Blog Post: Pastoral Burnout…Yes, It Does Happen, but Not Forever!

It begins with a whisper in the back of your mind, a body ache, or a nagging physical symptom, and then all of a sudden…PASTORAL BURNOUT!!

Well, lets back up. Perhaps it isn’t this extreme, especially for me, a hospital chaplain who has only been in ministry eight months, but given how much I am “in ministry,” and lets face it, everything I do is ministry – pushing an elevator button for someone who is unable to reach it, holding the elevator door for someone, offering directions in the massive hospital community I am apart of (now that I am no longer completely and utterly lost on a day to day basis…what an accomplishment!), offering to pay for someone’s coffee when I notice they don’t have enough to pay for their own at Starbucks, even offering grace to the cashier at my “local” Target when she needs to ring up my entire order again (a large one at that…) after I have put it all in corresponding bags, and in the midst of the process, she mentions she has only been working there (rather woefully, I might add…) for a week. All of this is ministry, and after a while, these little ticks add up, especially after doing five 24-hour on call shifts with advancing Cardiomyopathy (a fancy name for my heart condition), and as my Cardiologist in NY hypothesizes, the cold I had in January likely put me in the early stages of Heart Failure (given that my EF went from 65% – normal!, down to 50%, not so normal…).

All this to say, regardless of the baggage (physical, emotional, or spiritual, or any combination of the three), pastoral burnout happens! But it isn’t a permanent condition. As Ministers of Word and Sacrament (myself included in this unique and special club), we are called to be giving, selfless, and attuned to the needs of the world at every moment, and yet, this often times means that we are less attuned to our own needs. As the last few months have worn on, however, I have made it my goal to be more attuned to my own needs, understanding that I cannot be attuned to the needs of others if I am not serving myself. This harkens back to the charge I was given by a special Minister mentor in my life at my ordination. She charged me with the following words:

“Endure suffering: This can be a tough job. God is a pretty demanding boss at times. The church is even more so. Take God seriously, take God’s people seriously, but do not take yourself too seriously. As you are diligent in your studies, also be diligent in your play. Make time for rest. Make time for fun. Stay connected to the people who lift and nourish your spirit. Resist the ever-present temptation to be everything to everyone. Spend time alone with God every day. Take your work seriously, but also take time away so that it does not consume you. Take your vacation time. Take a day off every week (and by off, I do not mean returning emails and writing a sermon). Get enough sleep…take care of yourself. In order to endure suffering, ministers must be strong…strong in spirit, in mind, and in body. God has entrusted you with he care of those God loves…and that includes you.”

I distinctly remember sitting there, staring into the eyes of a woman I admired, who had also endured a great deal of suffering, much of which I had not known, do not know, and likely will never know, but understand that as a result of this suffering, she was standing before me, commanding me to be a firm and strong woman of God, as she is, but not fall into the temptation of perfection and overfunctioning that would lead to pastoral burnout. On the day of my ordination, just a few months ago, this Minister of Word and Sacrament, who I deeply and completely respect, was calling me on my stuff, before a congregation of others, and holding me yet again accountable, as she always had, and asking me to hold myself accountable.

I have “stuff,” and “stuff” that likely places more limitations – physical and at times deeply emotional and spiritual – and if I don’t take stock of the fact that I cannot be Paul (be all things to all people), I will suffer from pastoral burnout. I have had inklings, especially in the last eight weeks, as my on call shifts have doubled (and nearly tripled), and have called out to God for strength, courage, and even at times wondered whether it was physically and emotionally possible for me to continue this work. But I have been gifted time – days off, and by the grace of God, my very first set of TWO CONSECUTIVE DAYS OFF in a whole month (this may sound trivial to some, but for me, this is a blessing…).

Pastoral burnout – and the beginnings of it – is so totally preventable, but only if I am able to admit that I have human (very human) limits, and cannot do this ministry thing without taking taking time for myself. As I head into my fourth unit of CPE (and have extensive Cardiopulmonary Testing on 4/3/15, this coming Friday – including PFTs and an Arterial MV02 test…google it if you’d like to know more), I am deciding to live into my mentor’s Ordination charge – to minister to myself, and thereby be a bit more selfish in my taking of personal and vacation time, to not expect to be all things to all people (Sorry Paul, but I think you got that one in the bag…), and hopefully, when all is said and done, I will have taken the time to recharge, better understanding what self-care means to me (a process that has been underway over the last 8 months, but I have come to believe will be in place over the course of a lifetime!). I distinctly remember a dean and fellow woman in ministry saying to me in seminary that ministry is a marathon, not a sprint, and even 3 years later, that piece of advice sticks with me.

So. Burnout. Whether it appears in the itch to travel, the desire to run from ministry entirely, or the desire to change forms of ministry, burnout is real, and is a sign that ministry to the self is necessary, lacking and disproportionate. Ministers too are deserving of self-love, self-care, and deserve the equal care they dole out toward others…a lesson I am learning as I spend more time in the field, and as God works in and through me, and as I receive a great deal of love from others (families, physicians, nurses, social workers, etc.) that I never expected.

So. Be selfish, with your time, with your love, and with your need for self-care. I sure am, especially as I realize that my health requires it – emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I don’t want to claim that God doesn’t blame me, as that isn’t theologically sound, but I would believe that the God who has created me, and has called me to this work, would desire for me to do the same work on myself, as I am doing on others.

And then…back to work on Monday!



2 thoughts on “Blog Post: Pastoral Burnout…Yes, It Does Happen, but Not Forever!”

  1. As a retired (but not for that long) female pastor, I read these words and admire and ache for you. Maybe the aching is just projection, because I don’t hear you complaining. DO continue to be diligent about self care. And that is really tricky because there are moments/days when that is impossible and you know you have to push beyond. But then, the next day, or next week. . .
    God bless you.

    1. Thank you so much for reading my blog, and for the kind comment! I rarely complain, even about the tough and rough stuff. As I have been dealt a rough hand in life – adult congenital heart disease, heart failure, etc., and I deal with that population as a chaplain, I rarely find it my place nor my role to complain, but rather take all things with joy and supplication. I am so glad to be a chaplain and pastor, as it didn’t come without much strife…ups and downs, hardships and difficulties!
      May God bless and keep you, and know I’ll be keeping you and your family in my prayers!

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