Is Clergy Burnout Really A Crisis?

Or is burnout intrinsic to ministry?

Is the crisis whether we burn out … or how we burn out?

Since this past Advent season when I watched the sanctuary fill with lights — lights on the Advent wreath, candelabra alongside the pews, and “Silent Night” by candlelight — I have been toying with the image of the pastor as a candle. The simple purpose of a candle is to burn and shine. When it functions as it should, the candle necessarily changes and dwindles. The candle’s purpose actually requires its erosion; the flame for which the candle has been made is necessarily its undoing.

The candle is not unlike the clergyperson. In a congregational call, the minister as a priest comes into the presence of the Holy Fire and holds out that Fire for her faith community. The minister as a prophet witnesses to the Fire’s searing and dares to feel the Fire on her own tongue. The minister as a pastor welcomes persons to the Fire to warm themselves and have their own fires ignited.

In other words, the minister handles Fire. It is her purpose as a clergyperson to burn and shine with the Divine Fire of her calling. Naturally, such intentional proximity to the Fire changes her. It melts her down, it burns her, it undoes her with awe, it reshapes her, it puts her at risk, it forbids her from getting comfortable (although she will try — ha!). The Fire uses her and burns her out.

The Fire uses me, burns me out.

But is burnout the problem? It seems to me that burnout is part of the job, part of being a candle … and if that’s the case, then the actual problem is how clergy respond to their burnout.

In 2010, reports of clergy burnout were all the rage in the news and in social media. (The Alban Institute had a good summary of the reports and reactions.) Yet a close reading of the material — I haven’t read all of the articles nor all of the recommended books — reveals that the majority of reports lump burnout together with poor mind/body/spirit health and behavioral/relational dysfunction. There is only the barest of distinctions in much of the writing between burning out and handling burnout. Burnout is unilaterally assumed to be negative and to be the result of bad clergy care habits and/or unhealthy congregational dynamics. An un-panicked consideration of burnout as a realistic dynamic of ministry seems to be lacking.

Perhaps I am buying into the “culture of burnout.” After all, I’m into multi-media and multi-tasking. My BlackBerry is on 24/7. (Verizon had to tell me that it wears down the phone’s battery when I never ever turn it off.) I’m a facebooker and blogger. Constant access.

Perhaps I have acquiesced to the unrealistic expectations of the church, which many clergy cite (rightly so) in their departures from ministry. But if the church has unrealistic expectations for me, well, so do I … for myself and for the church.

Perhaps I’m just trying to defend myself from all of the self-care hype (ROFL!).


Basically, however, I just think that ministry is hard. Ministry is dicey. Hello, handling Holy Fire in community??! Of course we’re going to burn out — pastors are candles!

Yes, all of the books and studies are correct that clergy and congregations need to make healthier decisions and continually choose to support their covenants to one another. Those things need to be done so that clergy can handle burnout as it comes … because it does come, multiple times, like clockwork, even in the best of ministries and church-pastor relationships. Being in this relationship takes work as any relationship does (including the work of self-care and maintaining “outside” friendships and knowing one’s boundaries, for starters). Pastoral ministry takes work, and the nature of this work changes us.

Bottom line: the so-called crisis of clergy burnout isn’t in the burning, I believe (although we don’t need to pretend that the burning is easy or pleasant all the time). The work is burning.

The crisis comes when we respond to the burning by taking it out on others and/or ourselves, or when we refuse to be changed by the Fire, or when we resist and resent being candles.

15 thoughts on “Is Clergy Burnout Really A Crisis?

  1. Dear Rachel, thank you for this — there is a very fine (and very hard to get) book by Mary Ann Coate (alho' I have aNOTHER order in to Amazon, and hope springs eternal), titled “Clergy Stress,” in which she says very sensibly that clergy live face to face with their Maker at all times, and OF COURSE IT'S STRESSFUL. So the two of you are within shouting distance of each other, I think!
    I look forward to getting my hands on the “Writing to God” book as well — all blessings!

  2. Rachel, this is an excellent post. There is also something liberating about knowing that burnout is coming, will happen, and that we will manage it when it comes, instead of the anxious feeling of trying to hide from it or will it away. Hopefully that makes some sense. Am I seeing you at Convocation today? I hope so!

  3. In the last church I served the candles were oil containers “hidden” in plastic tubes that looked like real candles. Never melted. Never changed. But on the inside the oil burned away. I wonder how many clergy put up a front, appearing to shine on and on…but inside…maybe things aren't so bright. It's always difficult to balance time with our authentic shining for and through God.

  4. I really like this idea, as well, Rachel, and it's so well written. I'm uncomfortable with it, of course, as beautiful as it is. Mostly, because it's a harshly compelling thesis. But also I'm wondering about an image of the pastor as candle bearer. The light itself is Christ, of course, and we carry it and share it. There are things we can do to assist the light, holding it appropriately, shielding it from the wind, placing it in a lantern, or in front of a mirror, and we marvel at how it illuminates even more than we'd suspected it to be able. Also, we can cause problems for the light, by covering it, holding inappropriately and wasting its fuel, etc. If we aren't careful with it, we'll be burned by the hot wax or the flame itself. But no matter how carefully we handle the candle, the flame will burn until it extinguishes, and the candle-bearer reaches a turning point. Just as in your conception, here clergy burnout is not a bad thing, but simply an image for the time when the pastor has nothing left with which to share the light. It's bound to happen, and acknowledging this inevitability is part of have a realistic view of our own limitations. Is this then the time to move on to the next ministry opportunity, trusting another candle-bearer to shine in the place that has been our recent home? Or maybe time to leave the house, and go to the market for more candles (sabbatical leave…)?

  5. Thank you, Rob. I agree with your observations about the importance of how we handle the light — how we can steward the light well or poorly — and you raise an additional necessary question about what to do when burnout occurs. How do we heal & rejuvenate, and what are the implications of that moment for our ministry paths?

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  8. This is beautiful and powerful. But to continue the metaphor, what happens when you are used up? Or fear losing yourself to the burning?

    • These questions have been on my mind too, Cindy. Candles cannot simply reassemble their own wax after being melted by the Fire! The metaphor seems to break down (or it requires a physics miracle) in the work of the candle’s recovery. I think that, having allowed ourselves to be poured out & consumed by the Fire, we must have the courage to remain close to the Fire so that we are rekindled. At that point, there is no wax/work to distract us from the fierceness of the Fire …. it’s just us and the Fire and the prayer that the remaining embers might be renewed.

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