There is a unique group of people who have taken up a noble group of professions — a calling, if you will, to care for others in body, mind, and spirit. They are those on duty 24/7 if the need arises, but often find even that degree of effort is not enough. First responders to the difficulties, challenges, and emergencies life thrusts upon us all, they are the pastors, chaplains, physicians, police and fire personnel, counselors and healthcare professionals we count on when we need help.
These servant-hearted people are experiencing burnout and even dying from self-harm at an alarming rate — twice the average rate in the United States. If you are in a helping profession, you are a member of this group. If you are a pastor, your risk is even greater, because the nature of your service keeps you largely out of public view, invisible when not in the pulpit.
Burnout is an outcome of stress, compassion fatigue, depression and anxiety, and it can result in complete physiological and psychological collapse. It is a moral injury difficult to rebuild, destroying our image of self and our worldview. It can also lead to a despair and hopelessness that invites suicide. For every successful suicide in this country, 30 attempts were made. The only way to avoid becoming a statistic is to be prepared. I hope this arrests your attention.
Burnout is a spectrum disorder. It is a process, not simply an event, that can end in crisis. The process begins invisibly with life events. It’s easy to assume this means only negative life events: your congregation isn’t growing, elders and deacons are critical of your performance, finances are deteriorating, there’s not enough time in the day to counsel and encourage everyone who needs you, you feel you are laying down on the job, not living up to your calling. The truth is, positive events have stress associated with them as well: a wonderful vacation, a family celebration, moving into a new home, receiving a promotion, or even dinner out with friends. Everything we engage in takes thought and effort, whether alone or with others, and can involve stress.
Too much stress over a long period of time begins to break us down. Sleep disturbance, constant fatigue, discouragement and depression, fear and anxiety, irritation and frustration become more and more part of our experience. Hypoglycemia, diabetes, shingles, headaches, stomach aches, ulcers, muscle aches, and fibromyalgia are just a few of the physical symptoms associated with burnout. But there may be no visible symptoms beyond a growing sense of powerlessness to be or do enough.
Since this condition develops slowly, it can take us by surprise when we notice the pattern, or someone around us notices. To avoid compassion fatigue, we must be mindful of our work/life environment. This includes a number of steps:
- Get the rest you need. The nice thing about sleep is what you miss can be made up, but try to maintain a regular habit of retiring at an appropriate hour and waking up after approximately eight hours of rest.
- Eat nutritious meals. Avoid too much sugar and too many carbohydrates (which your body turns into sugar). Bread, rice, pasta, and alcohol are loaded with carbohydrates. Don’t drink a lot of coffee, tea or sodas.
- Exercise regularly, even if it is just walking.
- Fill your mind with encouraging pursuits outside of work and avoid mindless hours in front of the television.
- Spend time in conversation with others without an agenda; be present, connect authentically.
- Spend time in personal Bible study, devotional time, and prayer not associated with ministry responsibilities. This is your time of spiritual refreshment, not preparation for the next meeting, sermon, or event.
- Give yourself a mental health check-up periodically. Are you taking responsibility for things not yours to manage? Are you finding yourself attempting to control more and more outcomes in your relationships and work? Would you benefit from coaching, counseling or mentoring in this regard?
- Learn to balance stretching experiences with nourishing ones. Stress is cumulative and doesn’t go away on its own.
Eventually, too much stress begins to wear on your disposition. A typically positive person can slowly become very negative in their outlook. There is a specific criteria for a discerning a positive mindset versus a negative one, made up of nine bi-polar conditions illustrated below. All of us share elements of both sets to some degree most of the time. If more of the negative conditions characterize our mindset than the positive for a period of more than a week, or consistently recur over the period of three months, we have developed a negative mindset that can lead to further difficulty.
- Decreased motivation
- Sense of withdrawal and isolation
- Avoidance in life and relationships
- Strive for emotional survival
- Narrow range of thoughts and actions
- Little hope or imagination
- Does not profit from experience
- Prone to anxiety and depression
- Copes by pursuing pleasure or avoiding pain
- Increased motivation
- Deeper sense of meaning and purpose
- Engagement with life and people
- Strive for our potential
- Broad range of thoughts and actions
- More thoughtful about possibilities
- Constantly risking and learning
- Little anxiety or depression
- Copes by pursuing meaningful work and relationships
A consistently negative disposition erodes motivation. At this stage, you are well on the pathway to burnout and the signs are more visible, but mostly to others who experience you differently. Often the individual is too caught up in their work to notice. Prevention will involve a number of activities:
- Taking advantage of appropriate opportunities to manage strong emotions and reign in impulse control resulting in unhealthy compensating behaviors.
- Periodic personal retreats and education regarding managing stress.
- Reminders regarding conflict resolution, effective interpersonal relationships, and work/life balance.
- Utilizing a life coach or mentor, which becomes more important at this point. Getting a baseline well-being assessment may be the wake-up call someone needs.
- Find and join a peer fellowship group that isn’t a think-tank or focused on work/ or ministry. People who share similar responsibilities, whether ministry-related or not, and like to hang out together can help you process your stress. It’s not a place to complain or wear your problems on your sleeve, but when we are around people we enjoy and trust, a processing effect occurs that dissipates the impact of the stress we bear. This can happen without stress being a topic of conversation at all.
- Knowing what to look for and taking action when it shows up. Motivation is energy we direct toward something we perceive as a need. If we are not conscious of a need to back off an unhealthy lifestyle, we will not direct any energy toward our self-care. In a helping profession, this is easy to fall into, since our mission is the care of others and we often place ourselves last in this consideration.
If nothing is done to resolve the process of burnout, eventually a crisis occurs. A crisis includes mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, emerging personality disorders, and self-directed violence. There may be associated medical conditions as well. Acting out irrationally, rage and anger, physical collapse, suicidal ideation, or strong feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness signal the crisis. Treatment will involve counseling and possibly medication management. Hospitalization may be involved. Since it can take as long to recover from burnout as it did to create the condition, a recovery plan will be necessary.
Like dominoes falling, life-event stress left unaddressed can lead to a change in mindset, erosion of motivation to do anything about it, and an eventual crisis that will sideline you in ministry or eliminate you from ministry altogether. After graduating from Edinburgh University at 14 in 1827, Robert McCheyne went on to lead a congregation of over 1000 by age 23. Before dying at age 29, he wrote, “God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.”
The Prophet Isaiah, like us, needed this reminder. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.” (Isaiah 40:28-31)
We are not helpless, we are not hopeless, and we are not worthless. Christ gave his life for us that we might give ourselves to others through a long lifetime of ministry. Let us be stewards of that calling when it comes to our health, just as we are with our pastoral work.
About the Author: Jeff Jernigan is an ordained pastor and board certified psychologist. As a missionary, minister, and healthcare professional, Jeff has served in faith-based ministry since 1983, including churches, para-church organizations, hospitals and health systems. He is recognized nationally and internationally for leading-edge programming focused on the prevention of burnout and self-directed violence associated with helping professions. Currently serving as the Senior Vice President, Ministry Division, for FaithSearch Partners, Jeff and his wife Nancy live in southern California.
For more information about our consulting services please reach Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org