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Stress And Burnout In Ministry

It was a grey Canadian morning in April 1982. The
children had gone to school, my wife to work, and I did something
I’d never done before. I turned the phone down, put a note on
the front door, and went back to bed. I was burned out – and within
two months resigned my ministry there.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, four books about ministry
had come off the presses. Note the titles: The Plight of the Australian
Clergy, High Calling High Stress, Battle Guide for Christian Leaders
– an Endangered Species, and Conflict and Decline.


# ‘Stress now contributes to 90% of all diseases.
Half of all visits to doctors are stress-related’. (1) ‘Anxiety
reduction’ may now be the largest single business in the Western

# ‘Doctors, lawyers and clergy have the most problems
with drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide.’ (2)

# Research 25 years ago showed clergy dealing with
stress better than most professionals. Since 1980, studies in
the U.S. describe an alarming spread of burnout in the profession.
For example, Jerdon found three out of four parish ministers (sample:
11,500) reported severe stress causing ‘anguish, worry, bewilderment,
anger, depression, fear, and alienation’. (3)

Why is pastoral ministry so stressful? The reasons
may be as numerous and unique as there are pastors. However, recent
research is unanimous in citing the following problem areas: the
disparity between (somewhat idealistic) expectations and hard
reality; lack of clearly defined boundaries – tasks are never
done; workaholism (‘bed-at-the-church’ syndrome); the Peter Principle
– feeling of incompetence in leading an army of volunteers; conflict
in being a leader and servant at the same time (‘line-support
contamination’); intangibility – how do I know I’m getting somewhere?;
confusion of role identity with self image – pastors derive too
much self-esteem from what they do; time management problems (yet
pastors have more ‘discretionary time’ than any other professional
group); paucity of ‘perks’; multiplicity of roles; inability to
produce ‘win-win’ conflict resolutions; difficulty in managing
interruptions; the ‘little adult’ syndrome (Dittes) – clergy are
too serious, they have difficulty being spontaneous; preoccupation
with ‘playing it safe’ to avoid enraging powerful parishioners;
‘administration overload’ – too much energy expended in areas
of low reward; loneliness – the pastor is less likely to have
a close friend than any other person in the community.


Stress and burnout are not the same (see box). Hans
Selye defines stress in terms of the response your body makes
to any demand on it. There is ‘good stress’ (eustress) – associated
with feelings of joy, fulfillment, achievement – and ‘bad stress’
(distress), which is prolonged or too-frequent stress.

It is not possible (without a frontal lobotomy) to
live without stress. Originally the term came from physics: the
application of sufficient force to an object to distort it. So
stress comes from ‘outside’ the organism, causing your body to
respond in either ‘fight’ (when angry) or ‘flight’ (fear). Actually,
stress is the transaction that takes place between you and your
environment. The outside event impinges on your belief system,
your brain interprets what’s happening, and tells your body how
to respond. Adrenalin is pumped into your bloodstream; blood is
diverted from various organs to brain and muscles; pupils dilate
(making vision more acute); hands and feet perspire; breathing
and heart-rate increase, etc. The body is on ‘red alert’, the
alarm response.

Most of us are not subject to physical danger very
often, but whenever you are ‘driven’ by a very tight program,
or threatened by a demand or expectation you don’t think you can
meet, your body reacts in the same way. In fact, medical experts
are now saying that ‘Type A’ people in particular may be suffering
a kind of ‘adrenalin addiction’. Dr. David McClelland, professor
of psychology at Harvard, says stress addiction is similar to
the state of physiological arousal some people derive from a dependency
on alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. A recent book Management and
the Brain (Soujanen and Bessinger) suggests that some professionals
are actually ‘hooked’ on stress. They get a ‘high’ out of controlling
people and making complex decisions. Dr. Paul Rosch, president
of the American Institute of Stress, says the Type A male (50%
of all pastors are Type A, according to Dr. Arch Hart) who is
‘living in the fast lane… has become addicted to his own adrenalin
and unconsciously seeks ways to get those little surges’.

These days more of us will die from a stress-related
illness than from infection or old age. The only advantage of
living stressfully : you’ll get to meet your Lord earlier!


Your body is designed to give warning signals of
stress overload, which may include insomnia or disturbed sleep,
digestive problems, headaches, low energy, chronic tiredness,
psychosomatic illnesses, muscle tension, teeth grinding, high
blood pressure, etc. Arch Hart again: ‘Stress is ‘hurry sickness’.
The symptoms are often seen by the victim as obstacles to performance
and success that he or she merely wants to get rid of. Seldom
does the disease of over-stress slow the victim down – not until
the final blow is struck and the ulcer, stroke or heart attack

Stressors come to Christian leaders in four categories.(1)
Bio-ecological factors related to poor diet (too much caffeine,
refined white sugar, processed flour, salt etc.) and poor exercise
habits. They also include noise and air pollution. (2) Vocational
factors include career uncertainty; role ambiguity (a lack of
clearly defined and mutually-agreed ministry functions); role
conflict (between church expectations and personal or family needs);
role overload (too many real or imagined expectations); lack of
opportunities to ‘derole’ and be yourself, for a change; loneliness
(95% of Australian pastors do not have a spiritual director);
time management frustrations – and many more. (3) Psychological
factors relate principally to the great life-change stressors
– from the most stressful (such as the loss of a spouse), through
divorce, death of a close family member, personal injury or illness,
all the way to getting ready for Christmas or being handed a speeding
fine! (4) Spiritual causes of stress may include temptations of
all kinds (sexual, despair if your church isn’t growing, jealousy
of the success of others, anxiety over financial problems, anger
– ‘close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry’
says Henri Nouwen – and any other way the devil can get at us).
Even prayer can be stressful according to one study!


Burnout is emotional exhaustion, ‘compassion fatigue’
(Hart). So even less-competitive Type B Christians can suffer
burnout. And the most conscientious people-helpers are most vulnerable.
Researchers like Maslach, Freudenberger and others from 1977 onwards
gave the name ‘burn-out’ to the special stressors associated with
social and interpersonal pressures.

Dr. Arch Hart says burnout symptoms may include demoralization
(belief you are not longer effective as a pastor); depersonalization
(treating yourself and others in an impersonal way); detachment
(withdrawing from responsibilities); distancing (avoidance of
social and interpersonal contacts); and defeatism (a feeling of
being ‘beaten’).

Christina Maslach, who described burnout as ‘a state
of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical
depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness,
and by development of a negative self-concept and negative attitudes
towards work, life and other people’, offers the following signs:
(1) Decreased energy -‘keeping up the speed’ becomes increasingly
difficult; (2) feeling of failure in vocation; (3) reduced sense
of reward in return for pouring so much of self into the job or
project; (4) a sense of helplessness and inability to see a way
out of problems; and (5) cynicism and negativism about self, others,
work and the world generally.

Personality and attitudinal factors may increase
the propensity to burnout eg.: the pressure to succeed; an authoritarian
personality which may come across insensitively (or a too-sensitive
person who can feel with others’ hurts but who is vulnerable to
criticism); inner-directed rage; underassertiveness – feeling
victimized; carrying too much guilt about our humanness (an occupational
hazard for clergy, so we develop facades for various occasions);
inflexibility; and many more.

The essence of the problem, however, is the clash
between expectations and reality. Clergy are often put on a pedestal
– by others, and by themselves. Many of these expectations just
can’t be met. We try to please, but may either become too goal-oriented
for our people, or else too accommodating to their spiritual ‘slackness’.
‘Strongly goal-oriented ministers will almost inevitably experience
more frustration than process-oriented ones’ (Hart). We are working
with volunteers, many of whom aren’t there when the work is unrewarding.
And we’re stuck with each other – pastors have not hired most
of the laypeople they work with.

And so if we’re not careful, depending on our personality-type,
we may become perfectionistic, over-conscientious, develop one
side of our ministry disproportionately, or maybe identify so
closely with our calling that if it falls apart, we do too.

People-helpers have another hazard: in our counseling
we’re exposed almost exclusively to the negative sides of people’s
lives. So the pastoral leader ought to spend as much time with
the strong as with the weak – for his own sake (they give him
strength and support), for the leaders’ sakes (they can be trained
for ministry), and for the spiritual and emotional health of the
whole church (there are more ministering persons available to
help). Wasn’t it A.B. Bruce who suggested Jesus spent more time
with the disciples than with the crowds?


Again, the people studying this phenomenon are becoming
unanimous in their suggestions to Christian people-helpers:

1. Find fresh spiritual disciplines. A conference
in California has the theme ‘One Hundred Ways to Pray’. Well,
find about three or four, and ‘shut the door’ as Jesus said (i.e.
put in a telephone answering-machine), and learn the art of relaxing,
contemplative prayer.

Then, as the New Testament suggests, don’t be surprised
when trials come your way. Jesus promised us trouble! So, as psychotherapist
M. Scott Peck points out in his brilliant book The Road Less Traveled,
when you expect life to be difficult, it is much less difficult.

2. Take regular time off. You aren’t called to work
harder than your Creator.

Develop a way of being ‘through for the day’ (at
least most days). Take your full four weeks’ annual leave in one
stretch (and make alternative arrangements for weddings, etc.).
Encourage your denomination to include two weeks’ extra, all-expenses-paid
study leave each year. On your day/s off, do something very different
from what you do the other days. (Wednesday or Thursday is best
for preachers – away from the adrenalin-arousing Sundays). Listen
to Spurgeon: ‘Repose is as needful to the mind as sleep to the
body… If we do not rest, we shall break down. Even the earth
must lie fallow and have her Sabbaths, and so must we’. Jesus
said, ‘Come apart and rest awhile’. (If you don’t rest awhile,
you’ll soon come apart!).

3. Get proper exercise and sleep. Exercise fairly
vigorously 3-4 times a week. Walk, swim, play tennis; perspire
and regularly breathe deeply. Allow adequate time for sleep. Dr.
Hart again: ‘Adrenal arousal reduces our need for sleep – but
this is a trap; we ultimately pay the penalty. Most adults probably
need 8-9 hours’ a night!’

4. Relax. The relaxation response is the opposite
of the fight/flight response. Just 20 minutes a day when we’re
free from the tyranny of ‘things present’ is enough to counteract
the harmful effects of stress. Two ways to relax: tighten each
set of muscles from your feet to your face, counting to five before
relaxing them; or begin meditation by repeating a one-word or
one-phrase prayer (‘Maranatha’, ‘Lord have mercy’), repeat it
slowly over and over and enjoy the ‘other side of silence’.

5. Join a small support/prayer group. Ministry peers
will better understand your needs; a cross-denominational group
will enhance trust and provide other spiritualities. Then there’s
the classical discipline of ‘spiritual direction’ (or spiritual
friendships). Who is Paul to your Timothy? Who teaches you to
pray aright, as John the Baptist and Jesus taught their disciples?
To whom do you confess your sins (James 5:16)? Luther said every
priest ought to have such a ‘father in God’. Congregations can
help their pastor by praying more than they criticize him or her;
having open communications re goals and expectations; recognizing
that the pastor is human and will make mistakes like all of us;
being as generous as possible financially (e.g. encouraging study
leave); and protecting the privacy of the pastor’s family life.

6. Cognitive restructuring (i.e. changing one’s thinking).
Take a personal audit. Reassess your goals; like your clothes,
change them sometimes. Improve your self-attitudes. Learn a healthy
assertiveness (e.g. by using the middle two letters of the alphabet
– NO – sometimes, without apology). Know your gifts, and your
limits. Face your fears; don’t avoid them by pretence, or bury
them in an addiction. Above all, avoid states of helplessness:
take time to develop coping strategies for difficult situations.
Learn not to make catastrophes out of ordinary events (increasing
paranoia – ‘they’re out to get me’ – is a sign of burnout). Be
a growing person: if God has yet more light and truth to break
forth from his Word, what new understandings have you experienced
recently? Freudenberger suggests: ‘Discard outmoded notions. Don’t
wear points of view just because you used to! Like old-fashioned
clothes, they may become ill-fitting and ridiculous as time goes

7. Have fun! To belong to the kingdom you have to
be like little children. They aren’t bothered about piles of correspondence
or running the world. They get absorbed in things, even forgetting
to run their own lives! So develop a few ‘interesting interests’:
buy a bird-book and identify 100 native birds; collect stamps;
play indoor cricket; take your spouse to an ethnic restaurant;
give each of your kids an hour a week, where you do together what
they suggest; build something ; audit a course. But do something!
And laugh sometimes! Did you know your body will not let you laugh
and develop an ulcer at the same time? Remember, with humourist
Kin Hubbard: ‘Do not take life too seriously; you will never get
out of it alive!’


1. Dr. Kenneth Greenspan, director of the Centre
of Stress Related Disorders at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital.

2. From the Report of Adult Dependence Treatment
Unit, St. Mary’s Hospital, Minneapolis, 1980.

3. Quoted in S. Daniel and M. Rogers’ ‘Burn-out and
the Pastorate…’, Journal of Psychology and Theology, Fall 1981,
9 (3) 232-249.

Some Helpful Books

Christian: Ross Kingham & Robin Pryor, Out of
Darkness – Out of Fire: A Work-book for Christian Leaders under
Pressure (JBCE 1988); Ed. Bratcher, The Walk-on-Water Syndrome:
Dealing with Professional Hazards in the Ministry (Word, 1984);
Kent and Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success
Syndrome (Tyndale, 1988), Robin Pryor, High Calling High Stress,
& At Cross Purposes: Stress and Support in the ministry of
the wounded healer (Uniting Church, Victoria, 1982, 1986); John
Sanford, Ministry Burnout (Paulist, 1982); Archibald Hart, Coping
with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions
(Word, 1984), and The Success Factor (Revell, 1984); David Augsburger
and John Faul, Beyond Assertiveness (Word, 1980); Brooks R. Faulkner,
Burnout in Ministry (Broadman); Keith W. Sehnert, Stress/Unstress
(Augsburg); Charles Rassieur, Stress Management for Ministers
(Westminster, 1982); Leadership (Christianity Today, Summer 1984.
Theme: Roles and Expectations); Robert Banks, The Tyranny of Time
(Lancer, 1983)

Secular: Herbert Freudenberger, Burnout: How to Beat
the High Cost of Success (Bantam, 1980); Christina Maslach, Burnout
– The Cost of Caring (Prentice-Hall, 1982); Robert Alberti and
Michael Emmons, Your Perfect Right (Impact, Calif., 1978); Karl
Albrecht and Hans Selye, Stress and the Manager (Prentice-Hall,

On contemplative prayer: Anthony de Mello, Sadhana
(St. Louis, 1978); Mark Link, You, and Breakaway (Argus); Morton
Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence – A Guide to Christian Meditation
(Paulist, 1976); Simon Tugwell, Prayer (Vols 1 & 2) (Veritas,
Dublin, 1984).

Rowland Croucher



Dr. Arch Hart

* Burnout is a defense characterized by disengagement.

* Stress is characterized by overengagement.

* In Burnout the emotions become blunted.

* In Stress the emotions become over-reactive.

* In Burnout the emotional damage is primary.

* In Stress the physical damage is primary.

* The exhaustion of Burnout affects motivation and

* The exhaustion of Stress affects physical energy.

* Burnout produces demoralization.

* Stress produces disintegration.

* Burnout can best be understood as a loss of ideals
and hope.

* Stress can best be understood as a loss of fuel
and energy.

* The depression of Burnout is caused by the grief
engendered by the loss of ideals and hope.

* The depression of Stress is produced by the body’s
need to protect itself and conserve energy.

* Burnout produces a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

* Stress produces a sense of urgency and hyperactivity.

* Burnout produces paranoia, depersonalization and

* Stress produces panic, phobic, and anxiety-type

* Burnout may never kill you but your long life may
not seem worth living.

* Stress may kill you prematurely, and you won’t
have enough time to finish what you started.


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