How to Know When You Need a Change
If you find yourself anxious and struggling emotionally and spiritually with the day-to-day tedium of ministry, then you should pause and consider making changes.
I was recently part of a cohort where one of the participants, a pastor, complained about his work. His church was going through a restructuring and it was creating extra work for him. In addition to his regular load, he had people calling him throughout the day to offer their thoughts about the restructuring. He also had the problem of waning attendance, with people not coming back after the church reopened in-person meetings that had been halted due to the Covid-19 situation. Waning attendance meant waning contributions, and, well, you can imagine this pastor felt like his hands were tied.
“What do they want from me?” he asked. “I can’t be in two places at once, and complaining to me about our restructuring plans doesn’t do anything, because I’m not the one making the decisions! And I feel like I’m being blamed for the attendance and budget problems, but I can’t control whether or not people come back to the church--especially after we spoon-fed them for a year-and-a-half with our ‘on demand’ worship services!”
This pastor was visibly and obviously frustrated. We spent more time listening to him, then prayed for him.
I reflected on this pastor’s situation and what he shared and realized that he was probably approaching burnout. The Covid-19 situation had created a lot of additional stress for him, as it had for many others. He was worried about holding his church together, ministering to the folks who came back, wondering how to minister to those who didn’t come back, and how to solve the church’s financial problems.
I’ve been writing about situations like this because I believe many pastors are going to begin finding themselves in a whirlwind not of their own creation, swept up by circumstances around them. If they don’t care for themselves well, they will find themselves brought down into burnout, where recovery will be tough. Some won’t recover at all and will leave ministry, bitter and blaming others.
But there are some indicators that things aren’t right and need to be addressed by a pastor so that things stabilize and do not become worse. I’ve outlined three of these warning signs below, addressing three different aspects of a pastor’s work.
The Warning Signs That You Are Approaching Burnout Are…
When you are flustered with the day-to-day
The first sign that this pastor was struggling was visual--the affect on his face gave it away. But his emotional description of his day-to-day work-life balance was difficult to listen to. Everything was getting to him. No sooner would he begin to study for a sermon than he’d have a walk-in. He’d try to send an important email but be interrupted by a phone call. Three months ago, he said, none of this would have bothered him, but now, everything gets on his nerves and sends him into a downward spiral.
This inner turmoil over the day-to-day tasks of ministry reveals an anxiety about ministry. You may be feeling out of control, that too much is thrust at you each day, or ministry is unfair. If you are able to recognize this, you will do well to begin addressing your self-care.
When people are fraying your nerves
A tell-tale sign that a pastor is approaching burnout is when the very people she is supposed to shepherd drive her up the wall. The pastor above reflected this with his frustration over the constant phone calls, where parishioners offered opinions that didn’t really matter. Many pastors are experiencing the tension of listening to church members who disappeared from the church while it was closed due to Covid-19 explain what is wrong with the church and what needs to change “for them to return.”
These types of conversations are normal for pastors to engage with. The pastor who is taking care of herself is equipped to differentiate the person’s opinion from who they really are and is able to listen without becoming upset. But the pastor who is struggling with emotional health and is stressed out all the time hears this as a personal attack. These pastors must recognize this as a warning sign and begin addressing their self-care.
When you fear “going to work”
I called the pastor whose story I shared at the beginning of this article. He is my friend and I was concerned for him. As we talked, he told me, “I don’t even want to go to work. I dread Sunday mornings and can’t sleep on Saturday night.” It’s not that my friend suddenly decided he doesn’t like his job anymore. It’s that so much anxiety has been built into his life that he dreads the source of that anxiety, and “work” is the symbol of that anxiety.
Pastors who find themselves filled with dread at the thought of Sunday, or who feel a black cloud hanging over them as they arrive at the office, must recognize this as a sign of burnout. They would be wise to take a day or two off and think through their own self-care.
If you find yourself anxious and struggling emotionally and spiritually with the day-to-day tedium of ministry, then you should pause and consider that you are closer to burnout than you’d like to believe. It’s imperative at this point that you address your own self-care.
In next week’s article, I will offer four suggestions for self-care practices that will help you calm your soul, refocus on your identity in Christ, and walk with humility and substance in ministry.
Pastors must remember that self-care is self-leadership. If you feel yourself hurtling towards burnout, trying to push through and putting on the proverbial “happy face” won’t help anyone. It won’t help you address the hurts, fears, and anxieties that need to be addressed for you to find healing. It will hurt, both others and yourself. Self-care is not selfish.
As always, let me know how I can serve you in this.
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