Stress, then Burnout

Dec 27, 2008 by

It seems to me so many in the church do not understand spiritual burnout. The helping professions have always had a higher burnout rate than many other types of careers. Social workers, counselors, therapists, psychologists, and other social reform positions have scored high in burnout in the past several decades.

It the past 20 years burnout and rising drug and alcohol abuse has skyrocketed in doctors, lawyers and members of the clergy. This disturbing trend also includes suicide. In fact, I am writing this article just two weeks after the suicide of one of Colorado Springs’ most loved pediatricians. A man who gave so much to the community, he had nothing left.

Some doctors claim stress contributes to 90% of all diseases. Even if this figure is exaggerated a tad, we all know stress plays a major factor in our life that isn’t good. Good stress we need, yes indeed, but with clergy burnout rates climbing to 1,500 a month, there is a lot of bad stress in the church and in the mind and heart of the ministry leader.

In this article let’s look at the main differences between stress and burnout.

Stress can be characterized by over-engagement. Running around putting out every brush fire in the congregation, making every decision, and trying to solve every problem. “Fixers” are notorious for over-engagement.

Burnout is characterized by disengagement. The ministry leader has become disillusioned and exhausted. He/she no longer desires to “fix” anyone or anything. Mild burnout causes pastors to look the other way and pretend that problem doesn’t exist in the congregation. (There are millions of ministry leaders in this category. These leaders need to be reassured that looking the other way isn’t always a bad thing. The leader doesn’t have to be the savior – that’s Jesus’ job. It is his church, he is the administrator, the guide, the high priest, the word, the bread, the life. Left alone by the pastor, Jesus has been known on occasion to fix a problem all by himself!) Full burnout is a case of extreme compassion fatigue and leads to resignation and extremes of escapism that can be destructive.

Stress – the emotions can be over-reactive. Sudden outbursts of temper, or outbursts of weeping. In burnout the emotions become crippled. The ministry leader sits and stares out the window for extended periods of time. There is little reaction to good or bad news. The compassion drive to help others dies. In spiritual burnout, the emotion-links to the spirit are damaged, and spiritual underpinnings are slowly replaced with growing frustration that can manifest toward man and God.

In Stress, the main damage is to the physical body. Ulcers, headaches, high blood pressure, etc. With burnout, motivation and drive are afflicted. Again, this isn’t always bad. The burnout victim needs to learn to “rest” in Jesus. He/she has burned-out from trying to do all things all the time, and build the world’s greatest church all by themselves. Stress creates physical exhaustion which also is a good thing for the “type A” world saver. They also need to rest in the Lord Surveys show us that some of the most successful pastors in North America spend precious little time with their mates or children.

Burnout creates demoralization. You reach a point where you believe your are no longer effective as a pastor, worship leader, etc. What’s the use? No matter what I do it’s never good enough. Nobody benefits from my ministry. Nothing ever changes. Many people hate my guts.

Stress is often understood in terms of loss of fuel and energy. Burnout is the loss of ideals and hope. This can rapidly lead to detachment, or pulling away from others, and defeatism – the feeling you’re beaten and everyone, even God doesn’t seem to be on your side anymore.

Depression can occur with both stress and burnout. Depression created by stress is often the body’s response to protect itself and conserve energy. The depression associated with burnout is grief created by the loss of ideals and hope (this was the depression Elijah felt after Mt. Carmel failed to instantly change the entire nation back to Yahwah worship and catapult him into super status as the greatest revivalist in history). With this grief/depression comes a sense of helplessness piled on top the hopelessness. At this point one of two things usually happens to the wounded ministry leader. He/she may become very combative, like a wounded animal backed into a corner, striking out verbally at every threat real or imagined. Or, they may simply disappear. I would love to know the statistics on the number of former pastors in North America that have totally dropped out of organized religion. It seems every week I hear of or talk to another pastor who tried to move on to attend in another denomination, and did so for a year or two, then quietly disappeared into the misty dark night of uninvolvement.

While stress can produce panic, and anxiety disorders, burnout can produce paranoia. It is our belief at Smoldering Wick, that certain levels of paranoia definitely contribute to the high number of drop-outs among clergy and lay-members alike.

The above are some of the differences between stress and burnout. High stress is often a contributing factor leading to burnout, but stress is by no means the main cause. Not understanding the very core of God’s heart and living in the light of that understanding is the main cause of spiritual burnout. From this lack of understanding come the subtle twists and perversions of the Gospel itself, and all the unrealistic expectations that break the spirit of so many sincere Christians. What is needed for healing is to come to know the very heart of God correctly – probably for the first time – and not swallowing any more gospels that seem to promise everything in this life.

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  1. great post hope to see some additional comments next Monday…kisses ;)

  2. Anxiety and depression is one hell of a nasty disease. even if you have everything but if you have clinical depression, you are still nothing.*.”

  3. it is quite difficult to recover from Alcohol Abuse because alcohol is also very addictive just like Cigarettes and drugs.*’,

  4. sometimes it is quite difficult to recover from alcohol abuse. “~*

  5. i had an ulcer last year because i am fond of skipping meals and working too hard. it was quite painful~,`

  6. alchohol abuse would always lead to liver cancer if not properly treated “

  7. alcholo abuse on the long run is very dangerous and can kill you::`

  8. Samantha McAlpine

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  9. Suzanne Anderson

    Hi, I just wanted to say thank you for posting this and the other article about PTSD. I’m not a ministry leader of any kind. I stumbled upon this site by way of google and looking for some help or acknowledgement that I am not alone in dealing with Complex PTSD brought about by ongoing life abuse from mostly my mother who was very wicked and mean to say the least (and yet it was still so much worse than most people could ever really know) that was ongoing from childhood, through my teens, and even into my late 30’s. There were also three separate physical incidents by other people before I was 8 yrs old. Most of my life has been pretty stressful mostly because of her.. not the good stress. In my 20’s, I was able to live about 10 good years away from her, thanks to the one only good step father(we had many stepfathers before him) we had who took care of her. Then, they divorced and before I realized that I would have severe PTSD from my first 20years with her, I ended up needing to care for my mother. She was my mother. I just thought that is what you were supposed to want to do and so I did. I took care of her, her next husband and my special sister with down’s syndrome for 1999-2011. All three were mentally & physically challenged and thus put so much on me to take care of every aspect of their worlds. My sister was the easiest though. Anyways, I’m not sure why I’m telling you any of this. I prayed to the Lord in church today, that with the sacrament of his body and blood that HE please fix me. Fix my heart, mind, body, spirit and soul. I feel so broken. Tired. Done. The awesome person I am inside is fading away and I’m too tired (mentally/physically) to look for myself. I need help but don’t know how to talk to anyone.. I clam up and nothing comes out verbally. No volume. No words. No correct words. I only feel pain, worry and the need to make sure that I will have more days of the week to rest than to do anything else. I losing my want to be around anyone. My long held dreams I worked and worked on for many, many years have been crushed by my mothers antics of making herself sick everytime I was about to launch my business concept. Of course, I didn’t realize that she was purposely doing this and other things like this until I was 37 years old. Our mom taught us to protect ourselves from the world, but we never thought we’d have to protect ourselves from her. Our own mother. Anyways, the PTSD episodes rage anytime I even consider trying to start anything else or do anything for myself. I can’t do anything that I love to do. I’m broken. I’m done. I’m scared. To add to all of this, my spouse was diagnosed two years ago (with symptoms starting 4 yrs ago) with FTD. FrontoTemporal Degeneration. A brain degeneration disease. It manifests mentally and physically. It’s progressing fast right now. I don’t know how to take care of her with me being so broken and fatigued. Like, I said, I don’t know why I’m telling you this except for that your articles have helped me to feel like I’m not alone.. and realizations of symptoms and reactions people with PTSD, stress and burnout you listed in these two articles really describe me. Though that makes me feel worse.. lol, I do believe that if I can use the symptoms and reactions or specific words that you used in the articles to make my own list of what I’m feeling, then may be I could show a therapist this list instead of trying to say it myself. As you can tell, that’s an obvious problem for me now a days. So, thank you again for posting these articles. For helping me.

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