Soul Care (Part 2 of 3)
By the Man in the Mirror Team
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
– Jesus (John 10:10, ESV)
To Steal, Kill, and Destroy
Greg, a former pastor, recently shared:
In the Spring of 2018, I found myself sitting in my family physician’s office (a rare occurrence to this date), describing inexplicable symptoms. I could no longer make basic decisions like ordering off a menu, where to eat, when to leave, who to talk to, etc.
I was excessively impatient and intolerant of others at home and at work. I was exhausted. I was angry. I hadn’t slept through a full night for more than two years. I was plagued by nightmares. The truth is I felt like I couldn’t put one foot in front of another for one more day.
After administering a thorough diagnostic assessment, my Doc told me, “You have hit 9 out of 10 markers for Clinical Depression, likely stemming from Compassion Fatigue Disorder associated with your work, and you are finished. You can’t go back to work. I am writing a medical leave of absence right now.” I pushed back, if only for a moment. I cited my reasons, including that it wasn’t practical for me, that I had projects to finish, that people were counting on me, and that I wasn’t sure they will give me the time off.
He firmly but gently responded, “You don’t understand. You are on the brink of a significant, and possibly irretrievable, breakdown. We don’t backdate a medically necessary leave of absence. You are in a more dangerous place than you think. I think you should begin thinking about a different career.”
I walked out stunned, with my thoughts swirling: In 65 years of living on this planet, I have never felt like I was depressed a day in my life. Always up. Always positive. I’m clinically depressed? How did I get here? I’m a pastor! Pastors should never have to suffer from burnout and especially not from giving out “too much” compassion, right?
Well, I soon came to learn that compassion fatigue, described as the negative cost of caring or secondary traumatic stress (STS), is indeed quite prevalent in professions of helpers—nurses, doctors, veterinarians, police officers, firefighters, paramedics, nursing home caregivers, and yes, clergy.
Clinically, compassion fatigue is described as a condition characterized by emotional, physical, and spiritual distress and exhaustion, leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others.
For years I had believed my spiritual maturity and vocational calling would by their very nature make me exempt from such “emotional weakness” as I saw it. After all, I had the tools. I taught the classes. I preached the messages. I counseled the afflicted. But what I learned in a single doctor’s visit was that I had never been so misguided! I was wrong. Painfully, dreadfully wrong.
My spiral into a devastating cycle of ministry burnout was in full bloom. The signs had all been there: my inability to set strong personal boundaries on my time, an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and placing the needs of others consistently over my own. Emotionally, I experienced deep cycles of discouragement, and I endured and internalized frequent criticism from others. In response, I became uncontrollably critical of others (particularly of those closest to me) and irritable.
Secretly, I’d begun to cope with alcohol and occasional binges of pornography. The guilt and shame only served to increase the debilitating mood swings. I felt like anything but a pastor.
All of this has led me on a journey to recovery from a deep well of depression brought on by pastoral burnout. Along the way, I’ve met many who share this road (both inside and out of ministry).
I also have had the divine privilege of meeting qualified saints who stood “at ready” to serve me—a broken, messed up pastor. With selfless love and hope, they have exercised their spiritual gifts of knowledge, exhortation, mercy, and teaching—just like the way God designed His Church to function.
Trying to care for the souls of others at the expense of my own was a nearly fatal miscalculation. The lessons I have learned since have not only been lifesaving, but life-giving.
At Man in the Mirror, in three decades of working with churches, we’ve seen pastors leave the ministry for a variety of reasons, but burnout is chief among them. It’s a very real, pervasive issue in the church. Let’s take a look at why.
A Recipe for Burnout
As we shared in a previous post about how to connect with your pastor, today, pastors are more accessible to their parishioners than pastors at any other time in history. Before a pastor’s feet have even hit the floor in the morning, they have emails, texts, and voicemails waiting for them.
In a typical month, a pastor will prepare talks and speak up to a dozen times. They will marry someone and bury someone. They will counsel people in their office and visit them in the hospital. They’ll dedicate babies and baptize new believers. Pastors preside over the whole cycle of birth, life, and death—sometimes in a single day. And they do it under a microscope!
Yet, we still hear phrases like, “Pastors only work one day a week.” Or “Pastors don’t know what it’s like in the real world.”
The truth is, nobody calls their pastor when they get a promotion. They call when they lose their job. Nobody messages their pastor to let them know their kid made the honor roll. They reach out when they find condoms in their daughter’s backpack or drugs in their son’s nightstand. Nobody calls to say, “Hey pastor, we celebrated our 25th anniversary this weekend!” They call to say, “I found texts from another woman on my husband’s phone and I don’t know what to do.”
So no, pastors don’t know what it’s like in the real world; they know what it’s like in the worst 10% of it. And still, they show up—and they keep showing up, because they are called.
But amid so many demands, that calling comes with a price—if pastors aren’t staying closely connected to God, to others, and to their own needs.THE BIG IDEA: To function as designed, the church needs leaders who are healthy, cared for, mission-driven, and serving out of a rich practice of soul care.Click To Tweet
In last week’s blog post, we talked about why a commitment to “Soul Care” is so crucial to the well-being of our leaders and the church as a whole.
This week, we want to give you four warning signs that you may be headed for a burnout so you can do a course correction, with God’s help.
1) Lax Boundaries
Matt shared, “During times of personal or ministerial struggle, I have had a hard time limiting church work to set hours. As a result, I have ended up wearing those issues at home and with my family.”
If you don’t have enough time for your family, or if the time you do spend with them is being negatively impacted by ministry demands, that is a sure sign that you need to adjust your boundaries.
When it comes to ministry, it’s difficult to say “no” to good things (or “not now” or “not me”), and most of the requests that come your way are good things! You want to help others. You want to provide leadership for that project. You want to participate in that activity. You want to be there for others in their time of need. But when the good things are getting in the way of the best things, it’s time to reevaluate.
It’s not just your time that requires boundaries, but also your sense of responsibility. Is your plate filled with things that don’t need to be there?
Dave told us, “During a time when I was struggling, the one thing I remember was a certain irrationality in my thinking and behavior. The stress that I placed myself under caused me to look at and respond to things differently than I would have normally. I was trying to control the things around me rather than trusting God and bringing others alongside me who could take care of details.”
Ronn echoed this sentiment. “My family had not taken a vacation in several years,” he recalled, “because I felt that I could not leave my church in the hands of someone who might not lead the way that I felt it should go. Do you see how many times I just said “I” and “my church”? That’s a sure sign of boundary issues and impending burnout. It was never my church to begin with!”
One thing that might surprise many Christians is the loneliness that many pastors feel in their roles, but we hear it all the time.
When Dave, looking back, remembered his irrational thinking, he added, “I had no one that I confided in or who could be a check to my way of thinking and acting. I felt isolated and alone in the ministry.”
Isolation can be one of the contributing factors to ministry struggle, but for others, it can be a symptom in response to struggle.
Matt shared, “In the early stages of our transition from one church to another, I went through some pretty serious depression for the first time in my life. I was lethargic, easily frustrated, and wanted to isolate myself. I sought counseling, but honestly, it wasn’t until the transition was complete that some of that started healing.”
If you feel isolated in your work or if you are experiencing a desire to isolate from others, both of these can be signs that it’s time for a course correction.
3) A Changing View of Others
Have you become more irritable, less gracious, or less interested in the lives of others?
“Distraction and impatience are probably two telltale signs for me that something’s a little off or a little weary in me,” Andy told us. “I don’t know whether others can see this in me, but I certainly feel it. I start struggling to be fully present with people. For example, if someone is talking to me, my mind will start to wander as soon as I have grasped the essence of what they are saying, even if they haven’t finished speaking or sharing. I realize that I don’t hear people out as I should or connect as deeply with them. For me, I experience burnout primarily as an emotional process rather than a physical one, so when I find myself turning people into tasks to ‘check off,’ there is a problem.”
For Ronn, these early signs went unnoticed until it became more severe. “I realized that for me, people had begun to feel like the problem—instead of the reason for ministry.”
“It’s said that hurt people hurt people,” Ronn reflected. “That’s a nice trite phrase, but the harsh reality is that I was truly hurting people, using people, and even damaging people. When I finally realized it, I remember sitting in the middle of a dark hallway, feeling like I was bleeding from my self-inflicted wounds.
“In my affliction, like the Psalmist in Psalm 77, I cried out, ‘God, where are you? Have you forgotten to be merciful? I’ve served you faithfully all these years, and now this?’”
What Ronn heard in his spirit next leads us to the next warning sign—
4) Loss of Motivation
“I felt like God answered, ‘No, you’ve served YOU.’ And He was, of course, right. I had been serving so I would hear the ‘good job’ and ‘atta boy’ comments I thought I needed.
“But that was fake fuel,” Ronn mused. “It could not, and did not, keep the flame going.”
All of us feel a lack of motivation some days. Whether it’s writer’s block for the week’s sermon, a lack of desire to attend an event, or the inability to focus, these are normal parts of the ebb and flow of work. But if you’re experiencing a perpetual loss of motivation for ministry—or the loss of the RIGHT motivation—you may be burning out. It’s time to hit the brakes and reconnect with God personally to care for your own soul.
Thankfully for Ronn, God continued to speak to him—very simple but very powerful rebuke and encouragement.
“I started by taking a close look at the traps I’d been getting caught in” he said. “I read with fresh eyes the rest of Psalm 77: Then ‘I remembered…’ I’d forgotten so many things, but I started remembering.
“In my disappointment, I’d been forgetting the truth that all things work together for good, and that the good is in verse 29: that I might be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29). In my discouragement, I’d been forgetting what the Psalmist finally remembered: “You are the God who performs miracles” (Psalm 77:14). And in my dissatisfaction, I’d been forgetting that I need to put on the full armor of God—especially taking up the shield of faith (Ephesians 6:13-17).”
Have you forgotten why you started? It’s never too late to be reminded.
THE BIG IDEA: To function as designed, the church needs leaders who are healthy, cared for, mission-driven, and serving out of a rich practice of soul care.
A Shameless Invitation to Care for Your Soul Above Any Other
If you’ve recognized any of these warning signs, we invite you to take a look at all you’re doing and urgently re-prioritize, with your own soul care at the top of the list. In an emergency, you must put your own oxygen mask on first before you can help others.
Join us next week for the conclusion of the Soul Care series. We’ll give you practical next steps you can take now, as we share what has helped real pastors find refreshment and maintain a passionate faith and vibrant sense of calling!
Serving Pastors, Equipping Leaders, Transforming Men