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Caring for church leader burnout

SUMMARY: Faith communities  recognize that many pastors suffer from burnout and that if left unaddressed, burnout can have painful consequences. According to the Ministering to Ministers Foundation, more than 1,600 U.S. pastors are forced out of their positions each year; nearly one in four ministers faces a forced termination at least once during his or her ministry; and only 54 percent of pastors go back into full-time church-related positions after a forced termination. A top cause of termination is burnout related to work demands and family, financial, physical or other stressors.

Knowing how to help church leaders avoid burnout is important, but what if you suspect your leader is already burned out? Being proactive could help prevent a crisis.

First, recognize  burnout is a common mental health condition best treated by mental health professionals, just as physical ailments are best treated by medical professionals. If you suspect burnout, your role is to encourage the person to seek counseling, and provide support as he or she undergoes counseling.

Identify the signs.
According to the Mayo Clinic, these are the signs of burnout:

  • Being overly cynical or critical
  • Having a hard time getting started on an assignment
  • Behaving irritably with co-workers
  • Lacking enough energy to be productive consistently
  • Lacking satisfaction from achievements
  • Appearing disillusioned or expressing disillusionment
  • Using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or simply to not feel
  • Changed sleeping or eating habits
  • Suffering from unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints

Be direct and discreet.
If you see the signs, you can first try the direct approach. Privately, tell them that they seem to be under a great deal of stress and you are concerned and want to help. If they are receptive, provide a list of resources (some ideas are below) or a list of local mental health professionals. If they aren't,  try talking with the spouse or another family member. Perhaps that person can try the same tactic but with better results.

Seek professional assistance.
If the leader is in denial and will not seek a professional evaluation, contact one of these sources. Sometimes, they will intervene and contact the person directly.

These sources have connections to The United Methodist Church or support denominational values:

Methodist Counseling and Consultation Services offers individualized assessment and counseling for clergy. According to MCCS, medical insurance often covers the cost of therapy with nominal co-pay, but fees can be negotiated with the individual therapist.

PastorCare, an ecumenical organization based in Raleigh, N.C., provides referrals and other resources to support pastors. The group says it will initiate contact with a pastor who is reluctant to seek help.

Quiet Waters Ministry is a comprehensive ministry focused on the spiritual, emotional and physical health of Christian leaders.

Duke Divinity School, a United Methodist-affiliated university, has created a clergy health initiative. Although counseling isn't offered as part of the seven-year study, many resources and information are available.

Provide encouragement and support.
If the leader recognizes the problem and seeks help, your role becomes one of support. Counseling takes time and energy, so offer to take on extra duties to free the leader to have time for healing. Offer to help at home with child care, cooking and cleaning, especially if retreat-style treatment is being done.

From a professional perspective, ask the leader how he or she would like to address the issue with the congregation if it is necessary. If the counseling requires the leader to be away a great deal, a statement to the church members might be in order.

Finally, understand family, addiction or other issues outside of the church may be contributing to the problem. Respect personal boundaries and don't pry too much about the recovery process. That's the counselor's job.

If you suspect your church leader is experiencing burnout, step in to offer help. It might take courage, but think about how he or she helps church members. Your church leader deserves the same.

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