Understanding Clergy Burnout

Written by Rachel


It seems wherever you turn at the moment there is discussion about clergy and burnout
rates. As hard as this conversation is, it's great to see an increased interest and concern
for the well-being of those in ministry. Research published by Australian author Sarah Cotton, explored this subject at length and while her insights were shocking and saddened me, they also revealed much that we need to know so we can give this the attention it deserves.

So what is burnout? According to Sarah, when stress at work becomes chronic, it results in burnout. This is often represented by a combination of three symptoms:
 
1) Emotional Exhaustion: “All my energy has been spent and I just can’t give any more.”

2) Increasing Depersonalization or Cynicism about Work: “Ministry would be great if it weren’t for parishioners.”

3) Low Personal Accomplishment: “I’m not having any real impact here anyway!”

According to this research, almost 50% of 4,400 Australian survey participants were on the edge of burnout. That's an enormous number of clergy almost at breaking point (read more).

And the impact? "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)."

A heavy price to pay.

But what is it that makes clergy susceptible to burnout? According to both Australian and international research, there are 5 major areas, all common in ministry settings, that can put clergy at risk of burnout:

1) Workload & Time Demands: So much to do in too little time, particularly with the on call nature of ministry.

2) Poor Work-Home Boundaries: Separating home and work can be difficult, the home is often owned or near the church and ministry often occurs at home.

3) High Expectations: Research has found that clergy have high expectations of themselves, as do the churches they work in and their church denominational office.

4) Minimal Social Support
: Constant pastoral care, moving, maintaining professional boundaries, and living away from family and friends means clergy can have little time or energy left to spend on relationships outside of the church and family. While they often catch up with other clergy within their denomination, work and time demands limit how much they can invest in these friendships or support groups.

5) Financial Demands: Ministry does not pay very well! While the purpose of being in ministry is not the financial gain, American research has found that clergy workers are some of the most educated but also poorly paid professionals. Often clergy families need two jobs help pay the bills (read more)

Clergy burnout has no easy fix. It has many facets and some are more difficult than others to address. But there are clergy who have been through burnout, come out the other side and are now raising awareness and helping others find solutions where they've felt there is no hope. I am constantly encouraged by the work of US author and pastor, Cary Nieuwhof, who openly shares about his struggles with and recovery from burnout (read more here). It's a conversation that's happening and it's getting easier to talk about.

My hope and prayer is that with more research and conversations like these, longer term solutions will be found to better care for and protect clergy from the impact of burnout.

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If you think you might be experiencing burnout, one of the best things you can do is talk to someone about it; maybe a supervisor, friend, or fellow leader. If you're uncertain what to look for, this helpful Burnout Quiz might be a good starting point. It's not something you have to do alone. If we can connect you with a helpful support, counsellor or supervisor, please contact us or visit one of these links.