Avoiding Clergy Burnout: Five Questions You Need to Ask Yourself Today
By: Sherri Gragg
Clergy burnout is real. The Rev. Dr. Steve Wende challenges pastors to ask themselves five essential questions to fuel a lifetime of vibrant ministry.
Everything was going great. Until it wasn’t.
One morning, when the Rev. Dr. Steve Wende was 40-years-old, he awoke to find himself wrapped in his wife’s arms. She was deeply concerned about him. The sheets beneath him were soaked in his tears. His neck was frozen in brutal muscle spasms. Wende had hit his ministerial “wall.”
Later that morning, when he finally made it into the doctor’s office, his physician had an important question for him.
“What are you doing to manage stress?”
It was the beginning of a new journey for Wende, one in which he discovered step-by-step how to live out his ministerial call in a healthier way. Today, in retirement, he does all he can to help younger clergy do the same.
Are you up against a wall in your ministry? Here are the five essential questions Wende says you have to ask yourself to make a change.
“Clergy are the last true ‘generalists,’” Wende explains. “and according to Harvard, the average pastor’s job is more stressful than that of the average CEO.” While a CEO of a large company may experience high levels of stress, those stressors are more singular in nature and therefore limited to primarily one area of the brain. A pastor, however, may move rather quickly between a variety of diverse stressors in a single day. In one moment, a pastor will find himself fulfilling the role of counselor to a parishioner in an incredibly painful situation, in the next he will step into contentious budgetary discussions with his board.
“We are all stronger in some areas than others,” Wende said, “but we all have great breadth of soul if we will claim it. We just have to learn to realize when a situation is requiring transition and give ourselves a chance to make it.”
Jesus told his disciples that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, they must become like “little children.” Wende explains that most of us would much rather be productive instead, but that if pastors don’t want to risk their inner, less-disciplined, child coming out in a destructive way, they must learn to bring it forward in the presence of a loving God. “It is the power of praying the Psalms,” he said, “The writers of the Psalms’ inner child was out on the table and it wasn’t always pretty. We all know there are those things we aren’t supposed to say, but we still feel them. When, as a pastor, do you get those feelings out? Get it out before God, and then you can be your best self.”
Wende encourages pastors to include this question as part of their daily quiet time. Pastors need to prayerfully consider the day before them and ask God to show them what their “best self” looks like in each of the diverse roles they need to fulfill. “The image in my mind is that of tuning an instrument before the orchestra begins to play,” Wende said, “Visualize the day and who God Wants you to be that day.”
According to Wende, research shows that effective pastors have a higher desire to please others than most people. This can be a positive quality for men and women entrusted by God to seek the good of others, but Wende warns it can also become a pitfall if not approached with prayerful intentionality. “If we don’t watch it, we wind up trying to make all of the different voices in our heads happy and forget they might or might not be the most important ones.” When pastors ask themselves this essential question, they give themselves the space to move from a reaction to a conscious response that is firmly grounded in their values.
Pastors have too much to do every day. It is vital they learn to prioritize their workload. Wende asserts that pastors can find small “tricks” to help them do this such as giving themselves space to privately check their calendars before saying “yes” to a commitment. They also can benefit by empowering themselves to say, “no” when a request falls under a “want to do” instead of a “need to do.” “At my last church I was able to get to the place that I was very clear on what I needed to do or not do because someone else could do it.”