The short answer is Yes!
I have traveled constantly for three weeks. This week, with my return to my home office, I have stumbled upon numerous situations of burnout among senior or solo pastors.
When I am reminded of the reality of pastoral burnout, the first situation that comes to mind is the literal burnout of my own father in the pulpit in the middle of a sermon when I was a teenager. It was an incident that significantly impacted our household for the next three years.
This week I heard about a pastor who fainted while preaching, got up and said he was all right and continued preaching. He never addressed what caused him to faint. Months later this pastor stood up to preach on Sunday and issued a surprise resignation saying he had hit the wall and could not continue.
Too often we hear about pastors who feel trapped and act out in some way so they can get out of their perceived trap. Their acting out can be something that is sufficiently illegal, immoral, or unethical that it results in their losing their pastoral role.
Another pastor I encountered this week is just two to three years into a new pastorate, and indicated he already feels as busy and burdened as he did after seven to eight years in his former pastorate. The good news is that he realizes it and through our coaching relationship should be able to proactively address these issues.
When burnout occurs, what should a pastor do? Better yet, if a pastor seems to be on a burnout journey, what steps can he or she take to prevent full burnout? Here are a few I would recommend.
First, get a complete physical. Not just an annual checkup in a doctor’s office, but a full, comprehensive physical assessment involving a hospital clinic that goes deeper and seeks to discover possible physical conditions currently unknown or undiagnosed. It is amazing how many times in the years following a pastoral burnout it is discovered that some undiagnosed or ignored illness or disease was a major contributor to burnout.
Second, get a psychological evaluation. This is not to suggest a pastor who burns out has significant psychological dysfunction. It is to suggest we all have psychological issues that impact our emotional well-being plus our intra-personal and inter-personal relationships. There may even be some undiagnosed depression or other conditions that can easily be addressed.
Third, a time of burnout is a great time to renew and enrich a pastor’s marriage. Spouses also feel significant stress. Some of their stress may be they observed some of the symptoms of approaching burnout, sought to address these with their husband or wife, and encountered stubborn denial that raised the stress level in their marriage. Reconnecting with one another at a deep emotional and spiritual dimension calls for some time away together and perhaps engaging in a formal marriage enrichment process.
Fourth, pastors should consider some type of spiritual director or peer learning community that allows them to look at their spiritual call to ministry, their strengths and skills as a pastor, and their preferences in ministry service. A new resource that describes the success of this approach is the book So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive by Penny Long Marler and host of other writers.
Fifth, pastors may need a sabbatical of up to 120 days to retool for the next season of Christian ministry. Unlike the common mantra on sabbaticals held by many laypersons, the subject of the sabbatical should not be the weaknesses of the pastor, but those things in ministry that bring them joy. They need a reaffirmation of the fun part of ministry. Strengthening their experience of joy will provide them with a resource to see their way through the parts of ministry that are not nearly as joyful.
Is there life after burnout for pastors? Absolutely! Go for it!