Underestimating staff burnout

You don’t think your staff are stretched thin? Don’t think you are above burning out? Have you checked the health of your organizational staff? Perhaps you underestimate the power of staff burnout in your congregation or organization. It’s real and it can hurt not just your organization, but families.

Recently, a high-profile Baptist pastor in North Carolina became the latest ministry burnout case. Rev. Steve Shoemaker, who leads a 2,200-member Baptist church in Charlotte, entered a 30-day treatment program. In a rather quick move, Shoemaker sent a letter to his congregation outlining his need to step away. He wrote, “I’m physically, psychologically and spiritually depleted and must get help.”

What leads to such powerful emotional wounds?

Pastors and church staff often succumb to burnout. Long hours, high expectations, lower pay, being “on” 24/7, and stress all bring a higher work load to staff. This is often an under reported story in mainstream media, but in 2010 the New York Times wrote a story on clergy burnout. The first two paragraphs were striking and left no room for doubt of the power of 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.

Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.

What is even more challenging is that the majority of clergy under 35 leave pastoral ministry within the first five years. As a young clergy person, my time with the Lewis Fellows provided a much needed outlet for exploring challenges and opportunities as a fresh-faced minister. If I did not have the opportunity to be a Lewis Fellow, I don’t know where I would be spiritual, emotionally, and professionally today.

I have served in four churches since 1997 and everywhere I went, I saw church staff and clergy burnout. Some handled it well and others didn’t. Some staff and clergy left to go on to other jobs, but still others found self-destructive means of dealing with burnout and depression. The temptation to self-destruct is always present. Some congregations and people were left shocked, dismayed, and it wrecked people’s faith.

Organizational leaders, lay leaders, and congregations cannot underestimate the power of burnout by understanding the demands of ministry. Giving generous time off, study leave, sick time, funding for time away, sabbaticals, appreciation gifts, and encouraging pastors to join support groups are all ways to help fend off burnout. If left unchecked, churches and organizations will also suffer from a leader’s burnout. Relationships and organizational health will be negatively affected.

A congregation must be proactive and educate themselves on burnout. By understanding the problem of burnout and providing resources to guard against it, churches can empower their leaders for healthy success.

Rev. Alan Rudnick is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ballston Spa. He is the author of “The Work of the Associate Pastor”, Judson Press.

Alan Rudnick

Author's Website
About the Author
Alan Rudnick has been featured on television, radio, print, and social media and serves as the Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ballston Spa, NY. He has quickly established himself as a leader, blogger, and commentator in the areas of faith, Christianity, ministry, and social media. He is the author of, “The Work of the Associate Pastor”, Judson Press. Alan’s writing has been featured with the Albany Times Union, The Christian Century, Associated Baptist Press, and The Fund of Theological Education. http://alanrudnick.org

Read more posts by

  • MichaelPoole1

    Thanks for another helpful piece. I recently retired after 24 years of congregational leadership in four Baptist churches with “memorial” in their names. The first six months, I did nothing but house projects… and a lot of mumbling. It’s possible  that some of my ministry was served with borderline depression. I also recognize similar signs in staff members and colleagues. It’s a serious issue.