How to Handle Pastoral Burnout in a COVID-Plus World

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This morning, a friend emailed me a message that he’s repeated often in the past two years: “Again and again, we see that the COVID experience has revealed underlying fault lines, dysfunctions, and broader challenges.”

A pandemic is just a piece of the iceberg that pastors and local congregations are dealing with among politics, social media, challenging issues of justice and reconciliation, conspiracy theories, and more; hence the term “COVID-plus.” Unfortunately, navigating these waters leaves too many pastors in a place of pastoral burnout: drained, exhausted, and imagining a brighter day where they leave the pastorate behind.

When pastors inevitably hit a part of the iceberg and feel the waters rushing in, how do they patch the ship of their life and find the strength to go on? (All pastors know they will hit an iceberg—and hit it multiple times. The Titanic may have avoided the iceberg with the correct information, but no data or tools will make it possible for pastors to avoid a collision.)

ADVICE FOR PASTORS DEALING WITH PASTORAL BURNOUT 

When an iceberg has been hit and the waters are rushing in, here are some recovery tools pastors can draw peace and strength from.

1. Know God’s story. Hitting an iceberg usually means an attack is coming. Pastors, you need to be deeply rooted in the good news that you are loved, wanted, and adopted by God (see Ephesians 1). God loving you, wanting you, and adopting you will never change. When facing an iceberg or an attack, the reminder of being a well-loved child of the great King is essential. We grow in this love mainly through our reflection on the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. We find strength and power in these moments through the bread and cup. These times of “remembrances, communion, and hope” are times when we are united to Christ and all his gifts (Reformed Church in America liturgy; Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 28). We need Christ’s gifts when we hit an iceberg.

2. Be imperfect. Professor and author Kelly Kapic says, “Many of us fail to understand that our limitations are a gift from God, and therefore good. This produces in us the burden of trying to be something we are not and cannot be” (You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News). Somehow, many pastors were told they need to be perfect. Sometimes consistories encourage this by demanding pastors preach well, do pastoral care well, teach well—indeed, that they do all things well and with excellence. One of the gifts you give yourself as a pastor, and that consistories can encourage, is to live as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). The body of Christ recognizes each person’s gifts and limits and celebrates both. As a pastor, you need to embrace your gifts and your limitations. We see being finite as God’s good design.

3. Discover truths about yourself. As a pastor, you need to know the truth about yourself. Ask yourself these questions: Why do I respond the way I do when I hit an iceberg? Why do I think that I have to be perfect? Why do I have a hard time believing that God loves me and celebrates me? Faithwalking points out that many of our responses to these and other questions come from negative vows we made in our past. Those negative vows control how we respond until we identify them and push back against them. You can prepare yourself for hitting an iceberg and even recover from the collision by knowing the truth about yourself.

4. Know the story. Wherever you are in your life as a pastor, you are always telling yourself a story. When difficult and draining times come, you tell a story about why this has happened. It is a story about God, others, the situation, and yourself. Being a person of wisdom means identifying the story we are telling ourselves and testing the reality of that story with trusted friends. Several years ago, when I was hitting icebergs in my ministry setting, it was the ability to tell the story to trusted others and get insightful feedback that made it possible to navigate that time.

5. Recognize the downward slope. I am an introvert by nature. When I get tired, I become an incompetent extrovert. My family thinks it’s funny, and my wife says, “You must be tired; your poorly managed extrovert is showing.” Whenever you are in a challenging situation, there is the danger of another side of your personality showing itself. Some call this “in the grip” behavior. When you are in the grip, you start acting in ways that are actually the opposite of your regular ways of doing life. These changes are warning signs that you need to get a grip and do things that restore you. Recognizing this downward slope moves you on a path to the rest and recovery you need.

6. Pray the psalms. The rhythms of the psalms⁠—praise, lament, confession, celebration⁠—are critical for living in difficult and draining days. These rhythms open you to a wide range of emotions and prayers that keep you from getting stuck on the iceberg.

7. Lean on others. When you hit an iceberg and the waters rush in, you need a repair crew. Trying to repair things on your own is not the best way forward. It is essential to have a repair crew of supportive friends and other pastors (who have hit their own icebergs). This means, of course, that over the years, you’ll have built a wise and helpful network.

8. Access resources. There are excellent resources available to you as you prepare to hit an iceberg, when you make contact with the iceberg, and as you recover from impact. Books like Kelly Kapic’s You’re Only Human, mentioned above, or Chuck DeGroat’s book Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self are a great help. Faithwalking is a wonderful and safe place to learn about yourself and deal with anxiety. The Reformed Church in America has a program with Pine Rest that provides counseling for its pastors. The Christian Reformed Church in North America has a spiritual vitality toolkit for pastors.

9. Know when it’s time to leave. You know that there may come a time when God’s call is pointing you elsewhere. Wisdom in these moments comes from hearing the voices of others, looking at the situation with honest eyes, and knowing yourself. This may also be a time to learn about who you are and what an excellent next fit looks like by using a tool like the Birkman assessment.

HOW CONSISTORIES AND CONGREGATIONS CAN HELP EASE PASTORAL BURNOUT 

How can consistories and congregations help pastors navigate waters in which they keep hitting unavoidable icebergs in our COVID-plus world? When consistories and congregations see the impact of an iceberg strike on their pastor, they can do one or more of the following:

1. Give time. Pastors need time to access and work with the tools above. Some of that time needs to happen before the iceberg strike. Be a grace-filled congregation and give your pastor(s) the gift of time to stay healthy and get healthy.

2. Embrace imperfection. Consistories need to celebrate the good gifts of their pastor(s) and refuse to shame and blame them for not being good at all things, all the time. Live as a healthy consistory as the body of Christ, affirming the goodness that interdependence brings. You can convey this way of life to the congregation and use your gifts to fulfill the calling of the body of Christ. 

3. Speak and show encouragement. In this time of COVID-plus, actions and words of encouragement are critical. How can you, the leadership and congregation, speak and act in encouraging ways to build up the pastor and staff rather than tearing them down? More than 30 years ago, our son was born with special needs. The days and months after his birth were difficult. We had multiple doctors’ visits, hospitalizations, and surgeries. Our congregation gathered around us and supported us with time, care, and financial gifts. This care made it possible for us to survive this era. Meanwhile, we met another pastor in the hospital whose congregation demanded that he preach every Sunday, who provided little support and showed little care. As you can imagine, he soon left that congregation. The care and support of a congregation makes the difference.

4. Be an advocate for your pastor. When members complain about the pastor, when they say their pastor has hit an iceberg, and when they are just looking for someone to blame for things they don’t like, stand up for the pastor. There is always space for good conversations in consistory meetings, but outside of those spaces, one of the greatest gifts pastors can receive is a consistory that advocates for them.

Navigation in this COVID-plus world is challenging, and icebergs are inevitable. Whether these icebergs sink the pastor’s ship depends on using the right tools and having wise and supportive leadership.

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Some years ago I read the memoir of a Rev. Breedveld, who was my family's pastor 60 years ago in Strathroy.  He wrote of an immigrant church of over 210 families (for whom he was the sole pastor), two services a Sunday plus a dutch service, responsible for teaching all catechism classes and attended a host of very difficult pastoral situations - scores of them. The congregational stressors over immigration were massive and he had to navigate all of that.  

I am sorry, but I don't understand the almost constant laments of pastors and others over the hard life of the modern CRC minister.  I honestly do not.  They are now down to three services a month, on average, and they farm out much of the catechetical and other teaching.  Many have sought less of a dominee role (with all the pressures which that entailed) and have embraced a paid employee model instead.  The workload is a fraction of what it once was and vacations and other time off are very substantial.

You are paid to ransack libraries and life to write compelling sermons.  You are paid to read - it does not get better than that.  You are welcomed into people's lives at the most frought of times, where the conversations are dense and meaningful.  You can have carloads of engaging youth over to your deck anytime you want.  You can teach adult education.  You get paid maybe $100,000 plus benefits.

And I can remember perhaps 2 or 3 pastors in my lifetime openly revelling in the blessing of their vocation.  The rest are all hard done by.  Enough.  Please. If, over an extended period of time, you can't celebrate your calling any longer, it would be best if you left.  My children had at least two depressed and burned out pastors in their lives for extended periods of time. It did them no good at all.

 

 

Sincerely,

 

John A. Tamming 

Owen Sound, Ontario

 

 

Sorry, you know the old saying, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. We all have difficulty navigating through the life and career we've chosen. Hang in, it'll get better. It says so in scripture.

Dear Mr. Tamminga,

I don't think acknowledging the reality of the burnout experienced by many in pastoral ministry in any way is meant to say that the modern Pastor has a harder life than those of previous generations. Pastoral ministry has always been both deeply rewarding and deeply challenging. Congregational stressors and pressures change over time, but each generation and changing season brings with it different challenges (and some challenges that are timeless). 

I'm grateful for articles like this that provide encouragement and steps that Pastors and congregations can take when they recognize that Pastors (or other ministry leaders) are experiencing burnout so that their leaders are able to be healthy. As you say, it really has a negative impact on the whole congregation when the leader is burnt out and depressed. It is a gift when time and space is given to be able to take a step back, re-evaluate, and re-engage in ministry from a healthier place where you are once again deeply connected with the calling that led you there in the first place. I would hate to see pastors going through a hard time give up all together just because they have lost the initial joy of the calling. Instead I would hope that they would see it as an invitation to take a new approach to ministry or put support systems and structures in place like those described in this article that can enable them to discover again the joy and priviledge it is to serve the church. 

Your letter makes a lot of assumptions about the workload and expectations on modern pastors. It's helpful to remember that not all Pastors are serving in contexts where their churches can afford to pay them $100,000 plus benefits. Not all have substantial vacations and other time off. An increasing number of Pastors are bi-vocational, juggling a part-time or full-time job in addition to serving at the church. This can create additional opportunities as well as new challenges. 

As I interact with my peers in ministry, it has thankfully not been my sense that we are "hard done by." Yes, we commiserate over common challenges or things we are struggling with. Yes, after the past two years many are tired. But we also share about the joys of the work God has called us to, pray for each other, and do our best to encourage one another and build each other up. What encourages us and motivates us to continue going in ministry is not the size of the paycheck or the perks and benefits, but knowing that we have the incredible and humbling priviledge to be a part of the the work God is doing in and through his church. 

Blessings to you as you serve in your congregation and community! I can tell from your comments that while you are frustrated at present, you care deeply for the church and long to see pastors healthy and thriving in ministry. As you pray for and seek to support and encourage the pastors around you, you have the opportunity to be a part of bringing that vision into reality.

Grace and peace, 

Pastor Nicole McLeod

I thank Nicole for her comments (my surname, incidentally, lost the last "a" some time ago, presumably the act of some ancestor trying to shake off a Frisian past).  I do not discount anything of what she writes.  I can only share my experiences and observations.

On a personal note, I completed my M.Div at Calvin years ago but switched career paths when, apart from other factors, I realized my somewhat melancholic personality would lack the discipline and energy to motivate and elevate whatever churches I ended up at.  I could do a great Good Friday sermon and loved funerals but sensed one needed a broader skill set, particularly to work with the youth and younger couples.  I just did not have it.

Articles such as this strike me as simply indulging the worst traits of so many of our clergy and reinforce that which needs no reinforcement.  Updike (I think in his A Month of Sundays) wrote of the "mischievous idleness" of the ministry and I think he was onto something. As I have relayed elsewhere, John Stek's last lecture to our Psalms class included a plea to us graduates to buy an alarm clock, to set it for 5 and to get into your study by 6.  It is the vast acres of unstructured time, largely unsupervised and unaccounted for, which works hand in hand with the depression which I observe as pervasive in our clergy.   

They have no real goals, they do in their 50s exactly the same things they did in their 40s, they write no books or even a regular column, they are largely uninvolved in the civic life of their communities, they are strangers in the local Christian school, they make almost no attempt to understand the careers and demands of their parishioners (and thus have very little octane for their sermon material), are often cynical about their classical responsibilities and in general have so little that seems to professionally focus and energize them. 

And then they read an article which tells them to read the psalms, be ok with their imperfection, etc.  With all respect, this is NOT the advice most clergy need.  

 

 

Cordially,

 

John A. Tamming 

 

I say this not gratuitously, not to be harsh but to honestly set forth the problems as I see them.  

 

My apologies for misspelling your name! I don't know where I got that extra "a" from. Thank you for providing additional context. I have a much better understanding of your reaction to the article. As I reflect on your post, I wonder if two additional pieces of advice for those facing burnout could be:

9. Develop life-giving routines and systems of accountability.

I really appreciate your sentence "It is the vast acres of unstructured time, largely unsupervised and unaccounted for, which works hand in hand with the depression which I observe as pervasive in our clergy." In many pastoral roles you do have a large amount of freedom in structuring your time on a weekly and daily basis. I can see how this can lead to both over-working and under-working. Some Pastors end up turning all their time into "work time" to the neglect of family, hobbies, and health. On the other hand without the structure of needing to be up and at a particular place at a particular time, there are days when it can be hard to find the motivation to get out of bed. One can lead to the other.  The past two years of navigating the pandemic has only made this worse as many routines and systems were disrupted by changes to working environments, fewer opportunities to connect with others, loss of familiar working habits and rhythms, etc. As I reflect on how the past two years have been for myself I can think of specific stretches when I was working mostly from home where I did struggle more with my mental health. Some things I found helpful were creating clear goals and objectives for the next 3-4 months on a regular basis and then coming up with realistic and specific strategies to achieve those objectives, making use of time blocking, and writing regular reports to our staff team and elders. I also found myself having to recommit to embracing God's good gift of Sabbath rest. There are times when the cell phone needs to be off and email needs to go unchecked for a time.  

10. Engage in a new activity or learn something new

Your second to last paragraph describes a sort of settled complacency that I think could be the temptation in any field. I appreciate that you suggest a number of different activities that could engage the mind and heart in a new way and be professionally energizing - develop new goals, write a book or regular column that allows you to do research and reflect on aspects of ministry or theology that interest you, get involved in the civic life of your community, connect with parishioners of all ages from those in school to those in the workplace to become familiar with their daily lives and learn valuable new insights, engage in classical activities to continue to stretch and grow in different areas. 

Thank you again for the conversation. I am grateful I pushed back a bit on your response because your perspective has given me some good things to continue to ponder.