When I interviewed Jerry Moen, pastor of the Nazarene church in McMinnville, Oregon, for a chapter in the book, Best Practices of Growing Churches: Profiles and Conversations with Ministry Leaders, he talked about a burnout experience early in his ministry. After graduating from college in 1980 he served in a series of youth ministry assignments until 1992, when, discouraged and exhausted, he quit due to what he remembered as 'some kind of burnout or meltdown.'
He left the ministry, as he tells it, "to save my family as well as my faith." The family moved to McMinnville where for a time he worked for his father-in-law as a landscaper. His family immediately engaged with the local Nazarene church and after accepting a part-time ministry position there, he eventually became the senior pastor.
By then he was a different person. 'I did not want to have a savior complex, but instead,' he said, 'I wanted to really trust that God could take care of His people without me there managing all the decisions and crises in their lives.' For over a decade now he has led a healthy growing congregation.
Clergy burnout or meltdown is more widespread than known, or at least than talked about, and doesn't always have such a positive outcome. The plight of stressed-out pastors has attracted a great deal of attention since a front-page report, 'Taking a Break from the Lord's Work,' by Paul Vitello in the New York Times and an op-ed response, 'Congregations Gone Wild,' by Jeffrey MacDonald. Anne Dilenschneider followed with Soul Care and Roots of Clergy Burnout by citing a new report from Clergy Health Initiative at Duke University on the poor mental and physical health of pastors.
These timely articles have drawn attention to some very real concerns about the health and well-being of pastors. But in the midst of the ensuing conversation, there are a number of myths and misconceptions about clergy burnout that should be reexamined in light of the research on this subject.
Myth #1: Taking time off is enough to prevent stress and burnout. As important as time off is, returning to work after days off, vacations, and sabbaticals without changing stress-producing behavior patterns will not make much difference. For example, a good diet and physical activity, which have been demonstrated to reduce stress, are just as essential to emotional fitness as time off.
Myth #2: Clergy leaders are in poorer health than the general population. Clergy have historically enjoyed the distinction of being healthier and living longer than other professionals. What seems to have happened in recent decades is that clergy have 'slid toward the norm.' The overall physical health of clergy is not worse than that of the general population; rather it has become more like that of the general population. In other words, clergy today are less likely to be healthier than the norm, but that does not mean they are sicker.
Myth #3: Older leaders are more likely to burn out than younger leaders. Recent research on clergy age seems to indicate that younger clergy are more likely to burn out than their older colleagues. In general, levels of mental health improve as people age. Older clergy are more likely than their younger colleagues to have learned how to manage their stress.
Myth #4: Clergy leaders are dissatisfied with what they do. Research on job satisfaction in the U.S. holds some good news for clergy. Among all the professions surveyed, 87 percent of clergy were likely to indicate they were very satisfied, compared to the national average of 47 percent. This is not to say that clergy do not experience high levels of job-related stress. They do. But existing research seems to suggest that a stressful job can still be rewarding.
And as with Jerry Moen's experience, clergy burnout, if it occurs, is neither failure nor final. He has long since learned how to manage his stress.
After reading these recent articles and the new research on clergy stress I reread The Stress of Life by Hans Selye. His research, conducted over 50 years ago, examined how our bodies respond to and sometimes cause stress.
He wrote about good stress and bad stress and how to achieve balance so that we do not wear ourselves out prematurely. We all live with everyday stress, which Selye described as the normal 'wear and tear' of life. To live a fulfilled life, he said we must find a way to avoid the 'stresses of senseless struggles.'
The Sunday I attended his church in McMinnville, Pastor Moen announced his plan to take a six-week sabbatical. He told the congregation, 'I'm a little tired. I need a break. I'll return in six weeks renewed and ready to serve better.' In each of the four services they applauded and shouted their approval and support.
5 ways congregations can help prevent clergy burnout:
1. Encourage pastors to take time off'a day each week and a yearly vacation away from congregational responsibilities.
2. Provide for paid multi-week sabbaticals every few years.
3. Pay attention to signs of overextension.
4. Provide constructive feedback about self-induced stressful behavior patterns.
5. Prevent differences of opinion from becoming personal attacks.
Tom Nees is the former director of the USA/Canada office for the Church of the Nazarene.