Dealing with burnout as a ministry leader

May 24, 2019 7:00:00 AM / by Rebecca Ninke

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When I started seminary, I was so sure I had answered a call to ministry.  I mean, the phone was ringing off the hook on that call.  The four years of seminary including chaplaincy, an opportunity to spend a quarter in Namibia, and internship – they were all great.  

I was on my way!  My ordination in my home church felt like a magical gathering of all my fairy godparents with people from all stages of my life present, supportive, and taking partial credit for forming a minister.  Feeling consecrated and equipped, I headed out into the world to fulfill my vocational calling. 

Sorry, wrong number. 

My first call in urban Phoenix was a difficult experience because the church couldn’t survive financially.  Closing a church is like a long, slow death with the remaining members going through stages of grief (denial, anger, depression, bargaining, etc.) on inconveniently varied schedules. It was a hard start with a sharp learning curve.  (Things you don’t learn in seminary:  how to clean out and sell a church.)  I was pretty burned out, so finding a really healthy call next seemed very important. 

Turns out, congregational health isn’t all that easy to interpret during a call process.  I’ll spare you the details, but five years and three colleagues later, I was so burned out that I couldn’t even pray.  I wasn’t sure I believed what I was preaching.  One day on the way in to work, a car in front of me on the road unexpectedly slammed on the brakes and I had to break hard and veer toward the ditch.  The fleeting thought in my head at that moment, I am sad to admit, was that if I got injured a bit, maybe I wouldn’t have to go to work for a couple weeks. 

Oh look – another call was coming in:  a wake-up call.  On the shoulder of the road, I dialed my husband and told him I had to quit. 

And I did. 

My circumstances were unusual and not necessary to experience burnout.  Being on call for the needs of others 24/7 can take a toll.  

The stress of conflict in the congregation can be so wounding.  Long hours and large student loans combined with relatively low pay can stir some bitterness when things aren’t going well. 

Taking in the pain others confide, being present for the last moments of life, worrying about passing on faith to another generation against the cultural tide of decreasing church membership—these are heavy burdens to carry.  

Dealing with your own family challenges and personal stress without people to confide in (because who wants to be friends with the pastor, even if she is super hip and went clubbing for her last milestone birthday) can trigger feelings of isolation.  

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Loved ones grow weary of playing second fiddle.  Long days and evening meetings can make it easy to skip out on exercise and self-care, which doesn’t help manage stress one bit. 

It’s no wonder the top prescriptions for clergy are perennially meds for high cholesterol and depression/anxiety. 

So, what to do?  If you’re dealing with burnout, know that it can get better.  But you have to help yourself.  Here’s some starting ideas: 

  • Find a professional therapist.  
  • Establish a mutual ministry committee, a few trusted people that you can talk to about how you are feeling.  Check in with your bishop.  And Jesus.  Try to pray, even when it's hard.   
  • Hook up with friends.  Non-church friends.  Be off-duty. Go clubbing!  
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise; there is nothing better to clear your head than to do something physical.  A little meditation wouldn’t hurt either. 
  • Set boundaries.  Block out several nights and one or two (yes, two) days a week on your calendar.  Write in a code like “Meeting with CAB.”  (That’s coffee and a book. Or pick your own thing.  However, you should maybe mention it to your spouse, so you don’t make trouble on the home front about the mysterious and sexy CAB.) 
  • Stop feeling guilty for taking care of yourself.  It’s no different than the instructions on the airplane—put your oxygen on first or you’re no good to anyone. 
  • Delegate, delegate, delegate.  You are not the Messiah.  Act accordingly. 
  • If it’s financially feasible and necessary, step away.  Do something else for a while.  I know, you’ve looked at the guy mowing lawns and been jealous sometimes too. 

I quit and then to my surprise, I came back later.  

I was able to take a half-time call, a lovely little place that felt as beat up as I was.  We healed together and though it took about 10 years or so for me to stop waiting for the shoe to drop, it’s continued to be a life-giving call in a healthy congregation doing good ministry. 

A guru of clergy health once told me that the healthiest clergy he knew were the ones who left and came back. I get that now; stepping away from ministry can help you understand that your identity is not bound to being a pastor.  (I’m talking to you, friend, you who put “Pastor” where your name should go on your Facebook page.)  Burnout can get better, but whether you crawl back into the pulpit or become a professional landscaper, either way, you are a beloved child of God.  

Take care.  

 

Topics: General Ministry

Rebecca Ninke

Written by Rebecca Ninke

Rebecca is an author, freelance writer/editor, and pastor.  She currently serves two churches in the Madison, Wisconsin area.  She also has two kids, two dogs, two cats, but only one husband. Rebecca Ninke teamed up with her ten-year-old daughter Kate to write the picture book, There’s No Wrong Way to Pray—a kid-friendly reflection on talking to God in the everyday moments of life. There’s No Wrong Way to Pray is available for purchase at wearesparkhouse.com by searching PRAY.

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