Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Dr. Meryl Herr of The GoodWorks Group. As part of this year’s focus on resilience and pastoral ministry, we’ve asked her to interview scholars, pastors and organizations focused on pastoral health. We’ll be sharing the insights and stories she found on this blog and throughout the Fall 2020 Virtual Event series.

Burnout. It happens because I work too much or don’t exercise good boundaries. I don’t have friends with whom I can process the joys and challenges of work. I neglect my health and my relationships. I don’t know how to manage conflict. I have a personality that predisposes me to burnout. Burnout is my fault. Or is it?

Many of us believe that burnout comes as a result of something a person did or didn’t do. But a recent Harvard Business Review article suggested that burnout has less to do with the person and more to do with the place they work. The article points to the World Health Organization’s recent designation of burnout as “an occupational phenomenon” and cites recent research by Gallup that the top five reasons for burnout were workplace factors.

Defining Burnout

Burnout is real. Christina Maslach, a longtime burnout researcher, and her colleagues have defined burnout as “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.”1 They have identified three dimensions of burnout: “overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”2

Even as Maslach and her colleagues have sought to define and measure burnout, they have not shied away from understanding what causes it. Over twenty years ago, Maslach and her colleagues began exploring the workplace to understand the organizational context in which burnout occurs. At that time, they contended that workload, control over one’s work, rewards, community, fairness and values could each be a determining factor in whether or not an individual experienced burnout. They concluded, “Burnout arises from chronic mismatches between people and their work setting in terms of some or all of these six areas.”3

Burnout Among Clergy

In their State of Pastors research, Barna found that nearly one-third of pastors are at risk of burnout.4 But what contributes to that? In a review of studies on clergy burnout, Elizabeth Ann Jackson-Jordan listed the following predictors of clergy burnout: 1) compassion fatigue, 2) relational conflict, 3) high role expectations and a low sense of control and 4) vulnerability to the needs of parishioners. The factors that seemed to help mediate burnout were having a strong relational network such as peers, mentors or a support team and maintaining good boundaries. Among that list of positive and negative predictors of burnout, we find both personal and workplace issues.

William N. Grosch and David C. Olsen observed both of these issues—person and place—in the scholarly research on burnout. They summarized the difference this way:

One body of research insists that the problem is systemic. That is, people burn out because they work in systems that burn them out. The problem is external: too much work, too little support, rigid work schedules, difficult parishioners, being ‘on call’ twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, excessive bureaucracy, unhelpful and often irrelevant denominational struggles….The other body of literature suggests that the problem is within the person. Freudenberger (1974, 1984), who originally developed this idea, found that those most likely to burn out were idealists, perfectionists, and compulsives.5

Instead of keeping person and place factors separate when looking at burnout, Grosch and Olsen have advocated for bringing them together: “burnout is understood best when the interplay between self and system is understood. It is the interplay of systemic factors with individual factors that together produce burnout.”6

Burnout and the Church

Burnout is a thing. It is real. We can observe its devastating effects in our lives and in the lives of others. Additionally, research indicates that burnout can be attributed to both the person and the place in which they work.

What can the church do with this information?

First, talk to your pastors and ministry leaders. Try to assess whether or not they are at risk for burnout. You can use the questions at the end of this article I wrote for Made to Flourish as a conversation starter. If you sense they are at risk for burnout or are experiencing it already, perhaps make provision for them to meet with a counselor or therapist.

Second, regularly check in with your pastors and ministry leaders about their work. How do they feel about their workload? Do they have a sense of control or autonomy over their work? Do they feel like their total compensation is adequate? To what extent do they receive adequate feedback or recognition for their work? Do they sense that they are being treated and evaluated fairly? To what extent do their values and vision align with that of the ministry?

Third, evaluate whether or not the systems and structures in your church could be negatively impacting your pastor. For example, does your church expect the senior pastor to make the majority of hospital visits? Could other ministry leaders—professional and volunteer—receive training to do that sort of work?

Once churches and ministries realize that they, too, can contribute to burnout, they can become part of the solution. Instead of merely blaming the pastor for a lack of boundaries or poor interpersonal skills, churches and ministry organizations can consider their complicity and make necessary changes. Together, ministry leaders and their organizations can develop a healthy culture that promotes wellbeing at work for staff and volunteers alike.

Endnotes

  1. Maslach, Christina, and Michael P. Leiter. “Understanding the Burnout Experience: Recent Research and Its Implications for Psychiatry.” World Psychiatry 15, no. 2 (June 2016): 103.
  2. Maslach and Leiter, “Burnout Experience,” 103.
  3. Leiter, Michael P., and Christina Maslach. “Six Areas of Worklife: A Model of the Organizational Context of Burnout.” Journal of Health and Human Services Administration 21, no. 4 (1999): 473.
  4. Barna Group. “The State of Pastors: How Today’s Faith Leaders Are Navigating Life and Leadership in an Age of Complexity.” Barna Group, 2017, 11.
  5. Grosch, William N., and David C. Olsen. “Clergy Burnout: An Integrative Approach.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 56, no. 5 (2000): 620.
  6. Grosch and Olsen, “Clergy Burnout,” 620.