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How to avoid ministry burnout: Take care of yourself!

By Tricia Brown

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.

Ministry burnout may contribute to obesity, hypertension, depression, even shortened life expectancy TWEET THIS TWEET THIS

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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Be ready to delegate.

Many times, pastors are afraid that if they don’t do something, it won’t get done. You may feel as if you have to be at every hospital bedside, every funeral home visitation, at every graduation, at every event. While you certainly don’t want to miss an opportunity to meet the needs of someone who is hurting, and you enjoy celebrating the joyous occasions of life with your congregation, you cannot accomplish these tasks alone. Delegate duties or create buddy-type programs to avoid overlooking people in need. Find others who can help with visitation, letter writing or other tasks. Remember, people enjoy caregiving and would be happy to volunteer.

In addition, it is important that you realize that every responsibility is not necessarily your responsibility. Plan accordingly. For example, if you are in charge of the Sunday school program at your church, you may feel that it is your responsibility to cover for an absent teacher. This can become tiresome and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Before arriving at such a situation, plan how it will be handled. Could teachers be given the responsibility of finding their own replacements? Could you create a list of people who will volunteer to substitute for teachers in emergency situations? In most cases, there is a better alternative than asking you to do it all. It just requires a little forethought and the wherewithal to say “no.”

Be proactive.

You must take care of yourself, every aspect of yourself. If you don’t do it, no one else can or will. You won’t be any good to your family or your congregation if you wait until the stress of your position begins to have a negative impact on your mind, body or soul.

Find support. Find an accountability partner, someone who will pray for and with you, someone with whom you can share. Schedule regular lunches or meetings to check with one another on how you are handling stress and the difficult demands of the job.

Stay healthy. One way leaders invest in themselves is to take care of their bodies. Leadership blogger, George Ambler writes, “Regular exercise and eating healthy is the best way to generate the energy required to sustain leadership. Research has shown that being fit has significant benefits, including increased creativity, clear thinking, increased confidence and improved emotional control, all necessary for effective leadership.” So, make time for regular checkups. Follow a healthy eating plan. Establish a routine exercise program.

Make time to be fed spiritually. Look for opportunities to sit under the teaching of another spiritual advisor. Perhaps you can visit another United Methodist church during a weeknight service or attend a special service during a time when your church isn’t having a meeting. Or you can connect online or find audio messages to listen to in your own time.  

Make your needs known. Don’t be shy about sharing your concerns and your needs with other leaders and the congregation. People often want to help; they simply don’t know how.

Take advantage of pastor-appreciation events. Sometimes churches or other organizations host special events for pastors and their spouses. Look for and take advantage of those types of offers, and don’t be afraid to ask for the family discount at other events — even if they aren’t advertised.

“As a leader, the most important investment you can make,” says Ambler, “is an investment in yourself. You are the most precious asset you own.” Ministers need ministering. Teachers need to be taught. Deacons, elders and other church leaders need to be served, encouraged and loved the same as every other person in the church. Faith leaders are a valuable resource to the church, so consider it good stewardship. Take care of yourself.

Tricia Brown

Tricia Brown has been a freelance writer and editor for more than twenty years, ghost-writing and editing for individuals as well as for health, education and religious organizations. She enjoys reading, writing and public speaking commitments in which she teaches and encourages other women.