Pastors May Be Close to Burn Out. Here’s How to Care for Them.

Preaching to a camera. Disembodied worship. Congregational divisions. Families leaving. Decision fatigue. Screen fatigue. The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on church leaders. After shepherding congregations for over a year through lockdowns, social distancing, and virtual services, many pastors and ministers are physically and emotionally exhausted.

Recently I was talking with a pastor friend who shared with me, “I’m tired all the time, and I’m unhappy.”

Over the past year, pastors have worked longer hours and they’ve had to carry added burdens. Surveys from Church Answers and Lifeway Research estimate that on average a full-time pastor works 50-59 hours per week, though during the pandemic the majority have worked six to ten extra hours per week. Pastors have had to wake up earlier and go to bed later to work around people’s new schedules and rhythms as well as spend more time on screens and driving to people’s homes. Pastor Osheta Moore of Roots Covenant Church explains that while her church was meeting virtually, “there was no weekly check point of saying, ‘Hi. How are you? What’s going on in your life?’ So, I had to drive around and spend a lot of time in my car going to people’s houses.”

The politics of mask-wearing and vaccines brought an added layer of stress to in-home visitations as Eric Redmond, associate pastor of preaching, teaching, and care at Calvary Memorial Church attests. “I had to serve brothers and sisters in love without putting myself and my family at risk,” he said.

Pastors of small churches have acutely experienced the burden of caring for their congregations during the pandemic as this task often rests solely on their shoulders. “Since everyone has felt disconnected during COVID, it’s hit me that it feels like my problem to solve,” says pastor JR Forasteros of Catalyst Church Rowlett. But as anyone in ministry can tell you, shepherding a church is more than one person alone can handle. For many pastors, as bills piled higher due to budget cuts, they were spending even more hours shepherding their congregants. Some had to forgo personal time off and sabbaticals. Others had to cancel planned vacations. Many have expressed grief over losing margins for self-care such as regular hours of sleep and a healthy diet.

And there has been a disproportionate toll from the pandemic on female pastors and ministers, especially those who are mothers of young children. Bronwyn Lea, pastor of discipleship and women, explains that female pastors “have needed more support than ever before from their church communities, and yet there’s been less time and connection opportunity than ever before.” This is especially true for women in smaller churches with less resources.

Sadly, as a result, many pastors are at a tipping point. Churches are beginning to hold in-person services again and ministries are ramping back up. It could be all too easy to try and catch up for lost time over this past year. However, a “full blast ahead” approach would lead many church leaders to burn out, if they’re not there already. A recent Barna study indicated that 29 percent of pastors have seriously considered a career change in the last year

We need to rethink work and rest for the pastor in this pivotal moment. We need to rethink work and rest for the pastor in this pivotal moment. Click To Tweet

Ecclesiastes and the Exhaustion of Work

Rest can feel like an anathema for those within vocational ministry. However, the greater the demands a pastor has, the more rest he or she needs. 

The writer of Ecclesiastes understands the exhaustion of work. Ecclesiastes 2:17 says, “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Here the qohelet calls work “grievous.” In other parts of Ecclesiastes we read work described as “vain” and “meaningless.” His words resonate all too well in the present moment. 

The more exhausted we become in vocational ministry, the more we can end up hating the work—the work that we love and felt called to in the first place. Stress and fatigue manifests itself in different ways for pastors and ministers, including a general unhappiness, tiredness, cynicism toward work, irritability with fellow staff or congregants, difficulty concentrating, lack of satisfaction with vocational ministry, headaches, anxiety, depression, and more. For others, being forced to navigate pastoral needs for a virtual congregation while not being able to administer regular rhythms of spiritual formation (e.g., gathering together for fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer) has even led to questions of “Who am I? What am I supposed to be doing? What does it even mean to be a pastor right now?”

In the same chapter of Ecclesiastes, the qohelet offers a counter and a balm to the weary-laden pastor. He writes, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (v. 24-25). This sentiment is reiterated elsewhere (e.g., 3:12-14; 5:18-20). In chapter 9, he adds, “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun” (v. 9). The remedy for vocational exhaustion is spending time with your family, resting (physically and spiritually), eating, drinking, and playing together. The verses on family, rest, play, and food in Ecclesiastes are not just nice suggestions; they are a roadmap for the pastor to get well and stay well. The verses on family, rest, play, and food in Ecclesiastes are not just nice suggestions; they are a roadmap for the pastor to get well and stay well. Click To Tweet

Pastors are to enjoy and content themselves with God’s good gifts, including during a pandemic. More than that, resting and taking breaks testify to a deep trust in God. Reverend Peter Coelho of Church of the Cross has intentionally exercised practices of relinquishment this past year to “remind myself that I’m not the church nor its head.” Relinquishment means we allow ourselves to enjoy God’s good gifts, while trusting in God to care for our congregation and needs during those times of rest.

A Needed Mindset Shift

The church needs to think creatively about how it can care for its pastors and ministers so that they can prioritize rest, slow down, and heal. Fundamentally we must begin with a mindset shift. We must value our pastors and their holistic health over production. This includes out-of-the-box ideas about personal time off, work hours, and more.

Fred Liggin, one of the pastors at Williamsburg Christian Church, is laying out a schedule of sabbatical for vocational staff. He explains, “We’ve been gentle with one another in terms of how we are restoring our common life, encouraging good rhythms of reading, prayer, play, and Sabbath. We have a long way to go there. We’ve also put everything on the table for negotiation in terms of ministry, including ‘job descriptions’ so that has been reinvigorating. We are a different church living in a different moment so everything for us needs to be placed in submission to communal discernment.”

At our church, Hope Community Church, we are in conversation with staff about extending personal time off as well as giving staff the option to reorganize their work week. For example, a pastor or full-time staff can choose to work four days a week with ten hours per day so they can have a three day weekend. Moreover, while we don’t offer gym memberships at Hope, we do allow for 10 percent of staff member’s schedule to go towards self-care, whether that’s gym time, walks, yoga, or pilates. Similarly, Kristel Acevedo, content creator and writer at Transformation Church, shares, “We encourage everyone to block time off on their calendar and not fill up their days with meetings. We encourage people to take time off and use their PTO.”

Churches can also prioritize the overall health of their pastor(s) by increasing their budget to include gym membership, babysitters, and date nights with their spouse. We can also care for our church leaders by being willing to work through the rest of the year slowly. Projects and programs on deck can be delayed until next year. Talk to your pastor about which of his or her job responsibilities can be delegated to other staff and/or volunteers.  Pastors May Be Close to Burn Out. Here’s How to Care for Them. Click To Tweet

Our pastors need rest, now more than ever. If we can start having these conversations now—both in staff and in members’ meetings—about how to go slowly and institute healthy rhythms and expectations for our pastors and ministers moving forward, we can not only protect our leadership from burnout, but show them that they are loved and valued by giving them the tools to recuperate and persevere. 

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