How to avoid ministry burnout: Take care of yourself!

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By Tricia Brown
(originally posted on umcom.org)

As a pastor, you help take care of the congregation. But who takes care of you? Unfortunately, the task often still falls upon the pastors themselves. So, how can you help yourself and other leaders in your congregation avoid the stress and resulting burnout often associated with church leadership positions?

Be aware.

According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout is “a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.” This phenomenon is not limited to secular positions. In fact, the New York Times has reported that clergy suffer from many of the same ailments that trouble highly stressed business leaders: obesity, hypertension, depression and even shortened life expectancy. In addition, burnout can lead to failures in marriage relationships and indiscretions in issues of morality. The sobering fact is that many, if not most, pastors have or will experience burnout at some point in their ministry. In fact, while most still find satisfaction in their jobs,faith leaders grapple against burnout to the extent that as many as 70-80 percent have at least considered leaving the ministry.

But that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, you are required consistently to put the needs of others before your needs. One study on mental health issues among clergy reported, “On average, United Methodist clergy spend 56.2 hours per week in ministry and 12 evenings a month away from home on church duties.” You are dealing with situations that drain you emotionally, physically and mentally — not to mention spiritually.

And you, more than anyone else, know that clergy are not superhuman. As such, you are susceptible to the repercussions of such stress. So, just as caregivers must take care of themselves, spiritual caregivers must do so as well. Here are a few key steps to preventing burnout.

Be diligent about rest.

Rest is more than just getting eight hours of sleep a night. While that in itself can be difficult at times, it is even more difficult for many pastors to take regularly scheduled days off, observe a weekly Sabbath day for themselves or take time off for holidays and vacations. Because of the constant demand for your attention, you may think of time off as a luxury you simply cannot afford.

However, downtime is an important way for you to support your own health and well-being. If you were to counsel a person in a secular job, you would never suggest that he or she work without limits. In fact, you would most likely suggest just the opposite — to set boundaries. The same is true for you and all those involved in faith ministries.

Consider rotating duties. Just as doctors take turns being on call, perhaps you and another minister in your church can alternate weekends to cover emergencies. At least, find someone who can cover for you on your day off.

Block out important dates and times. Your spouse is important. Your children are important. Block out time on your calendar for date nights. Make sure to schedule time for your child’s piano recital or ball game. Turn the phone on silent. Record an appropriate message for such occasions and leave an alternate contact.

Prioritize your time. Learn to discern between emergency situations that must be handled immediately and situations that can be handled later. Be kind and compassionate, but find ways to help your congregation understand that you, too, must have personal time.

Schedule regular vacations. Don’t schedule yourself to perform a wedding or any other duty during that time — no matter how much pressure you may receive to do to so. Vacations don’t happen by accident. If you want to avoid pastor burnout, plan for vacations.

Assign yourself a Sabbath day. Sundays are obviously not going to be restful for you, so pick another day of the week when you will not perform any typical job-related tasks. Notify church staff that you are not to be called unless it is an emergency. Spend time resting, winding down and worshipping in order to rejuvenate and prepare yourself for the week ahead.

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