Spiritual Care Amidst Spiritual Darkness
Spiritual burn-out affects many in ministry positions. With the heavy demands placed on pastors in this day and age, stress can lead to over-commitment and, eventually, spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. We recently surveyed a number of our ministry workers in Quebec, a region that is one of the most spiritually resistant and discouraging in all of Canada; more than 26 people responded.
The answers they provided help to shed light on the issue of spiritual burn-out and how we can better serve our ministry personnel.
Those who responded had an average of 16 years serving in ministry — none were engaged in the ministry prior to 1980. Of these, more than 47.4% of respondents experienced burn-out at one time, while the remaining 52.6% reported never experiencing exhaustion in their ministry.
The top causes of burn-out provided by respondents were unrealistic expectations placed on them by the congregation, problems within the church, and problems within the Church Council. It was surprising to find that family life was not a primary cause of exhaustion — only three pastors reported experiencing issues with their wives (one over struggles with children and two over financial difficulty) that contributed to their burn-out.
We asked our pastors what helped them to overcome their burn-out. Of those who responded, 42% reported taking a sabbatical from their work, 26% turned to psychological counseling, 19% received encouragement from a friend, and 15% were encouraged by their Church Council. Only 8% used medication to help treat the issue, and 7% sought help from a doctor.
It was encouraging to see that each of the pastors who responded was eager to help others prevent spiritual burnout before it happens to them. The most reiterated recommendation was to ask the elders or Church Council for help before burn-out occurs. One comment emphasized that we as Christians should not be proud of the unrealistic pressures applied to those in ministry. Accountability and humility are necessities when working among the people of God, and go a long way in preventing the over-commitment that leads to burn-out.
Some who responded also encouraged pastors to acknowledge their limitations. We are all limited, and it is not a weakness to be upfront about our capacity. That’s why it is important not to do everything on your own, but to learn to delegate responsibilities.
Mention was made of the importance of consistently seeking God during trials. Suffering can turn us away from hope and faith; we must fix our eyes on God and spend time with Him through prayer in order to weather the storms of life. It should be mentioned that many saw themselves as their worst enemy — they put added pressure on themselves in response to the high expectations of others.
In many cases, isolation can contribute or worsen spiritual burn-out experienced by pastors. We need to have friends, coaches who will help us break down misconceptions and help bring clarity. We need others to pour into us — their encouragement, their listening, and their advice.
Over all, it was strongly recommended that pastors ask for support when returning to work after a period of spiritual burn-out. Ideally, this should be done gradually instead of abruptly. Burn-out takes time to heal, and jumping back into ministry with both feet can be an overwhelming experience, which may lead straight back to more burn-out.
— Monique is the Administrative Assistant for the AÉBÉQ Region.