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Appreciating—and preventing—pastoral burnout

Posted: October 23 2023 at 04:00 AM
Author: Rev. Matthew Smith, Warren and Red Oak UMC

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In case you missed it: last month was Pastor Appreciation Month. In many Northern Illinois Conference congregations, Staff-Parish Relations Committee chairs said words of appreciation, passed out gift certificates, and/or offered a hearty handshake in celebration of their pastor(s)’ efforts. In other congregations, no such appreciation was offered. This was not necessarily due to pastoral issues, but simply because church members were unaware.  

In either case, it is important for congregations to know that it is highly probable that their pastor(s) had considered quitting ministry at some point over the past couple of years… and may even have been considering it while smiling and accepting their gift certificate.  

A Barna survey released in March 2022 showed that 42 percent of pastors had contemplated leaving ministry, up 9 percent from a similar survey in January 2021. It is not impossible that the number has increased in the past year and a half. This is not because pastors are questioning their call or their faith. They are simply getting burned out.  

Recently, a group of NIC pastors convened in an impromptu online meeting to talk about clergy burnout. Rev. Lindsey Joyce, a pastor in the Lake North District who convened the group, said, “Clergy burnout has been a topic of conversation for years in the church. When my colleagues and I saw clergy having strong reactions to an article on social media about clergy burnout we thought, ‘why don’t we get together to talk about this and figure out what it means for the future of the church?’”  

The hour-long conversation was not a session of bemoaning our congregations. Instead, it focused on cultural and systemic issues affecting our ministry, highlighting pressure point areas such as navigating declining finances, maintaining oversized buildings, and struggling against a culture (internal and external) that seems to have less appreciation for and/or increased expectations of the role of pastor.

To a person, everyone in that meeting has a deep love for our Triune God, feels a deep sense of call to Christian ministry, has a deep feeling of love toward their congregations, and are doing fruitful ministry. However, upon completing a “burnout inventory,” everyone in the conversation found they were also approaching or surpassing the burnout threshold. It could be logically assumed that similar levels would be present in the remainder of NIC clergy who were not present at the meeting.

How can you help? First, check in with your pastor(s) regularly and ask them how they are doing. When they deflect with “I’m fine,” ask again, “No, really. How are you doing?” Second, ask how you can help—and mean it.  

For in truth, while gift certificates and pats on the back are appreciated, what every pastor dreams about is working side-by-side, in partnership, with our congregations to glorify God in our mission to love and serve God’s people and make disciples for the transformation of the world. If church members see themselves just as responsible for the church’s mission as the pastor is, they are more likely to have a healthy church—and pastor.

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