You are zoning out in ministry-related discussions with folks at the church. You are feeling a lack of energy or helplessness when it comes to your work. Even the things that once made you psyched you are now dreading. You question from time to time if this call was the right one, or you are feeling “stuck” and not sure whether you were even cut out for ministry.
Feeling burned out from the hard work of ministry can happen to anyone who chooses this profession (1). Sadly, many people don’t seek help when they are burned out, and pastors and church leaders can feel resistance too (2). There is a sense that church leaders must be in some way impermeable to the stresses of the job, and people can take advantage of this. If you don’t have extremely strict boundaries, one can be primed to begin to feel burned out and overwhelmed simply by holding the mantle of being an exception to the rule.
Thankfully, burnout is not only something we can treat, but we can prevent it (3). As a therapist and lay spiritual director who works with ministers and clergy, I know that you are human and not the “superhuman” that often is put upon when the clerics are worn (4). Growing resiliency is like supporting your immune system—you’ll be able to take on more and bounce back quicker. To grow this resiliency and prevent burnout, there are things you can do to minister to yourself when you’re feeling stress building.
1. Take a long, hard look at those hours you are working, and start to make some changes. Look at the extra “fill” time that could be delegated to someone else, both at home and in your call. If no one can help in the congregation, use your colleagues and seek their suggestions.
2. Now that you notice the open spaces that work once took up, notice what fills it. Is it fulfilling? Does your time away from work provide rest, rejuvenation and reflection? Set your boundaries—socially, practically, emotionally, spiritually—and stick to them. Bonus: get someone to help you be accountable to those boundaries too!
3. Give yourself serious time off—a sabbatical, a clergy retreat, a family vacation. If there is pushback, state your case unapologetically. Your call is not a sprint. Consider time off to be the fuel you need for the long haul.
4. Consider adopting a mindfulness practice. You may have an active prayer practice, but mindfulness is different. Mindfulness can be incorporated into prayer practices, but at its core is “moment-to-moment non-judgmental attention” (5). Our brain has structures that are identifcal to how they formed millions of years ago and they impact our everyday—our amygdalae, or “flight or fight or freeze center,” fired up when we were under stress, such as when the saber-toothed tiger was attacking us, and this was effective and necessary to our survival. Now there are no saber-toothed tigers, but our brain doesn’t know the difference-- fear (ie, anxiety or stress) is fear. We are not entirely at the mercy of our brains, thankfully (thank you consciousness and frontal lobe). We can use mindfulness to increase awareness, improve self-compassion, and help reduce those feelings of stress that lead to burnout in the first place.
5. Embody your call. Call is bigger than the church or your ministry. Look at your spiritual practices. Look at your wardrobe, your life choices, where your time and energy is spent. Notice your relationships outside of church. Recognize your friendships and how you nurture them. Do you embody your call? When we are conflicted by the demands our call puts on us, we sometimes shut off ourselves from our deeper desires and dreams. When we embody our call, we give ourselves permission to be fully ourselves, mind-body-spirit.
6. Remember why you went into ministry. Notice whether this has changed. Do the hard work of reflecting on your mistakes and giving yourself the grace and forgiveness for those, and then move into full love and compassion to yourself for the amazing work you do. Read amazing authors and reassure yourself that not only are you not alone, but you’re in incredible company.
7. Reach out! Seek assistance from a spiritual director or group spiritual direction. Get some support from an interfaith ministerium or other groups to get out of your space and head and see how others walk through these challenges. There are tremendous resources out there to reconnect with others who are struggling too and need support.
If your stress is impacting your daily life, such as your family as well as your work or relationships, if you feel depressed or anxious or “not yourself” regularly, it’s best to seek help. Look for a licensed counselor who understands ministerial burnout or compassion fatigue as well as can assess for other mental health conditions that burnout can turn into if unchecked.
Ministry is a hard road, bumpy with stressors, whether they be interpersonal or professional, spiritual or emotional. To walk this path and hold the mantle of call can be demanding AND—thankfully!--beautiful.
Anything I missed? Share below your experience as a ministry professional and how you’ve nurtured yourself and found space to grow and evolve. I’d love to hear from you!