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Blessed burnout: when all your gifts feel used up

Pastorpain author Steve Bagi knows the pain of ministerial burnout. Photo courtey of Steve Bagi
CREATING A work-life balance is difficult, perhaps even more so when your employer is God.

According to the study: Burnout in Church Leaders (Kaldor and Bullpitt 2001), based on National Church Life Survey research, nearly 23% of church leaders experienced some burnout symptoms and 55% were borderline to burnout. The report said that burnout affected leaders in paid and voluntary positions.

Church leaders with poor or fair health had much higher burnout scores than their colleagues with good health. Leaders who grow in their faith, have an active devotional life and feel close to God and have a happy home and social life are less likely to experience burnout.

Author of Pastorpain and former pastor Steve Bagi said that although burnout happened in all areas of work, there are significant emotional and spiritual impacts on someone in ministry.

“Going through burnout can be very difficult for someone in ministry as the person can feel guilty about letting down God and the people they have dedicated their lives to serve,” he said.

“As they might find it difficult to re-engage in ministry, this could also lead to feelings of resentment and regret.”

Mr Bagi said creating a healthy work-life balance is more than just taking time off.

“As people go down the road leading to burnout the fun part of life seems to disappear and that needs to be recaptured. The leadership of the church can ask someone … to ensure that the pastor and his/her family are having adequate time to unwind, have breaks away and have enough finances to help make this happen.”

American research states that 80% of seminary and Bible college graduates who enter the ministry will leave within the first five years of active ministry. Mr Bagi said while that research may not reflect the Australian situation the results are still concerning.

“Whatever the percentage is, it’s too high,” he said. “A significant reduction in the incidence of burnout in ministry will require the adequate supervision and care of those in ministry, changes in the expectations and treatment of pastors by their congregations and a reviewing, and renewing of the whole way we ‘do church’.”

He said congregations and the wider church needed to acknowledge, encourage, train and reward people more generously for effective service.

“Often people in ministry roles are weighed down with criticism and aren’t empowered to actually lead in those positions as other people try to influence and control them.
“People in ministry roles also need to be given time to rest and have a break. Some church rosters have people involved every week and this is not helpful in the long run.”

Mr Bagi also said it was up to the person in ministry to create healthy boundaries around their time and address any personal issues like “people pleasing” that might add to the pressure.

“Then, congregations need to acknowledge and respect these boundaries and spread out the load of pastoral care so that it doesn’t rest on one person or a small team of people.

“Many people who burn out have probably been aware of a growing sense of anxiety, depression and total physical, spiritual and emotional weariness for some time. There may also be other signs like confusion of thought, irritability and a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

“If you are experiencing these things then it would be a good idea to talk to a health professional.”

Steve Bagi is an organisational psychologist. After 21 years in pastoral and missionary service he went through burnout and during his recovery wrote the book Pastorpain

Photo : Pastorpain author Steve Bagi knows the pain of ministerial burnout. Photo courtey of Steve Bagi