Clergy Burnout


Lots of stuff has been written about clergy burnout. You’ll get over 200,000 “hits” when you google the subject. And, if you type in the words for an Amazon search there will be about 200 titles that appear. So, I don’t really have much to add to the conversation but I will say that it continues to be a problem.

Just about any book you pick up that addresses clergy life will talk about burnout. The one I’m currently reading is, That Their Work Will Be a Joy: Understanding and Coping with the Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. It is an interesting title, isn’t it?

The authors, both seminary professors, do a really good job at outlining the concept of clergy burnout in six dimensions. They characterize the areas as mismatches, things that do not line up well for the clergy member and the work done.

The first mismatch is workload. Simply put, the work demands more than the person is able to give. The second mismatch is one of control. This typically means the clergy person does not have the resources needed to do the job. The third mismatch that leads to clergy burnout is reward. This is mostly related to salary. For their level of experience and education, members of the clergy are generally compensated at lower levels than the general population.

The fourth mismatch is community. The authors are saying here that clergy are isolated and have few connections outside of the congregation served. The fifth mismatch is values. This may come in to play where the clergy member has a different type of ministry envisioned than does the congregation. For example, the clergy member might want to focus on justice issues outside of the congregation when the congregation wants the minister focused on their needs.

And finally, the sixth mismatch is titled fairness. The clergy member must believe she or he is treated fairly by the congregation. To my way of thinking, this could be associated with the reward and values mismatches I mentioned above.

It is said that whenever three or more of these six mismatches occur the clergy member is a good candidate for burnout. The burnout will become apparent in three different ways. The first way is by emotional exhaustion. There will just not seem to be anything more left to give. Additionally, the clergy member might depersonalize or become cynical and generally be grumpy. Finally, the clergy member becomes ineffective, not able to deal with the things that were easily handled before.

It’s not a good place to be, for either the clergy member of for the congregation. Feelings get hurt. People are disappointed.

Next week I will be at a conference in Baltimore and will not likely post anything new. However, the following week I’ll post some ways to combat many of the issues I’ve been bringing up in this series on clergy health.

Until then…

I wish you well,

Rev. Russell Elleven, DMin, BCC, CWP
The Minister of Health

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  • Andrea Petty

    In church professions we talk a lot about “self-care” but what is not talked about is how congregations can sometimes have a way of making you feel like that self-care is selfish. How do we deal with that? It’s so hard.

    • Excellent point Andrea! Even when church professionals are out of sight they are often working. It is a often a clash between expectations and reality…


  • Laurie

    Don’t know about other professions (I’m sure there are many in the service sector) but educators certainly experience these same issues in abundance. I know many of my fellows felt “guilty” if we took time to leave our class to use the potty, for pete’s sake – or left after school at a decent hour, or didn’t tutor, write curriculum, and coach the chess club in our “spare” time. Teacher self-care is something I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of. Choosing a profession where one serves is something I was brought up to do. As a wanna-be Buddhist I believe in “right work”. But, aargh, it is hard. In fact, it can damn near kill ya. As you say, the clash between expectation and reality is brutal. No matter how much an individual gives, they will never be able to be all things to all people. I resolved my problems by quitting prior to the normal retirement age before my physical and emotional health became untenable. I was lucky enough to have family who could support my decision and did so wholeheartedly. For those in all service jobs still out in the trenches…how to help them? My heart goes out. I don’t have a clue.

    • Thanks for posting this Laurie! Yes, burnout occurs in a lot of helping professions. I loved the “right work” idea and how it can damn near kill ya:-)

      I can’t help but wonder if some folks don’t even realize this is happening to them initially? It’s harder to reach out and offer help if the person is unaware about what’s happening to them. Plus, I think, mentioning burnout might even have career implications for some people.


  • Robyn

    At the congregation that my Husband pastors we were told the previous priest “retired years before he retired”…Now after nine years in this church, mu husband and I understand how that can happen…you start enthusiastic to make a difference! But you are thwarted at every turn. On top of that they believe the priest is “on call 24/7 because God is on call 24/7.

    To decide to accept “the call”, one is a care giving person who has a “servant’s heart”…so they give and give…until they are sucked dry. The congregation doesn’t understand what they are doing…and the average priest will never say a word!

    • Such a good point, Robyn. It is interesting too how, at least in my experience, there are many folks who wouldn’t dream of “bothering” clergy with some things whereas some enjoy as much clergy time as they can get…