While pastoral ministry is a very rewarding career, it can easily lead to burnout. Back in 2010, The New York Times published an article on pastoral burnout.
The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.
You can read the full article here. There is no reason to believe that the situation has improved since 2010.
This is not just a matter of impersonal statistics. Many of us know pastors who have experienced burnout and have left the ministry. Approximately four years ago, as I was concluding my previous pastoral charge, I was at the point of burnout. When I left those churches, I did not know if I would go back into pastoral ministry. Thankfully, my three year break from pastoral ministry was very healing and I am in a good place now.
The good news is that there are things that can help prevent burnout. While there is no silver bullet, good decisions in certain areas can lead to a healthier ministry.
1. Physical Health
Emotional health is closely tied to physical health. Sitting in an office, hanging out at coffee shops and grabbing fast food before evening meetings do not help our physical health. Some routine of exercise is essential. This may mean a membership at a gym but it can be as simple as watching what we eat and regular walks. I look forward to hour long walks with my dog, listening to podcasts on my iPhone. This helps me physically, emotionally (as in introvert I need the alone time) and intellectually.
2. Observe a Sabbath
One of the best decisions I have ever made was to start observing a Sabbath. This is more than a day off. I stay off the computer (with one exception) and don’t even do chores around the house. Monday is my day off, but I take Sunday noon to Monday noon as my Sabbath. Our minds and bodies need rest.
3. Feed Yourself Spiritually
Even though pastors are paid to study the Bible and pray, many pastors are starving spiritually. Bible reading becomes more about preparing sermons or lessons. Praying becomes about interceding for people in our congregation. We need to take care of ourselves if we are going to be able to help others. It is the same principle as how airlines tell passengers that in case of an emergency, they need to take care of their own oxygen before helping others. I have found the Daily Office to be a good resource.
4. Connect With Other Pastors
Pastoral ministry can be lonely. Isolation can lead to some unhealthy decisions. It is important to get connected with other people, especially other pastors who know what it is like. Find someone that you can talk to, not for comparing numbers and programs, but to be vulnerable and honest with.
5. Set Up Boundaries
If you will allow it, ministry can take over every area of your life. It is important to set up boundaries to protect your family and yourself. You do not have to work twelve hours a day, even if some people will respect you for overworking. Phone calls and emails can wait until the next day. Don’t wait for the congregation to set the boundaries.
None of these things will happen by accident. If you want a healthy ministry, you need to make good choices.