Your Pastor is Sick

By Paul Koch

Yesterday I heard over the radio that the World Heath Organization has decided to include “burnout” in its International Classification of Disease (ICD), which functions as a benchmark for many health insurers.

Now, burnout is nothing new. Almost every industry in the world has used this term in one way or another. There are many protocols in place to try and prevent it and techniques encouraged to get one through it. And while many people may know burnout when they see it, it has historically been difficult to clearly define just what one means by saying that they are struggling with or facing burnout.

This is where the ICD of the World Health Organization comes into play. They give us a definition of burnout, saying it is “a syndrome conceptualizes as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” And then they clarify by giving us three dimensions where one’s occupation can be marked by burnout.

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.

As I listened to this description, I naturally began to think of my own vocation. And though it might just be me, I thought this was a perfect description of the average attendee at your district pastor’s conference. Many of those who sit around you seem to be worn out and exhausted. Too many demands and diversions pulling them in too many directions often leave a pastor feeling behind in the tasks of their office. Feelings of negativism and cynicism run overboard. When faced with a disgruntled family or a new challenge from social media, they lament “They never taught us this seminary.”

But it is the final characteristic that stuck with me. Reduced professional efficacy. I mean, what the hell does that actually mean? Does it speak to the impact of your profession, how well you engage in your profession, or how useful you are to the goals of your profession? Does it mean that you are constantly improving or can point to some external marker for progress? The thing is, when it comes to professionally efficacy, I’m not sure there is a way to measure it when it comes to the pastoral office.

In other words, when I heard about this, I immediately thought that it would be seemingly impossible for your pastor not to be diagnosed with burnout. Everything about the ministry points toward it. And if we are to be theologians of the cross rather than theologians of glory, perhaps we ought to expect it. But what then do we do about it?

I’m not sure there is a cure. I’m not sure that medicine or therapy will work as a solution, at least for very long. I think the only way through is to apply the tools of the vocation to the vocation itself, to proclaim the gift of Christ over and again from the outside. The preacher needs to be preached to so that he might look beyond professional efficacy and negativism or cynicism to the enduring gifts of Christ.