Pastor Burnout Definition
On other pages we’ve discussed burnout causes and symptoms. But what is it? We know how to identify it and know what causes it. But before we can fully understand it, we need to define it.
Burnout is a state of physical, mental, spiritual and emotional exhaustion caused by extended and intense levels of stress, causing the body to over-produce adrenaline. It leads to the questioning of one's abilities and/or the value of one's work.
- It is the extended and intense levels of stress. Keep in mind that the word, "stress," is neutral – neither good nor bad. Stress is anything that causes the body to go on high alert. Both funerals and weddings are stressful events. Both extreme sadness and extreme joy are stressful. This is why, in my opinion, introverts are more susceptible to burnout. Pastors are constantly working with people. Introverts in particular are stressed whenever they are with people – especially if they are called upon to pray, preach, or sing. Whether you are introverted or extroverted, though, working with people, preparing sermons, going to parties, or doing counseling are all stressful – good stress for the extrovert, negative stress for the introvert.
Stress is anything that causes the body to produce adrenaline – that chemical that puts us on high alert, helps us focus, and gives us a boost of energy.
- It is a state of physical exhaustion. Your body can only take so much stress – good or bad. Adrenaline is meant to be an occasional burst of energy – not a constant partner. Think of adrenaline as similar to nitrous oxide for a car. Race cars go fast on gasoline. But occasionally the driver wants a boost of speed – so he engages the nitrous. That’s what adrenaline is supposed to be. But when adrenaline is constantly being pumped into the body, it runs the body down. Instead of giving a body an extra boost, it actually works against the body, causing it to get tired.
- Burnout is a state of mental exhaustion. Pastors, by virtue of their calling, have to use their minds more than many other occupations. Preparing sermons requires deep thinking. Decision making, counseling, worship preparation, writing, and vision casting demand the use, and often the over use, of a person’s mind. To compensate for the demands placed on the brain, the body produces its own version of caffeinated coffee – adrenaline. This enables the mind to focus more intently on the task – whether that be preaching or counseling. But when the mind gets no rest, the adrenaline works against the brain, producing exhaustion.
- Burnout is a state of spiritual exhaustion. The pastorate rubs a person’s spiritual life raw. The pastor is constantly giving and giving. It’s been said that the pastorate is the best place for one to lose one’s spirituality. That’s simply because of the law of supply and demand. People demand more than a pastor can give. He gives out faster than he can take in himself. Eventually this catches up to him and his spiritual life gets depleted.
- Burnout is a state of emotional exhaustion. Sadness, joy, empathy, anger, and even guilt are all emotions frequently experienced by pastors. These are normal parts of being human. But for those who feel these emotions constantly and in the degree that pastors do, they are being set up for emotional breakdown. It’s not so much the experience of these emotions that is the problem. The real problem comes when the extremes of these emotions are a constant companion. Pastors go from joy to sorrow in their extremes. They might visit a new mother in the hospital and then go to a funeral. Pastors officiate at weddings and baby dedications while working to moderate between people in conflict. When each of these emotions continues without significant breaks, the body is forced to produce adrenaline just to keep one going. When emotions run on adrenaline for an extended period of time, emotional cracks are sure to occur. Anger, a sense of failure, guilt, disillusionment, and frustration are all common characteristics of emotional exhaustion.
There is a snowball effect to all these points of exhaustion. In isolation, each of these elements of exhaustion would probably not cause burnout. But when the snowball gets rolling down the hill, it forces a body to compensate by producing adrenaline. When adrenaline is over-used, it wears a person out. As each of these elements – physical, mental, spiritual, emotional exhaustion – collects speed, they begin to accumulate size and severity. When a person gets to a breaking point, that’s when the snowball produces an avalanche. One after another, each of these elements fails and begins to crush the pastor.
At this point, the pastor is completely burned out. There is no way to stop an avalanche once it starts. A pastor then succumbs to full burnout.
So what can you do? You’re burned out. Now how do you make the journey back to health. Burnout is not the end of your life or ministry. In many ways it’s the beginning.
Now that we have burnout defined, let’s learn how to recover.