Are the dysfunction and impairment caused by burnout reversible? Is recovery really possible? Not in the sense that one’s previous state is restored as though burnout had never occurred. Critical life-encounters, including burnout – especially burnout – usually mark us for life, and like Jacob we journey on with a limp. But it is possible to move beyond burnout to a new normal that is both productive and meaningful. God can bring honey from the lion’s carcass.
In response to the growing problem of ministerial burnout there has been a profusion of books, articles, and websites offering a variety of strategies to mitigate the threat and overcome its residual effects. Suggested treatments usually emphasize the need for:
• Self-care: rest, diet, exercise, vacations, sabbaticals, etc.
• Spiritual care: prayer, scripture, refocusing on God, spiritual intimacy, etc.
• Support: avoiding isolation, forming supportive communities, etc.
• Boundaries: learning to say “no,” eliminating over-functioning, etc.
• Reassessment: goals, priorities, expectations, etc.
• Professional help: physical exam, medical intervention, counseling, etc.
All of these are valid and helpful, but most are focused on external, systemic stressors while overlooking the deeper, inner conflicts that often lie at the very heart of burnout.
The Sinkhole Phenomenon
Collapse sinkholes are a common problem in the state of Florida. They occur when ground water moves through the earth’s substructure and erodes large cavities in the limestone bedrock. When water fills the cavity, it supports the walls and ceiling, “but if the water-table drops, the cavity is exposed to further erosional processes that eventually result in the collapse of the cavity, causing a surface indenture, or sinkhole” [Plant Management in Florida Waters/Internet].
A major contributing factor is the thickness of the “overburden” – the sediments, organic matter, or man-made structures on the surface.
The loss of support from beneath combined with excessive weight from above produces a collapse that is usually sudden and surprising. But the unseen erosion causing the crash has actually been at work for years, perhaps decades. The end result is not only a cavernous hole, but also the disintegration of all that rested on the surface.
The sinkhole phenomenon provides an accurate depiction of the current crisis among evangelical ministers. They are caught in a vice, relentlessly squeezed between the two pressure points of internal erosion and external pressure.
“Understanding how clergy, who begin their careers with high idealism, optimism, and compassion, burn out is difficult. One body of research suggests that clergy, among others, burn out because of the systems in which they work. From this perspective, burnout is the result of external systemic factors such as bureaucracy, poor administrative support, and difficult work conditions. The other body of research suggests that burnout is the result of intrapersonal factors such as high idealism, Type-A personality, narcissism, and perfectionism. It is our position that these two bodies of research are compatible.” [William N. Grosch and David C. Olsen. “Clergy Burnout: An Integrative Approach,” Journal of Clinical Psychology(June, 2006) 1. Emphasis added.]
The interaction of internal and external influences is described by Miriam Greenspan as an “inescapable relationship between individual heartbreak and the brokenheartedness of the world.” She argues that personal suffering cannot be disassociated from its larger context; that emotions do not exist “inside” us in isolation from the world “outside”; that “many seemingly ‘private wounds’ are rooted in a damaged and damaging social environment [Healing Through the Dark Emotions(Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2003) xiv.].
In recent years the ministry environment has become increasingly toxic and may be accurately described as both damaged and damaging. The excessive overburden alone, created by the ecclesiastical systems and cultural milieu of our time, would probably be sufficient in and of itself to generate a collapse. But the excessive overburden is not at work alone. Its allies are the unresolved intrapersonal issues that erode the foundation from within, making collapse nearly inevitable.
Calvin Miller offered sage advice when he said, “Before we go out to heal, we need to check our own health” [The Vanishing Evangelical: Saving the Church from its own Success by Restoring What Really Matters (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013) 47.]
But many enter the ministry with little self-awareness, unsuspecting of their own brokenness and the manner in which their own formational deficiencies, many rooted in childhood, create a high susceptibility to burnout and the toxic emotions that accompany it. Many of the irrational beliefs that torment ministers and induce high levels of stress are born from personal deficient spiritual formation.
The failure to recognize this has given birth to simplistic remedies that fail because they do not address the fundamental causes. For example, a minister suffering from burnout may indeed require a vacation or sabbatical. But the job will not change while he or she is away, and the respite invariably ends with a return to the same systemic stressors that contributed to burnout in the first place.
Further, if personal formational deficiencies remain unresolved and inward wounds are left untended, he or she may be rested physically but still not healed emotionally or spiritually. It will only be a matter of time until he or she needs another sabbatical or takes a permanent vacation by leaving the ministry entirely. Trapped by age or lack of viable employment possibilities elsewhere, others are forced to remain and grind it out.
The whipsaw of internal erosion and external pressure not only help to clarify the root causes of the crisis, it points toward a possible solution. No analysis of or remedy for the problem could be regarded as realistic that does not adequately confront both professional and personal concerns. In my experience it is the personal concerns that are most often neglected.
The Courage to Ask for Help
Ministers tend to be highly reluctant to disclose personal struggles and reticent in asking for help. This may arise from deep mistrust and the perception that there is no safe place; be regarded as unspiritual and a lack of faith; or stem from a felt need to maintain stereotyped ministerial images.
This reticence is particularly obvious when it comes to the need for counseling. Relying on professional help when we are sick (doctors) or have legal issues (lawyers) is regarded as normal and wise. But seeking help from a Christian counselor is often dismissed, if considered at all. The irony here is that counselors actually provide the safe place ministers need to disclose personal matters openly with confidentiality assured.
Confronting unresolved personal issues is not a simple matter. Just as a fish cannot detect the impurities in the water in which it swims, we are often unable to perceive our own brokenness or understand its effects. A qualified counselor can guide the process of self-discovery, help us confront formational deficiencies, and provide invaluable insight to help us move forward.
Rarely does anyone progress beyond burnout without help from others. A critical ingredient of God’s intervention with Elijah was to give him a companion. Solomon reminds us, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up” [Ecclesiastes 4:9-10; NASB.]
Asking for help is a sign of wisdom, not weakness.