Is it burnout?

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I’ve seen a few articles talking about burnout among those in church leadership over the past few weeks. These seem to be particularly in response to the experience of leaders through the COVID-19 pandemic which has in many ways amplified many of the challenges of Gospel ministry.

One helpful contribution to the discussion was this article which included interviews with a number of leaders. There’s a lot to commend in the article and I’d encourage both pastors and those who want to care for their pastors to take a look. At the same time, there are a couple of things I want to pick up on. 

Anyone who has known me for a while will know that I’m not so keen on the term burnout. I first wrote about this here:

Some people use the word “burnout” to describe the type of experience I had.  Burnout is usually classified as emotional and physical exhaustion caused specifically by workplace stress. Many of the symptoms appear to be similar if not identical to depression except that

  1. Depression is classified as a medical condition whereas burnout is not, although burnout might be something that leads to or is related to depression.
  2. Depression is seen as something caused by global factors whereas burnout is seen as specifically related to workplace stress.

The language of burnout has become common currency in the church and indeed in professional circles. Christopher Ash’s book, “Zeal Without Burnout” is an extremely helpful read. However, I’m personally cautious of using the label. Why? Well first of all if there are medically diagnosable conditions, I think it is best to stick with them.  Secondly, people tend colloquially associate the idea of burnout simply with the exhaustion which comes from busyness. That’s problematic for a few reasons. First of all, if we simply think it means someone has been working long hours then I would say that whilst pastors can be extremely busy, it’s no more so than plenty of professionals including medics and teachers (I think there are relational factors that do make the work different). Secondly, whilst most definitions include the emotional symptoms I’m not sure they are grasped colloquially. It’s not just a case of needing some sleep and shorter hours. Thirdly, the assumption is that the person has been busy seeking out things to do and can in fact look to escape reality by throwing themselves into things. Maybe that’s true but I was at the opposite end of the spectrum desperately trying to put the breaks on. Thirdly and for me most importantly, I think we hide behind this idea of burnout because it sounds heroic, manly, godly even.  I’ve even heard people say that they want to burnout for Jesus. Burnout is what men get, burnout is what happens to pastors. And so it betrays the fact that we still don’t like to talk about things like depression. 

“I trace the rainbow through the rain” Anxiety, Depression and Burnout – Faithroots

At the time I wrote, Burnout was not classified as a medical condition. This changed in later in 2020 when the World Health Organisation added it to its international classification of diseases.[1] Even still,  I think you can see problems with the term and diagnosis when you consider the definition employed:

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: 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; and 3) a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

In effect, it describes a list of symptoms already associated with other conditions around stress, depression and fatigue but defines the condition by context. It is a condition limited specifically to the workplace. There is a risk there that we compartmentalise aspects of our life.  Perhaps that’s why it’s commonly associated with men who stereotypically are seen as more likely to compartmentalise and box off areas of life.  However, in reality we can’t completely do that.

It is possible that factors at work have been instrumental in a person’s deterioration and decomposition but we can rarely assume that this is exclusively so.  Our experience of work comes in the context of family life and community life.  Often there are a range of factors contributing to breakdown. 

And this is true of the consequences as well.  It is possible that someone will experience mental distance and cynicism towards their job, that dimension is sadly already in place for a lot of people even when not yet experiencing exhaustion.  However, when that emotional exhaustion and pain kicks in, it is often not just one’s attitude to work that is affected but to other areas of life including home, neighbours and church.

The last point is crucial when talking about pastors/church staff because they find themselves in an unusual position in that the church is their workplace and forms their employment but their relationship to the church cannot be constrained to occupational terms. Church is also their family, their community, their enjoyment, their way of life.  Biblically speaking, participation in the gathering of the church should also be their rest! 

So I remain wary of a term that is both two narrow in its definition and at the same time two broad in its blanket coverage of a range of situations. I’d prefer personally to identify a range of experiences including:

  • Acute physical and/or emotional exhaustion
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Experiencing of shame and guilt (whether false/subjective guilt or true/objective guilt)

This is important because when we think about the experience of pastors within the pandemic and look at some of the commentary in the article we can probably identify a number of factors which might caution us against immediately talking about burnout.

First of all, significant numbers of pastors were themselves ill with COVID.  We are also aware that for many people, the after effects of the virus included longer term exhaustion as their bodies recovered.  Some have suffered from a form of post viral chronic fatigue and the term “Long COVID” has entered the lexicon.  We should be aware that some leaders will now be continuing to suffer with Chronic Fatigue/Long COVID.

Secondly, have a look at this observation:

Honeysett believes all the factors that have driven pastors to exhaustion in the past have been magnified by the pandemic – long hours, poor work/life balance, competing demands (elderly parents and/or young children), declining energy levels, lack of support from peers, isolation and discouragement. What’s more, the Covid crisis turned leaders into shock absorbers for “the trauma of the flock” and into “content producers as opposed to shepherds”. In addition, the various – and sometimes critical – opinions about the Church’s response to legislative changes were directed straight at those steering the ship through choppy waters.

That comment about “shock absorbers” is important.  A lot of leaders became the focal point for the hurt, grievances and anger of others. Often they were right in the middle coming under attack from those who believed that COVID measures were unnecessary and the church was wrong to comply, and those who felt we were not doing enough to protect against the disease. The article goes on:

This reminds me of something Killingley said to me. The notion that “we’re all in this together”, which characterised the early months of lockdown, has now given way to: “I wouldn’t have made that decision and I’m going to let you know,” he says. “And also, a lot of people are quite angry at the government, at life or at God, but there’s not many outlets for that. One way that they can express their anger and frustration is towards their church leadership… you almost feel that you’ve become a proxy for people’s frustrations…that wears you down.”

My observation of the general divide in the population meant that COVID became a proxy for other long standing battles and rivalry.  In the UK people seemed to fall into the same camps as during Brexit but with new labels. In the US your position on COVID seemed o mirror your views about Donald Trump and culture wars.

In the church too, I think that in some cases, we saw COVID reflecting tensions and fault lines that existed in churches about other issues. As I’ve said previously, COVID did not merely bring ne challenges, it amplified existing problems. 

The result is that many pastors have for a long time felt like they are the lightening rods in church life and I guess in that sense you could describe the impact on them as like a burnout.

It means that another factor has PTSD both directly and vicariously. But it also means that whether sometimes unintentionally, the behaviours that pastors experience from others amount to bullying and abusive behaviour including harassment and slander.  This is exacerbated for those who carry responsibilities at a national level. It is rarely possible for FIEC National Director John Stevens to comment on social media without prompting a whole load of attacks.

All of this means that we need to be careful with absolute pronouncements.  Take these words in the article.


This is a good example of something that can be true in some circumstances but may not be always so and where I would be cautious about assuming it is the case. It’s similar to the way that people assume that depression is automatically about a loss of joy in the Lord. I know of people and times when there has been a complete loss of that sense of joy and assurance that has been part and parcel of depression but not always. I described my own experience as follows:

What kept me going? The love and kindness of church members has played a big part. Indeed it has been a blessing to find myself in a place where others took responsibility for caring for and visiting me.  Secondly, some beautiful songs and hymns, The Goodness of God, When we see your face, Oh Lord my Rock and My Redeemer, I remember.  Thirdly, Scripture, especially the Psalms, at times all I could read was one or two Psalms. Fourthly prayer, not lengthy or complicated, just sitting and chatting to God through the day and knowing he was listening.

In the midst of depression, I found a different kind of joy and a deeper sense of closeness to and dependence upon God. So, similarly whenever we experience those symptoms included under the umbrella term “burnout” it should cause us to consider our own responsibility. That needs to include a look at our own inner walk with the Lord. 

However, we also need to remember that we don’t follow a prosperity Gospel. Just as deep and persistent faith in God does not guarantee me physical health and wealth, nor does it guarantee my emotional health.

Pastoral ministry is complex. It’s hard work and challenging. That should be no surprise and not a cause for complaint. The joys of ministry far outweigh the challenges.  Pastors can look back through the hard times and still say “God has been so good to me.”  However, it is helpful for those in ministry or considering entering it and those around them to be aware of the challenges and the complexity so that we can be better equipped and better support one another.

One contribution to this is a little book that I provided a chapter for called “The Pastor with a thorn in his side”


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