Have you ever thought about the difference between being burned out and being stressed? I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine and we were discussing that the underlying feeling seems to be different for burnout. “Stressed” can result from positive or negative things and can compound over time. It seems like everyone experiences stress and the issue is how it is managed or diffused. But burnout is something different. A good assessment and description of stress, burnout and compassion fatigue can be found here. That article is written for nurses but I think it could apply to most vocations.

Burnout seems to be common, but not limited, to the helping professions; counselors, nurses, doctors, full time and single parents, and of course, pastors. However, I’m certain I experienced and witnessed burnout in my previous retail careers. For me, the primary underlying emotion with burnout is resentment. Stress comes and goes with the seasons and overlapping responsibilities, but burnout comes when I feel like my work is not being appreciated or utilized. It shows up when it seems like all my considerable effort is failing or being ignored. So here are my thoughts on burnout and a few suggestions to help your pastor manage or avoid it.

  1. Pray for your pastor. This seems trite in a way and, actually no one should have to remind an active Christian to pray for their pastor. However, many do not think of it so please, please do it.
  2. Listen to the sermons. For most pastors serving in a parish, the preparation of a sermon is the centerpiece of their week. The worst thing for a pastor is not that people don’t like a sermon but that they don’t listen. So listen. And if you can do it, tell the pastor you’re listening by saying something about it. We love to have someone ask us a question or make a comment about the sermon, especially if it is sometime after the hand shaking line leaving worship. One of the best ways to help your pastor be a better preacher is to actually talk to them about the previous sermon. When you don’t know how people actually hear you, you don’t know if they are getting what you’re saying or not, so discussing the scripture and sermon (rather than complaining about it to them or to everyone else) helps you get a better preaching experience and it helps the pastor to know how to speak so you can hear them.
  3. Tell your pastor you appreciate them and your church. Every pastor could do better at their job and benefit from constructive feedback, but there are times that “constructive feedback” is all we hear. A genuine, heart felt appreciation for something the pastor does, even if it is a seemingly small thing, can go a long, long way. Additionally, we know it’s not all about us (or at least we ought to) and we often spend a lot of time lifting up others and working to find a good fit for their ministries. When you tell us how important your church family is to you, it really lets us know we are working for something worthwhile and helping you to create a strong faith community.
  4. As much as you possibly can, honor your pastor’s day off and encourage others to do this as well. Emergencies happen, of course, and a day off does not really heal burnout, but respecting their time off shows you recognize that your pastor is working hard the rest of the time.
  5. Also honor continuing education, time with colleagues and sabbatical periods. This time is an investment in a healthier and wiser pastor, so honoring and encouraging these things helps them through peer support and study.*
  6. Tell someone you know about how great your church is and then tell your pastor you did it! Hearing that you’ve told someone (other than a fellow member) how awesome your church is really lets the pastor know you are passionate about this ministry, too. It reminds them that they are not alone in this gospel-spreading-business and that you are all part of the same team.
  7. Pay your pastor a living wage. It’s what you expect for yourself and your family, so as much as it is within your and your congregation’s power, pay them a reasonable salary.
  8. Perhaps most importantly of all, remember that your pastor is not a service provider but a faith leader. According to Ephesians 4:11, one way of examining ministry leadership, they are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors (shepherds), and teachers. Nowhere in that list is ‘liturgical vending machine’ or ‘customer service representative’. It is easy in our highly commercialized society to assume that your pastor should treat you like a customer in the religious marketplace in order to keep your business but the truth is, it isn’t a market place and you aren’t a customer whose business needs to be won or lost. The pastor does not do work that you receive, you work together. In the Lutheran baptismal rite we have this piece of liturgy that is recited by the congregation after the baptism: “We receive you as a fellow member of the body of Christ, child of the same heavenly Father and worker with us in the kingdom of God.” Ultimately, your pastor is that—a fellow worker with you in the Kingdom of God. I know that sometimes pastors themselves need to be reminded of this very fact, but in the end, we’re all working for the same boss even if we have different job descriptions and as far as I can tell, none of those descriptions say “customer” or “vendor”.

I know that there are plenty of pastors out there who need to learn a good deal about the stewardship of their own lives and need to back off a bit and give their members a chance to do some ministry, so I’m certainly not saying that parishioners are to blame for pastor burnout. By no means. However, I am saying that you can help them by letting them know you’re on the same side and working together in the Kingdom of God.

*Most synods and church bodies have support systems for congregations and pastors that are experiencing burnout and/or high stress.

3 thoughts on “Burnout

  1. Thanks RM. I needed this. I wish I could figure out a way to get it in the hands of the congregation I serve without saying “Hey, read this!”

  2. I often post things on my personal facebook wall so they’re out there and available for parishoners to see. I also have a place on my office door where I hang various articles and cartoons. I call it “food for thought.” This is something I could see myself posting there sometime.

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