Anorexia of the Soul
A Burnout Checklist for Pastors
by Harvey A Herman
Maybe it all started when Martin Luther said, “If I rest, I rust.” Regardless of Luther’s intent, in today’s ecclesiastical circles these words mean unflinching commitment, tireless service, and a consuming passion. For many pastors these words reflect an ideal Christian mind-set. Are they not a contemporary rendition of the words found in the Gospel of John, “Zeal for your house will consume me?”1
A pastor’s dedication to be available 24/7, to self-sacrifice, and to be addicted to work, however, shrivels his emotional, physical, and spiritual reserves. One dictionary characterizes burnout as “a state of physical exhaustion, depersonalization and withering of personal achievement as a syndrome that often happens among people who work in helping professions.”2
This article describes pastoral burnout, provides a checklist to identify high stress pressure points, and suggests practices for personal and organizational stress reduction.
Pastoral burnout resembles the physical malady, anorexia nervosa, where teenage girls become obsessed with being thin. They believe they are fat even though they are becoming very thin. Anorexia is not a problem with food. It is an attempt to use food to resolve personal internal conflicts. Anorexia is difficult to treat because these girls believe there is nothing wrong. The self-deception is so strong they can look in the mirror and be convinced they are looking good when, in fact, they are wasting away.3
Like a diminishing teenage girl, pastors are encountering a thinning of their souls. High stress levels often produce feelings of bleakness, powerlessness, cynicism, resentment, stagnation, and disappointment. Ministry activities they once enjoyed now produce boredom and drudgery. As a result, it is easy for pastors to be annoyed and irritated with those they work alongside. “Physical symptoms may include headaches, digestive problems, high blood pressure, teeth grinding, and fatigue.”4 Ironically, just like the anorexic, the burnout pastor appears successful on the outside while their internal spirit is depleting.
Pastors are vulnerable to work overload for a couple reasons. First, religious organizations often must function with fewer resources, leaving pastors with too little and too few tools to handle a growing workload. Second, pastors are passion-driven and idealistic knowing their work entails eternal consequences. This idealism often leads them to overextend and take on too much.5 (Maslach 2005 44)
Lettie Cowman’s classic daily devotional, Springs in the Valley, tells a story about a person traveling through the jungles of Africa. He arranged for coolies from one tribe to carry the loads. The first day they marched rapidly and traveled far. The traveler anticipated a speedy journey. But the next morning the coolies refused to move. They just sat and rested. Upon inquiry the traveler learned from the coolies that they had gone too fast the first day, and now they needed to wait for their souls to catch up with their bodies.
Cowman reflects, “This whirling rushing life which so many of us live does for us what the first march did for those poor jungle tribesmen. The difference: they knew what they needed to restore life’s balance; too often we do not.”6 Remarkably, she wrote this 67 years ago.
Pastoral burnout is a serious matter. Traditional wisdom describes burnout as a flaw of character, a practice of unhealthy behavior, and an inability to be effective and productive. In this perspective, burnout is viewed as a personal problem. The solution is to either fix the person or get rid of them.7
However, burnout occurs within a distinct environment. Thus, while it profoundly impacts individuals, it is an organizational problem at the same time. When the religious organization does not appreciate the human side of ministerial responsibilities, the risk of destructive burnout grows.8 Thus, burnout is both a personal and an organizational problem.
Professors Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter have published much of their extensive research in the organizational mismatches that foster personal burnout. They define burnout as an organizational mismatch in this way. “Burnout is the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will — an erosion of the human soul.” It is a continual inequity where your ministerial role demands more than you can give and provides less than you need.9
Maslach lists six categories of person-job mismatches. Rate your encounters with these six areas of burnout to diagnose what is especially troublesome for you so you may target areas for intervention. Please note; beating burnout is not just a matter of reducing the number of negatives. It is more useful to increase the positives through engagement. “When burnout is counteracted with engagement, exhaustion is replaced with enthusiasm, bitterness with compassion, and anxiety with efficacy.”10
For each category listed below, think about your current ministry organization and checkmark how your work matches up with your personal preferences, aspirations, and work patterns.11
Work Overload: too much work, not enough resources
Pastors seem to be busier in every domain of their lives: family, aging parents, home up-keep, etc. It takes time and energy to minister in a creative, focused manner and to solve complicated problems. You must also use more precious time to anticipate organizational problems and opportunities.
Lack of Control: micromanagement, lack of influence, accountability without power
Being a professional entails setting daily priorities, making decisions, and determining how you will do your work. Micromanagement attempts to centralize control through detailed policies. Most workers view micromanagement as a lack of trust, and it denies them the opportunity to make professional judgments.
Insufficient Reward: not enough pay, acknowledgment, or satisfaction
When people fail to receive recognition for the work they do, they feel devalued. This is a particular challenge for people who work in religious nonprofit organizations. Monetary rewards are normally out of the question. This only underscores the necessity of encouragement and recognition. A good alternative to micromanagement is an effective rewards system.
Breakdown of Community: isolation, conflict, and disrespect
Life in any organization comes down to people interacting with other people. The lower the commitment an organization has to its people, the less of a basis the people have in making commitments to each other. Organizations that lack community are particularly vulnerable to conflict. People become upset when others fail to carry their own weight, gossip, and debate issues with no resolution.
Absence of Fairness: discrimination and favoritism
An organization is perceived to be healthy and fair when it fosters trust, openness, and respect. True community is apparent when people trust one another to carry out their responsibilities, communicate openly, and show one another mutual respect. An organization demonstrates an absence of fairness when it encourages secrecy, and when it is unable to stick to its strategic plans.
Conflicting Values: ethical conflicts and meaningless tasks
Values are the foundation for all behaviors. They influence everything about your work relationships. A religious organization must choose the values it will emphasize to accomplish its mission. It is not enough to agree on core values. Are the values inherent in your mission statement the same values being expressed in the implementation of our action plans?
As you review this checklist, if everything is a match, you have found an excellent setting for you to work. A few mismatches are not surprising. Most people are willing to tolerate them. However, if there are a lot of mismatches, especially major mismatches in categories that are important to you, then this may be a sign of a potentially unbearable situation.
What preventative measures can you take to avert burnout? There are really two answers to this question, both a personal and an organizational answer.
Probably you are most familiar with the personal preventative measures you can take. These preventative measures are becoming common knowledge. They include the following suggestions.12
- Budget: Prioritize the things you must do in order of importance. Learn to pace yourself.
- Exercise and Eat: Exercise often and regularly; this is a great way to reduce stress. Exercise can lift your spirits, bring relaxation, and increase your energy. Don’t skip meals. Consult with a dietician for a healthy diet.
- Attitude: Keeping a positive posture can reduce a lot of tension, and put your problems in a balanced perspective.
- Talk: You gain a new perspective on your problems when you talk with a friend. Problems tend to appear much worse when kept to yourself.
- Self-awareness: Know your needs, values, and desires. Self-knowledge is crucial to well-being.
- Time off: When pressures mount too high, take a break to retreat. Whether for 10 minutes per day, one day per week, one weekend per quarter, one week every 6 months, give yourself some breathing room.
- Rest and relax: Get enough sleep. Fatigue reduces your ability to cope. Learn a relaxation technique that works for you.
- Surround yourself with caring people: Those who have close supportive friendships live longer, healthier, and freer lives. Giving and receiving love and care are basic needs for everyone.
How can you stress-proof your religious organization? In truth, burnout is not primarily just an individual phenomenon. Burnout is the result of the interaction between people and the context in which they work. Thus, the organizational issues are equally important to address. A workplace filled with conflict will continue to exhaust even the most disciplined person.
Here are a few practices to foster rest in organizations.13
- Don’t let work become 24/7. Respect the biblical work/rest balance espoused by Sabbath-keeping, fallow ground, and Jubilee. Establish off-hour contingency plans so people know they will have a true break from work.
- Define your virtual workplace. The rapid changes in technology are quickly blurring all sense of boundary and margin in our lives. Clearly articulate communication standards and expectations. Balance the need for rapid responses with people’s needs for a measured pace.
- Encourage people to take vacations and other forms of time off to disengage from work. Enact policies that encourage taking time off. You can further reduce stress by eliminating email and voicemail while on vacation.
- Encourage organizational planning and debriefing. Too many organizations practice “Fire, ready, aim.” Including your people in the planning process is empowering and energizes them to give their best to accomplish the organizational aims.
- Incorporate developmental feedback into your performance reviews. Rather than a performance review that accentuates differences with past performance, encourage worker participation by utilizing “360-feedback.” Focus on future work goals, training needs, and career development goals.
I admire Luther’s dedication. Nevertheless, even dedication taken to an extreme turns into bondage. Oscar Wilde penned these words.
And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God’s eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.14
Burnout leaves us degraded, isolated, cursing our situation, and feeling ensnared. The Creator God who rested on the seventh day is able to break the patterns and behaviors that leave us despairing. His laws are kind. We are wise to keep them.
1. John 2:17, NIV.
2. D.G. Congo, Dictionary of Pastoral Care Counseling, ed. R. J. Hunter (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).
3. “Anorexia Nervosa,” FamilyDoctor.org, 28 June 2006, http://familydoctor.org/063.xml?printxml
4. Anonymous, “Are Your Burned Out? How to Tell and What to Do About It,” Partner’s Report 6.5 (May 2006): 13.
5. Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, “Reversing Burnout: How to Rekindle Your Passion for York Work,” Stanford Social Innovation Review 3.4 (Winter 2005): 44.
6. Lettie Cowman, Springs in the Valley (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1939).
7. Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter, The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What To Do About It (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997) 18.
8. Maslach, Truth 18.
9. Maslach, Truth 17.
10. Maslach, Reversing 44.
11. Maslach, Reversing 48.
12. “Beating Stress,” Peer Leadership Consultants, 21 June 2006 http://www-rcf.usc.edu/~plc
13. Margaret Diddams; Lisa Syrdyk; Denise Daniels; Jeff Van Duzer, “Implications of Biblical Principles of Rhythm and Rest for Individual and Organizational Practices,” 33.3 (Spring 2004): 325-332.
14. Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 27 June 2006 http://www.bartleby.com/66/64597.html