With clergy facing more demands than ever – and coping with their own exhaustion – some churches are working to help leaders avoid burnout.
Today’s clergy must fulfill many roles: fundraiser, counselor, best friend, spiritual leader and advocate. Those demands have only grown as congregations suffer the effects of a punishing recession.
Duke University researchers surveying studies of the issue in 2002 found that male Protestant clergy were especially subject to work-related stress and that many suffered difficulties within their own families. Researchers also have linked stress with sexual misconduct by members of the clergy.
Recognizing these issues, more churches are starting programs to help their pastors avoid burnout and are openly discussing how to help their leaders.
“It is a preventative kind of thing,” says the Rev. Steve Williams, senior pastor of NorthPointe Community Church in Fresno, Calif.
The church requires full-time pastoral staff to take seven-week sabbaticals after serving at least seven years. The program started after Williams took a leave a couple of years ago.
“The times we’re in are putting more demands on pastors,” he says. “In church life, pastors wear a bunch of different hats and it contributes to a lot more stress.”
Church leaders want to avoid burnout and damaging behaviors such as infidelity and theft that affect the congregation and lead to turnover. With these programs, they hope to ensure more staff stability – and build the congregation’s trust.
“The more you allow pastors to learn to rest, the longer they last,” Williams says.
The worst-case scenario is what happened last February when the Rev. Jamie Evans, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Fresno, took his own life.
Evans had taken a leave in November 2009 because of exhaustion and burnout, church officials say, and received help for depression. He had been in ministry about 18 years.
Burnout has led other pastors to leave preaching.
The Rev. Ed Huffman was pastor of Woodward Park Baptist Church in northeast Fresno for 20 years, leading the congregation to growth in membership and new buildings.
But after he failed to address congregational problems, Huffman says, he experienced burnout and resigned in 2008.
Huffman says problems arose when three congregants complained to him about separate issues. One demanded that the church change its worship styles. Another demanded the firing of a staff member. And the third also asked for the firing of another staff member.
“These people were (financial) givers, attendees and leaders in the church,” he says. “I tried to bring harmony and unity.”
But, Huffman says, his attempt to be friends with everyone didn’t work. He hit a roadblock and felt the job had become impossible. He lost faith he could deal with the issues and developed personal problems, which he declined to describe.
“It gets ugly; we flame out,” he says.
The church paid for Huffman to receive counseling. Then it asked for his resignation.
“That church was my baby, but now I don’t feel welcome,” says Huffman, who is now a family service counselor.
He hopes to someday return to ministry, but adds, “At this point, I don’t know when and where that can happen.”
More churches are trying to get ahead of the problem.
The Presbytery of San Joaquin, which serves Presbyterian congregations in 21 San Joaquin Valley cities, is reaching out to clergy by offering resources on depression and mental health on its website.
Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, formerly Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, offers a course called Spiritual Formation that helps clergy and counselors take care of themselves physically and spiritually to avoid burnout.
Brent Lindquist – president of Link Care Center in Fresno, which provides care for pastors, missionaries, ministry workers and their families – says it is important for churches and denominational groups to act openly about their programs to help pastors.
“It has become de-stigmatized,” Lindquist says. “It’s more OK for pastors to be human and to get help. There are many churches rallying around their pastors when they are hurting.”
Lindquist says the most common factors leading to burnout are pastors taking on too many roles, carrying the pains and hurts of the people they counsel and failing to accept “things aren’t what they should be” under their leadership.
“Pastors keep waiting,” Lindquist says. “They keep hoping for the best, hoping God will speak and honor them.
“God often does – and it’s a wonderful thing. The funding comes through, and things begin working out. But it doesn’t mean they haven’t taken an emotional toll on the pastor.”
The Rev. David E. Roy, director of the Center for Creative Transformation in Fresno, says it is important churches understand that pastors are under more pressures and respond with help.
“Clergy burnout is quite real,” Roy says. “Clergy are caregivers, and, as with all caregivers, if they ignore their own needs, eventually they will wind up exhausted, depressed, and discouraged.
“Taking care of oneself is not being selfish. If parish ministers need rest, time off, renewal, then they need to honor those needs and not feel they are being selfish. Not taking care of those needs can end up depriving others in the long run.”