Stop Burnout Before It Happens

stop burnout

Caring for One of Your Church’s Most-Valued Resources

Recently, my neighbor wondered out loud when I was going to paint my fence. So, I tackled that project and managed to get the outside of the fence painted before the first cold snap. From a distance it looks as good as new. But I know at least a dozen boards and a couple posts should be replaced. The paint is covering deep cracks and rotting wood. While some of this is natural, the truth is if I had painted them a couple of years ago, many of those boards would not have needed replacing.

For a church, there are things more important than a fence or a building that need ongoing care as well. The most valuable resource a church has is its people. That’s what the church is, after all. But to follow my analogy, the reality is that many pastors go too long between coats of paint and let cracks and decay set in before they do the (sometimes difficult) work of maintenance. 

In a recent survey on pastor attrition that Lifeway Research completed in partnership with Houston’s First Baptist Church and Richard Dockins, 50% of pastors say the demands of ministry are often more than they can handle. That is not surprising given the fact that 71% of pastors feel they must be on call 24 hours per day.

Despite the frequent stress, pastors on the whole stay true to their calling. Among pastors serving in August 2011, an estimated 1.5% left the pastorate prior to retirement each year through 2021. While the vast majority continue to pastor, the need to invest in the well-being of pastors is as great as ever.

Make Room for Self-Care

It is easy for ministers to prioritize the needs of their church above caring for themselves. While pastors should heed the call of all believers to serve, they must do so in the balanced way Jesus described: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Self-care should not only be encouraged, it should be modeled by church leaders.

In this way, church staff is no different than any other believer. If they don’t invest in their walk with Christ, their ability to help anyone else spiritually is severely weakened. All disciples can personally invest in their walk with Christ through spiritual disciplines of daily prayer and reading God’s Word, but protecting this time can be difficult even for pastors. While 99% of pastors take at least some time alone with the Lord each week outside their teaching preparation, more than 1 in 5 does so fewer than five days per week.

Spiritual disciplines also can involve others. Connecting with others in the church regularly through meaningful relationships and service cares for one’s soul. It can be easy for church staff to just be “working” when they are with others from church, instead of recognizing they personally need fellowship as much as anyone.

Self-care must include more than a spiritual investment. Church staff must invest in their physical and mental health as well. Attending to these aspects of self-care takes time and intentionality. Sixty-three percent of pastors agree their role is frequently overwhelming. While pastors and church staff need to seek help in these situations, congregations must also be proactive in caring for their staff.

Relieve Stressors

A pastor’s job is not easy. Analysis by Michigan State professor Rick DeShon has shown the role of pastor has characteristics that make it more taxing than other occupations. It’s not that the pastor’s role has individual stressors that are unique, but pastors have a wide variety of tasks that require highly skilled responses. And the requirement to constantly switch between these with excellence adds a level of stress that other jobs rarely have.

Laypeople should pay attention to the need for extra care for pastors and staff. This is not always easy to offer or do well, but it matters. Almost 4 in 10 pastors (38%) feel isolated in their role as pastor. 

Some of the best ways to care are simple, but not all are free. The congregation can show they care by valuing and not invading a pastor’s time with their family. More than 3 in 10 pastors agree the demands of ministry keep them from spending time with their family. While some of those demands come from a minister’s to-do list, often it’s someone in the congregation expecting more time from church staff, which can take a toll.

Caring means ensuring that weekly days off, vacations each year and sabbaticals every few years are planned for and protected. Unfortunately, for many pastors one or more of these is not locked in. Only 6 in 10 pastors strongly agree they “unplug” from ministerial work and have a day of rest at least one day a week. One in 6 pastors did not have a weeklong vacation with their family last year, and less than a third of churches have a plan for their pastor to receive a sabbatical.

Caring also means direct encouragement to church staff and their families. Regular, genuine encouragement is something 9 in 10 pastors say their family receives, but there is room for improvement. Just over half (54%) of pastors strongly agree they receive this encouragement regularly. This means that almost as many pastors say it could be better. And this type of support makes a tangible difference. Receiving such encouragement is statistically predictive of a pastor staying in the pastorate.

Caring requires members to show respect to their church’s staff, even in times of disagreement. Four in 10 pastors who have pastored more than one church (39%) say they experienced a significant personal attack at their previous church. We will not always agree within a local body of believers, but we never have permission to tear down another believer—much less a church staff member. The pandemic has likely added new reasons to disagree that have nothing to do with a church’s God-given priorities. According to pastors, more than a quarter of churches (28%) have experienced significant conflict this last year. The pressure of the pandemic may have revealed some weaknesses in our love for each other within the church. But these need to be repaired quickly and consistently.

Address Pressure Points

My fence wasn’t the only recent encounter I’ve had with things naturally wearing out. My son’s truck has more than 200,000 miles, and it developed a coolant leak. As soon as we got one leak fixed, another one formed. When that was fixed and the coolant pressurized, a third leak appeared. All those weaknesses were there before the first repair, but pressure revealed them.

Maintenance, investment and care have been needed to keep this truck running. A lot of leaks have been exposed in the pressure of the past year. Your church staff needs the same proactive love to continue serving well. Otherwise, the natural pressure of ministry will reveal leaks and cracks, harming these valued staff and the entire congregation.

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