Ministerial Meltdown and Burnout
Written by Alan Palmer.
You can download the PDF of this resource here.
In 2001 I was the senior pastor of a very large multi-staffed church in Western Canada. To all intents and purposes, it looked like I had arrived. That was on the outside. On the inside I was running on empty, absolutely fatigued, depressed and ‘flat-lining’ emotionally. One evening in the November of that year, I walked out into the snow and made the journey by foot to our GPs office. I told her that I was constantly on the edge of explosive anger, panic attacks or morbid tears. She listened patiently and with great sympathy. Within a couple of hours I was in a psychiatric ward, I had experienced a nervous breakdown, a ‘Ministerial Meltdown’. What some authors have also called ‘burnout’. I was experiencing what Charles Swindoll calls’ stress fractures’ in every aspect of my life and work.
That was ten years ago, since then God has slowly, patiently and graciously rebuilt my life, family and faith. Why have I taken the time to write all these personal details? Well the worryingly I see many ministers walking down the same destructive road as I travelled; I see some of them being over stretched to breaking point, on the verge of ‘Ministerial Meltdown’.
Why do Ministers Meltdown or Burn-out?
All of us, clergy included, live in this hurry up world. We are all prone to what Jeff Lucas calls ‘quickoholism’. We find ourselves almost addicted to tearing along from one task to the next, from one ecclesiastical appointment to the next. John Ortberg talks about what he calls the ‘honkosecond’, that is the time it takes for some one behind us to honk their car horn after the lights have turned green. Everyone it seems is in a hurry to get somewhere! We in the West are all part of this ‘hurry sick world’, but is there a special case that can be made for members of the Clergy in relation to stress? Dr Gary Collins thinks there is, he argues the case for a particular form of stress which he simply calls ‘religious stress’. I believe that alongside the common stressors that are experienced by everyone, there is also a form of ‘di-stress’ especially related to those involved in pastoral ministry.
C H Spurgeon and Ministerial Stress
The great Victorian Baptist preacher C H Spurgeon was another who believed that there is a type of stress that is specifically related to pastoral ministry. He demonstrates this by including an entire chapter focussing on ‘ministerial stress’ entitled, ‘The Ministers Fainting Fits’ in his book Lectures to my Students. The great man candidly tells how he suffered from prolonged attacks of depression, sometimes so great that he had to leave his pastorate in London to escape to a resting place in France.
Underlying causes of Ministerial Meltdown
When I was Director of The Open Learning Centre at Oak Hill Theological I wrote a journal article based on some research I had done at Westminster College, Oxford for the Anglican academic publication, The Churchman. It was entitled, ‘Clergy Stress, Causes and Suggested Coping Strategies’, there I noted a world-wide church phenomenon of men and women abandoning ministry because of stress and burnout. The problem has not gone away and Baptist ministers are not immune form it either! I have several reasons why I think Clergy tend to experience stress that can so easily morph into its unhelpful cousins, ‘di-stress’, ‘depression’, ‘Meltdown’ or ‘Burn-Out’. A number of these can be illustrated from my own experience. This isn’t an exclusive list by any means.
The Sisyphus Complex
Ministers can suffer from what has been called ‘The Sisyphus Complex’. In Greek mythology it was Sisyphus’ fate to push a great stone up a mountain only to have it fall down just before he reached the top. This problem within all the caring professions, we are called to a task that we can never quite complete. Clergy face a continuous onslaught of ‘ministry’; this includes services, holy-day celebration, sick people to visit, wise counsel to dispense and sermons to write. We can never quite put at the end of our ministerial ‘to do’ list – DONE.
There are also ‘unrealistic expectations’ on the part of both the clergy and the congregation, about ‘what a minister is supposed to do’ and how many hours a minister is expected to work. Having a number of churches to ‘take care of’ is setting most ministers up for a sense of failure. You can only juggle so many balls in the air – you can only keep so many plates spinning atop of poles. Also, too often Ministers are prone to what Charles Hummel calls ‘the tyranny of the urgent’. They feel pressurised by a variety of situations, all of which appear to appear to be urgent and demanding their immediate attention.
Some Clergy can to suffer from a constant barrage of criticism. I personally have been criticised by congregations about almost every aspect of my life and ministry: from the length of my hair – when I was young, to my sermons being too intellectual or not deep enough, for wearing a clerical collar or not wearing one, for using too much humour in my sermons or being too serious, for driving a new car and having a new home, to driving an old car and living in social housing. The list can go on and on. Infuriatingly, the criticisms that Ministers suffer are most often ‘majoring on the minors’, focussing on non- essentials. After all, the length or colour of my hair will not significantly impact they way I engage in ministry, now will it? Like the author and speaker Jeff Lucas, I sometimes wish that the Bible included the verse, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Lighten up a bit”!’ In my opinion, this verse should be committed to memory by every member of every congregation. However, thinking about it a little bit more, maybe those of us who are members of the clergy ought to ‘lighten up’ a bit too. Sometimes we take ourselves a bit too seriously; we are sometimes overly sensitive to negative comments. We need to remember that not every criticism is to be taken personally.
Clergy can also be worn down by having to working with difficult people and ‘clinging vines’. The work of ministry can continue with the same difficult people year after year. These can be people who constantly criticise everything the pastor does, or they can be people who act as ‘clinging –vines’, always needing attention and sapping energy out of the Minister. One discouraged pastor said that the ‘trouble makers’ never seem to leave and the helpful, cooperative people never seem to stay’.
Ministers are also expected to carry what could be called ‘toxic confidences’. In their role as pastoral counsellors they are bound to hear the most personal, intimate and disturbing details from some of the members of their congregation. Because this information is often given ‘in confidence’ there is no opportunity for the minister to off load this information onto anyone else, not even their spouse. If this information is of a distressing nature, it can just sit their like toxic waste and slowly seep into the pastor’s soul sometimes wreaking havoc, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.
Living in the Gold-fish bowl
It has been said that a minister’s family often lives in what is termed a ‘gold-fish bowl’. They live out their lives in the public eye of the congregation. Some congregations seem to know more about what happens in the minister’s home than the minister does! Clergy can become the characters of what appears to be an ecclesiastical ‘Soap Opera’. Everybody knows what is going on in the minister’s family and everyone is talking about it. The Clergy and their family are also considered by some congregations to be ‘the Holy Family’. The perception is often that his/her marriage has to appear ‘perfect’. Even their children can come under close scrutiny as to their behaviour, their dress, their attendance at church etc. Privacy seems to be a right that some clergy have given up when they were ordained. When you have no ‘private space’ in your life it can be extremely stressful.
The Tell-Tale symptoms of Ministerial Meltdown and Burnout
Lightening the load
When Ministers start to feel overwhelmed by the task they have been given, they tend to look for ways to lighten the load. They are like hot-air balloons that need to throw ballast over the side of the basket in order to stay aloft. So they start dumping things overboard, but not necessarily the obvious and external ‘ministerial’ things. The personal things go first. The times of unhurried prayer, reading the bible and other good books, or listening to a favourite CD. Time with husband or wife may well be jettisoned. Quality and unhurried time with children may also be sacrificed. Hobbies that help to ‘re –create’ may also be dumped over the side.
When some Ministers ‘hit the wall’ in terms of stress they can look for other more sinister ways to take away the pain. They may turn to alcohol as an anaesthetic for their inner hurt, or perhaps turn to smoking or over-eating in an attempt to mask the inner pain of their situation. Some turn to the sexual fantasy-world of pornography as a way to escape the unwelcome realities of ministerial life. Sadly, some deliberately get themselves involved in immoral relationships, often hoping to get caught so that they will be put out of the misery by being ‘forced’ to leave the pastoral ministry.
Bill Hybels states that when over stretched and stressed some Ministers may start to ‘hydroplane’ over important parts of their life. This ‘numbness in their souls’ causes them to avoid areas which are emotionally demanding. They tend to skim over problems that need to be attended to; to put ‘band aids’ over problems instead of facing up to them and sorting them out. Sadly, when the ministerial parent is under stress children can be seen as ‘just another problem’ to deal with. They can then be easily slotted into this ‘quick fix’ – sticking plaster category. When Ministers go through stress and depression they only not the only ones who suffer, their families do too.
What can we do about this Ministerial Malady?
There are no easy answers to this challenging issue. However, I can make some practical and spiritual suggestions that may help someone who is experiencing meltdown or depression. First and foremost, don’t feel guilty because you’re a Minister and suffering depression – it can happen to any of us! Next make sure you ask for help, don’t be tempted to suffer in silence –it only makes things worse. Talk openly and honestly to your spouse and family, let them be part of the healing process. Find a trusted friend and tell them what a happening to you is. A burden shared really is a burden halved. Talk honestly to your doctor, tell them all your symptoms and don’t be afraid to accept their professional help. There are a number of anti-depressants currently available that will help you begin to feel better in about six weeks or so. You should talk to your line –managers in ministry. This is not easy for some pastors because they fear that this might jeopardise their future careers. However, your health is really important, so ask for time off to recover, for support from the Church for you and your family, and don’t be tempted to get back in harness too soon!
Preventing Burnout or Meltdown
To prevent burnout in the future think about the shape of your life and ministry. The Greeks had a saying we need to take note of here, ‘The bow that is always kept bent will loose its power’.
Make sure that you build in oases of time and space for you to be refreshed and restored, ‘to unstring your bow’. This will mean saying no to some apparently important things and some apparently important people. Pencil in a regular time in your diary each week when you have an appointment with yourself, or your spouse and children. Don’t feel guilty when you just ‘kick back’ and relax. Take more time walking through the park ‘kicking the leaves’ or sitting on your favourite bench just staring at the sea. Force yourself to slow down. Take a look at the dials on the dashboard of your life – is the ‘rev – counter’ in the ‘red zone’? If so take steps to deliberately slow your life down.
Let our souls catch with our bodies
In his book, Restoring Your Spiritual Passion George MacDonald illustrates this idea of enforcing a slower pace of life. He sites the story told by Mrs Lettie Cowman in her wonderful book, Springs in the Desert. It is taken from African Colonial History. In the deep jungles of Africa, a traveller was making a long trek. Coolies had been engaged from a tribe to carry the loads. The first day they marched rapidly and went far. The traveller had high hopes of a speedy journey. But the next morning these jungle tribesmen refused to move. For some strange reason they just sat and rested.
On inquiry as to the reason for this strange behaviour, the traveller was informed that they had gone too fast the first day, and that they were now waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies. Maybe we need some ‘soul’ catch-up time.
Words of encouragement
The good news here is that God doesn’t give up on you if you’re stressed out, not even if you’re a minister! He wants you to ‘wait upon him to renew your strength’. He wants you to know that he never snuffs out a spluttering wick or throws away are bruised reed. God wants Ministers and all his people experiencing emotional meltdown to come to the Jesus for help. William Barclay translates Matthew 11:28-30 in this helpful way: ‘Come to me all you who are exhausted…come to me all you who are weighed down by your heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke …exchange your pressure for my peace’.
Peter Meadows ends his book Pressure Points with these insightful words, ‘For many of us, the heart of our failure to find peace under pressure is because we fail to grasp that we have a loving heavenly Father- who cares.’ The depressed Minister need not feel isolated and abandoned; God’s care is not nullified by dark times. Better times will come; I am personally proof of that! Psalm 42:11 (New Living Translation)
Why am I discouraged?
Why so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again-
My Saviour and my God!
The author Rev Dr Alan Palmer is Head of Religious Studies and Head of Scholars and Oxbridge at Culford School. He would welcome feedback from readers. He can be contacted at Apalmer@culford.co.uk
© Alan Palmer
See also: our three articles in the ‘Growing in Leadership’ resources section of the Living Leadership website on The Leader’s Home, The Leader’s Church and The Leader’s Heart.