of ministry. Pastoral ministry is stressful to begin with, and when there’s vision conflict, it creates a lot of difficulty for that pastor. They can feel isolated. All those different causes of burnout are influenced by what’s going on in their personal life, in their own soul care. Many of them are lacking in that area. They’re so focused on caring for others that they aren’t taking time to care for their own souls, and that’s especially been true during the pandemic. A lot of pastors have really ramped up their work of caring for others, and it’s starting to take a toll on them.

What do you say to leaders who are afraid to confront their burnout or to seek help because of how that might affect others’ perception of them?

I start by encouraging them to make sure their denominational structures don’t have something in place. Many of them already have counseling services available that won’t affect their call. If that’s not available to them and they don’t feel their denominational system will help them, or if they’re nondenominational, then I recommend they talk to somebody who is independent, like a ministry coach, a counselor or a spiritual director. It’s also helpful just to connect with other pastors outside their denomination. In my own burnout, one of the great helps was a group of local pastors. They understood the local context and helped me to navigate that. 

How does effective soul care, led by an experienced spiritual director, impact a leader’s journey through burnout? What is the relationship between spiritual health and burnout?

A lot of pastors can get into a mode where the only time they read Scripture is to prepare for a sermon, or the only time they pray is to pray for the church. They’re not really connecting with God on a relational level. They’re not allowing themselves to just be loved by God, to connect with God personally and intimately through his Word. Having a spiritual director can be a powerful way to remedy that problem. 

A spiritual director will ask good questions about your ability to know God’s presence, to see God at work in your life, and really challenge you to move in a more relational direction in connection with God. That way, ministry isn’t just a professional action, but it starts to flow out of your relationship with God. And I think that’s really the key to burnout: We get so busy doing things for God that our relationship with God dries up.

Why aren’t we making soul care more of a priority?

I think part of it is that we have a lot of expectations we put on pastors to be doing all these different aspects of ministry: not just preaching and teaching and caring for souls, but also leading an organization and managing a staff, and being a primary outreach person. Those expectations are beyond what any one person can actually do. So a pastor can very easily fall into people-pleasing mode. If I’m not meeting all these expectations, then people are going to start to complain or criticize

We want to avoid that pain, so we start doing all those other things, but we’ve only got so much time. And our time with God can very easily take a back seat to the very visible and present demands that are right in front of us. One of the things I do when I’m counseling church boards is encourage them to create large spaces for their pastor to engage in soul care. That means at least one day a month when they can go away on a prayer retreat, and a couple weeks during the year when they can get away for both prayer and study. That also means expecting their first hour in the office daily to be time alone with God.

What was your burnout experience like, and what did you learn from it?

My experience was around two different areas: conflict in the church that stemmed from criticism over differing views on theological issues and the way the church should be run. The other area was not dealing with my own grief. I had two low-level burnout experiences early on, but my third one was major. I was in a place where I was in such a state of hypervigilance that I found myself in a defensive posture, saying things before I’d even thought about them. That wasn’t me; it was like an out-of-body experience almost. It was really a trauma response in some ways, and it took me a while to realize there was something deeply wrong that needed to be fixed.

Once I realized that, I had a sense of hope. The way out was to start doing my own internal work so that I could have the resilience to stand up within the broken system where I was working. I spent that next year reading everything I could about soul care, about leadership, about anything related to burnout. I was able to change some things in my life, to develop some new rhythms and habits. Then it took a while for me to negotiate those with my church, and help them to understand why these things were good. Some they never really understood, but others they were able to accept. After about two to three years, I was starting to feel like myself again, and starting to share some of what I was learning with pastors around me.

I think the key for me was to develop a rule of life that included regular rhythms of relationship with God, especially times of silence and solitude when I could just experience God’s love for me and remember that I’m in his presence.

Is there a certain type of leader who is more predisposed to burnout?

The two most common risk factors for burnout are isolation and failure to practice self-care. But I’ve seen burnout from all different types of leaders—everything from pastors who are hugely successful by common standards who don’t know how much longer they can maintain the momentum and rate of growth, all the way to pastors who are faithfully serving in struggling churches but just aren’t seeing anything happen.

It can happen in so many different ways, but it’s usually connected to relational conflict of some kind, or unmet expectations. That means frustration and disappointment, which are connected to anxiety and shame. So, if you’re noticing an increased level of anxiety, if you’re experiencing more shame—and either of those can show up as anger—those are all warning signs that burnout may be present or may be around the corner.

What can the team serving under a leader do to support their leader’s desire to avoid burnout, or to overcome it if they’re already in it?

The No. 1 thing people who are in supportive roles of pastors can do is make sure they encourage their pastor far more than they criticize. We do need the realism and correction of criticism from time to time, but most pastors are swimming in criticism and get very little genuine encouragement. They might get a “Thank you” or “Great sermon,” but they very rarely get somebody who says, “I really appreciate the way that you said this or did that.” And sometimes they just need people telling them, “You’re doing a good job,” and “Jesus loves you,” and “Just keep doing what you’re doing. I’m with you.” Those types of statements are vital. 

Any parting words for leaders as they aim to grow in their ministries, become healthier, and avoid or overcome burnout?

Sometimes pastors who are in burnout are so ashamed that they feel like they’re broken, like there’s no hope at all. There is hope. It’s often in that place of brokenness that God is preparing to do his best work to shape us as leaders. If they’re willing to do the work, and if they have a team of people around them who are encouraging and supportive and will speak truth into their lives, burnout may actually be one of the best things for them for future ministry.