After talking with our two Seminarians assigned to do ministry in Bridgeton and Maywood, it brought to mind my own experience when I was placed in a small congregation west of Chicago. It never occurred to me that when your passion for ministry is high, so is the increased threat of burnout. Back in those days, we never heard much about pastoral wellness and health.
I was called to the congregation meeting in an old wood-frame church, built back in the days when men sat on the pulpit side and women on the lectern side. The church lived in the shadows of both a mega Lutheran church and another Lutheran church that attracted the more influential. In my zeal, I put in long hours working almost every day with little time off. The people were wonderful Christian servants who had long been written off.
I started in August, forgetting that Advent would require an extra service each week and be followed closely by Christmas and the New Year. Easter came early that year, so Lent too came the day after Christmas, or so it seemed. I was weary and thinking I had chosen the wrong profession. About halfway through Lent, with the pressures of ministry increasing, my tank was near empty. I had nothing for Sunday's message. I remember going to the church and collapsing in front of the altar, pleading and begging God for help and strength. I could not hear Him.
Seminary training never warned me there would be times like this. That night I slept fitfully. Around 4:00 a.m. I awoke with a thought. It was in the days of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his emotional and moving I Have A Dream speech. That was it. Homiletic professors, forgive me, I don't remember the text or if there was one, but I will never forget the title: 'I Had a Dream!' The details of the message remain long buried, but the overall meaning was clear, concise, and not very Pastoral:
"I had a dream that when I came to you, we would light our community on fire for the Lord, and you, the members of the church, killed my dream."
I had no energy left. I was void of ideas, and the accomplishments were few. I had a dream, and I was burnt out. Their reaction might best be summed up by one kindly, elderly lady, who patted me on the shoulder and simply said, "Pastor, it will be okay, you'll get over it." Elsie, who with that one pat on the back and a compassionate voice, provided more to my Pastoral wellness than I had ever received.
I found out the hard way that the greater the passion, the higher the threat of burnout. And quite honestly, my struggle with my passion for the lost and the church's condition quickly led me to the depths of depression. And remember, back then, compared to today, ministry was considered 'easy.'
Burnout is real when passion is high. It can happen in any profession, but Pastoral Ministry has one of the highest burnout rates of most professions. As Pastors, we need to learn how to manage our passion for Christ's ministry and His Church. I have met some Pastors who, due to stress and burnout, retire way before their actual date of retirement!
Congregations need to give serious consideration to developing a wellness support team for their ministerial workers. There are many valuable resources available to help combat burnout in ministry. Please respond to this blog in the comments section and I’ll direct you towards resources that will help you develop a team within your congregation that supports and cares for the pastor and other ministry workers. Families of ministry workers should also be included in this care, as they too suffer the effects of burnout.
Next month, I will be issuing a sequel to this blog on how I handled the burnout. Until then, congregations, please take care of your pastors. Pastors, please take care of yourselves as you continue to care for your congregations.
Pastor Izzard for Pastoral Wellness