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.