Burnout

By Paul Koch

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From my earliest moments at pastoral conferences (during my days as a vicar) to current columns in Synodical publications and every pastor’s conference I have attend since, there is constant concern regarding “burnout” in the ministry. At almost every pastoral gathering there is a former pastor (who for some reason is now selling insurance) who speaks to us about burnout prevention. In fact there are now quite a few retreats and getaway locations designed specifically for this concern.

Now I assume this alarm is present because the numbers play out, and there are enough stats on the health and wellbeing of pastors and their relationships to give rise to so much concern. Now to be honest I haven’t checked any of them out myself. I tried Googling them but soon realized that reading the results just might lead me toward burnout. So I trust the wisdom of others who sound the alarm and supplement the rest with I have witnessed in the lives of a few colleagues over the years.

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What it all boils down to is pastors are often overworked, underpaid, depressed, moody, tired, confused, frustrated, etc. The Synodical folks see and know this and so they want to do what they can to prevent or limit such problems among the clergy. I wonder though, has this always been the case? Is the current climate of ministry much different from any other? And are the clergy that different with regard to burnout from any other vocation, especially those of the people sitting in the pews every Sunday morning?

Somehow I doubt it.

However, I think that part of what has happened is we have become fractured and confused in knowing exactly what it is a pastor is supposed to do. This has led to a higher rate of burnout.

As a point of comparison; when I was pursuing my undergraduate degree at Concordia University in Irvine I was planning on becoming a DCE (Director of Christian Education). One of the things that I realized early on in the program was that no one had any idea at all what a DCE was supposed to do, so they didn’t really know what they should know. That is, because there was no clear understanding of the vocation of a DCE, there was no clear focus to the education. It turned out to be a smattering of educational psychology, Christian doctrine, sociology, and dramatic arts.

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Now you would think that the pastoral office would be a vocation that was clear and extremely focused, but perhaps it is not. Without focus, without a clear sense of itself, it is pushed around and defined by others.  But this is nothing new. In 1849 Wilhelm Lohe wrote:

“Most pastors have themselves no conception of their office and hence lack all basis and confidence for their public activity. They exercise their office as though they had no right to do so, fainthearted, intimidated by every Tom, Dick, or Harry.”  – Aphorism on the New Testament Offices, 21

Perhaps the solution to pastoral burnout (or at least a way to slow its progression) is not to give more opportunities for time away from the church or more reflective seminars or strategy sessions for effective ministry. Perhaps what we need to do is clarify the substance of the office. Is a pastor a CEO, a coach, a teacher, a preacher, a social worker, or a community activist? Is a pastor some combination of these things? Probably, but what is his primary vocation?

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What if we were to challenge our pastors to first and foremost be the preachers God sent them into the world to be. What if the expectation was that they would proclaim Christ crucified and so kill and make alive, before they were concerned about being a strategic team leader or community figurehead?

Now this doesn’t make the task easy, but it certainly simplifies it. And a more simplified understanding of the vocation would, I think, prevent the burnout that comes from being pulled in a hundred different directions all in the name of ministry. In fact when a brother teeters on the edge of full blown burnout, it will be just this central task alone that can pull one from the brink.

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