Last month we looked at the necessity of pastoral self-care to protect the minister and the ministry. Failure at self-care will usually result in “burn out”. Sometimes the indices of burn out are subtle and not often recognized.
Burn out is characterized by several factors. There is often a generalized feeling of weakness with feelings of chronic fatigue. The work seems boring and unsatisfying. It becomes hard to get the day started or procrastination becomes a kind of defense against the pressures that are felt. In general, there is increased dissatisfaction with work. There is often a cynical view towards the people in the congregation. Or there is a growing sense of just not caring.
The pastor tries to compensate by trying to do everything in a routine manner, but the work still is not done. Pastoral calls are delayed. Preparation of the sermon is delayed because there is little motivation for study. Concentration is a problem, and the solving of common problems seems difficult.
While it is important to delegate the work that others can easily do, it seems too difficult to enlist the ministry of others from the staff or congregation. This is complicated by reasoning that, “I ought to be able to do it myself.”
Burn out is subtle and it possible that not all the above factors may be present. However, those with whom we live and work are often aware of the problem even before we know it ourselves.
In the previous article we were asked to keep track of the way time is spent. This becomes a template for understanding the areas of greatest stress. Stress is both good and bad. Some stress is necessary for good engagement in the work of ministry.
There are two kinds of stress: distress and eustress. Distress is characterized by a sense of being overloaded with a sense of weakness and vulnerability. Eustress, on the other hand, is characterized by seeing stress as an opportunity to gain strength and develop resistance to burn out.
In every congregation there are several people who will consume all the pastor’s attention. It becomes necessary to set boundaries with very needy people. Of course, we are to care for each person, but we also need to find others who can minister to other members.
There are many good programs to help spread the load of caring. One of the most effective is the Stephen Ministry where individuals are trained to respond to the needs of others by developing a supportive relationship.
The establishment of priorities is critical for effective ministry. Our first allegiance is to the Triune God. The second allegiance is to marriage and family. Then comes the organization of the church.
It is essential to develop a spiritual and relational network with whom we can sort things out. Just talking with someone who understands ministry and its demands will help us to stay focused. Having a confidant beyond a spouse is essential. Finding an experienced pastor to talk to is a good place to start.
Next month we will look at the management of stress and the setting of personal goals for whole person growth.
Dr. Raymond Pendleton, Professor of Pastoral Care & Counseling
Dr. Pendleton is a licensed Clinical Psychologist. He has retired as a full time faculty member at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he served for 44 years. He served as Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling and for many years as Director of the Mentored Ministry Program. He is Chair of the Board of Lead Them Home, serves on the Hagar's Sisters board and is a member of the American Psychological Association.