Avoiding ministry burnout

I’ve been in post as vicar at Holy Trinity for 1 week, I did three services on Sunday and hosted an open house for over 30 people. Yesterday I was at a pastors’ prayer meeting at 7:30am and finished a service planning meeting at 9:45pm. It reminded me to beware of burnout and this article which helped me diagnose my brownout in Malaysia in 1998 when I fell asleep at the wheel of my car on the highway to Singapore.

If in the beginning your job seems perfect, the solution to all your problems, you have high hopes and expectations, and would rather work than do anything else, be wary. You’re a candidate for the most insidious and tragic kind of job stress–burnout, a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by unrealistically high aspirations and illusory and impossible goals.

…Burnout proceeds by stages that blend and merge into one another so smoothly and imperceptibly that the victim seldom realizes what happened even after it’s over.

These stages include:
1. The Honeymoon. During the honeymoon phase, your job is wonderful.

2. The Awakening. The honeymoon wanes and the awakening stage starts with the realization that your initial expectations were unrealistic.

3. Brownout. As brownout begins, your early enthusiasm and energy give way to chronic fatigue and irritability. …You become increasingly frustrated and angry and project the blame for your difficulties onto others. You are cynical, detached, and openly critical of the organization, superiors, and co-workers. You are beset with depression, anxiety, and physical illness. Drugs or alcohol are often a problem.

4. Full Scale Burnout. You experience an overwhelming sense of failure and a devastating loss of self-esteem and self-confidence. You become depressed and feel lonely and empty.

5. The Phoenix Phenomenon. You can arise Phoenix-like from the ashes of burnout, but it takes time.

Adapted from The Stress Solution by Lyle H. Miller, Ph.D., and Alma Dell Smith, Ph.D.
Read the full article at the Healthyplace

What the article makes clear is that burnout is caused by unrealistic expectations. In parish these can be my own high expectations of success, or in trying to meet the expectations of others, either in the parish or within my diocese which has a high focus on growth.

I have learned to manage my own expectations by remembering that my primary responsibilities are: to remain close to Christ and so be a godly man (Colossians 2:6-7); to manage my family well (1 Tim 3:4); to preach God’s word (2 Tim 2:1-2); and to train and support people to establish various ministries (Acts 6). It is not my responsibility to see people come to Christ or to grow the church (1 Cor 3:7).

As far as other the expectations of other people go, I’ve drafted a working agreement which, once finalised with my wardens, I’ll put to the PCC, so that people know both my working pattern and priorities. The Diocese of Exeter has a really useful set of guidelines on developing working agreements (word document).

I have found it most helpful to keep the goal in mind that I must be close to Christ in my walk with him and this frees me to spend time in prayer, bible study, reading and rest, which I wouldn’t do if I thought my goal was to grow the church.

[See my other post Avoiding burnout without copout for a list of symptoms]

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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8 Responses to Avoiding ministry burnout

  1. Anne Jackson says:

    great insight. i recently released a book on burnout – mad church disease – overcoming the burnout epidemic…very near and dear to my heart!

  2. neilrobbie says:

    Hi Anne, welcome to Transforming Grace. I hope your book will help raise understanding of burnout.

  3. étrangère says:

    Interestingly, that burnout description is very like the culture shock curve. I wonder…

  4. neilrobbie says:

    Hi Rosemary, I’d be interested to see the connection. Where can I read about the culture shock curve?

  5. étrangère says:

    I don’t have the info online myself, so I just googled it – this is one sample description; here‘s another.

  6. étrangère says:

    When I lived in Belgium, I thought I wasn’t going through it as I had no honeymoon period, etc. However, I did struggle with depression for the first 4 months there. Re: expectations, etc., clung to the resurrection and certainty of the future (thankfully hope isn’t dependent on feelings!), and justification by the person and work of Christ, esp. the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Nothing else for it.

  7. neilrobbie says:

    There are certain similarities. OMF teach the culture shock curve to their overseas partners: Amanda and I called it the “isn’t this interesting”, “I hate foreign” and then “assimilation, lah”. It had never occurred to me that I might be suffering both brownout and culture shock at the same time in Malaysia. Thanks for the link.

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