The greatest asset of a successful organization is its people (Schneider, 1987; Parris & Peachey, 2012). Healthy organizations invest time and financial resources to promote the physiological and psychological well-being of their personnel. Individuals are expected to engage in their work enthusiastically and innovatively in order to help their organizations succeed (Bagi, 2013). Nevertheless, high levels of job stress caused by a lack of support and guidance, long hours, work overload, and other pressures, can lead to burnout (Bagi, 2013; Schaufeli, Leiter, & Maslach, 2009; Michie & Williams, 2003; Maslach & Jackson, 1981a).
Burnout is “a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job” (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001, p. 397). The phenomenon is characterized by emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and low levels of personal accomplishment (Martin, 2018; Maslach et al., 2001; Maslach & Jackson, 1981a). The study of burnout is rooted in the research of H. Freudenberger, C. Maslach, S.E. Jackson, A. Pines, W. Schaufeli, M.P. Leiter, T., and R.L Schwab (Schaufeli et al., 2009). Since the concept was first developed by the Freudenberger (1974) and Maslach & Jackson (1981a), many factors have been found to contribute to burnout (Martin, 2018; Bagi, 2013). This article examines the various constructs of burnout and their associated impacts on individuals and organizations, particularly as related to pastoral ministry.
“Job burnout” emerged as an important concept in the 1970’s. Freudenberger coined the term in an article entitled “Staff Burn-Out” which observed that “dedicated and committed” caregivers who worked at St. Mark’s Free Clinic in New York’s East Village (himself included) had experienced “burnout” (p. 159). Later studies appear to concur with Freudenberger’s initial observations claiming that burnout limits the physiological, psychological, and behavioral abilities of individuals (Martin, 2018; Dolghie, 2018; Lourenco, 2016; Bagnall, Jones, Akter, & Woodall, 2016; Begi, 2013). At the same time, social psychologist Christiana Maslach and her colleagues independently noticed the term “burnout” during interviews with human services workers in California (Schaufeli et al., 2009, p. 205). Maslach observed that the individuals interviewed used “burnout” to describe their emotional exhaustion in connection with “negative perceptions and feelings about their clients or patients, and that they experienced crises in professional competence as a result of emotional turmoil” (Schaufeli et al., 2009, p. 206).
Recently, multiple studies have identified emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and low personal accomplishment as three measurable constructs (or dimensions) of burnout (Maslach, 2018; Martin, 2018; Dolghie 2018; Santos 2014; Bagi, 2013; Schaufeli et al., 2009). Emotional exhaustion is the basic stress dimension of burnout. Scholars describe emotional exhaustion as the feeling of being emotionally overextended, short of one’s emotional resources, a wearing out, a loss of energy, a depletion, a debilitation, and fatigue (Dolghie, 2018; Martin, 2018; Danielson, 2017; Bagi, 2013; Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1997). The principle sources of emotional exhaustion are work overload and personal conflict at work (Dolghie, 2018; Lourenco, 2016). Cynicism represents the interpersonal dimension of burnout. Researchers define cynicism as a negative, or excessively detached response to other individuals (Martin, 2018; Dolghie, 2018; Lourenco, 2016; Bagi, 2013; Maslach et al., 1997). Cynicism often includes a loss of idealism and irritability (Martin, 2018; Danielson, 2017; Maslach, Jackson, & Leiter, 1997). Low personal accomplishment represents the self-evaluation dimension of burnout. This often results in low job performance, a decline in feelings of competence, a low morale, a withdrawal, a failure to handle daily demands, and reduced productivity or capacity at work (Martin, 2018; Dolghie, 2018; Lourenco, 2016; Bagi, 2013; Maslach et al., 1997). This lowered sense of self-efficacy has been connected to depression and an inability to handle the daily demands of the job (Rossler, 2012; Hakanen & Schaufeli, 2012).
Although Freudenberger’s initial observations on burnout were not empirically based, his early claims were validated. Burnout is positively correlated with emotional exhaustion experienced by workers who are exposed to stressful job conditions which transcend their mental resilience (Martin, 2018; Rossler, 2012; Maslach et al., 1997; Freudenberger, 1974). Maslach (1998) adds that burnout has been recognized as an occupational hazard for various people-oriented professions such as human services, education, and health care. This increased risk exists because the therapeutic or service relationships that such caregivers provide require “an ongoing and intense level of personal, emotional contact” (Maslach, 1998, p. 68). Maslach (1998) writes:
The experience [of burnout] can impair both personal and social functioning. While some people may quit the job as a result of burnout, others will stay on, but will only do the bare minimum rather than their very best. This decline in the quality of work and in both physical and psychological health can be costly—not just for the individual worker, but everyone affected by that person (p. 68).
Maslach & Schaufeli (1993) identified five common elements of the burnout phenomenon that are present in most, if not all, the various professional fields. These elements consist of dysphoric symptoms, mental and behavioral symptoms, work-related burnout symptoms, symptoms manifesting in normal, healthy individuals who have not suffered from psychopathology before, and decreased effectiveness and work performance due to negative attitudes and behaviors. Although high levels of fatigue/stress and depression seem to be one of the five commonalities experienced by burned-out individuals of various professional fields, it must be clarified that stress, depression, and burnout are not the same constructs. Burnout is a prolonged response that is specific to the work environment, while depression tends to permeate every domain of an individual’s life (Maslach, 2018; Leiter & Durup, 1994). Burnout may have its roots in stress, but goes beyond the negative impacts of stress. “While some amount of stress is essential for productive performance, excessive stress greatly affects the health, productivity, and engagement of an organization” (Bruce, 2015).
Research purports that work engagement is an antidote for burnout (Danielson, 2017; Schaufeli et al., 2008; Schaufeli et al., 2002). Work engagement is “a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind which is described by experiences of energy, dedication, and absorption at work” (Upadyaya et al., 2016, p. 102). Workers who experience high levels of vigor, dedication, and absorption at work are indeed often vaccinated against the symptoms of burnout.
Schaufeli, Taris, Le Blanc, Peeters, Bakker, and De Jonge (2001) affirmed that workers with high levels of work engagement are different from those addicted to work. These individuals seem to find meaning not only in their work, but outside their work as well. They seem to experience what researchers call “life satisfaction.” Life satisfaction is positively associated with work engagement (Upadyaya et al., 2016).
Workaholism, however, may actually cause burnout (Schaufeli et al. 2008). It may be that individuals whose levels of work engagement are high and individuals who are considered to be workaholics are in truth both walking on the same path towards burnout. Research seems to support this line of reasoning when it claims that both work engagement and burnout are positively correlated to workaholism (Shimazu, Schaufeli, Kamiyama, & Kawakami, 2015). Perhaps the main difference between highly engaged workers and workaholics is that the high levels of life satisfaction function as “rest areas” for workers whose levels of work engagement and life satisfaction are high.
Scholars argue that this correlation shared between work engagement, burnout, and workaholism “may also reflect the ‘dark side’ of engagement” (Upadyaya et al., 2016, p. 106; Salmela-Aro, 2015; Sonnentag, 2011; Bakker, Albrecht, & Leiter, 2011). If this “dark side” of work engagement can be empirically tested and proven, then work engagement, the supposed antidote for burnout, may be mere anecdote rather than antidote. Yet perhaps high work engagement does make for a slower and less painful journey to burnout.
Studies seem to demonstrate that workers experience burnout symptoms when job demands are high and/or there is a lack of job resources to perform assigned tasks (Upadyaya et al., 2016). The combination of high job demands and a lack of job resources has been proven to cause individuals to experience not only the most common and detrimental symptoms of burnout such as emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and low job performance, but also “depression, musculoskeletal pain, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and premature mortality” (Bagnall et al., 2016, p. 6; Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001, p. 397-422).
There may be a relationship between empathy and burnout, but research on this relationship is confounding. Wilkinson, Whittington, Perry, and Eames (2017) conclude that there is consistent evidence for a negative association between burnout and empathy (p. 18). They find that caregivers who lack empathy toward their patients are more likely to experience burnout. However, previous studies indicate otherwise (Rothschild, 2006; Figley, 2002). Fitzgerald-Yau and Egan (2018) argue that empathy tends to create vulnerability to stress. High levels of stress for extended periods of time may lead one to experience emotional exhaustion, one of the primary constructs of burnout.
Bagnall et al. (2016) and Schaufeli et al. (2009) suggest that burnout limits people physiologically and psychologically. At the personal level, studies seem to demonstrate that burned-out individuals are more likely to experience depressive symptoms and lower life satisfaction (Upadyaya, 2016; et al., 2016). Martin (2018) and Maslach (2018) add that burned-out people tend to be more anxious and psychological distressed. Dolghie (2018) and Lourenco (2016) also claim that burned-out individuals complain of low levels of energy and are more likely to be ill.
Burned-out individuals also have problems establishing boundaries between their work and their family (Hessel, 2015; Wells, Probst, Mckeown, Mitchem & Hiejong, 2012). This lack of well-defined boundaries may have serious familial consequences, especially when said worker experiences chronic illness, jobs loss, and/or premature death (Bagnall et al., 2016; Hessel, 2015). On an inter-personal level, researchers appear to agree that people suffering from burnout are more arrogant and cynical when relating to others, especially their coworkers (Martin, 2018; Lourenco, 2016; Upadyaya et al., 2016; Schaufeli et al., 2009; Maslach & Jackson, 1981a; Freudenberger, 1974). This negative behavior resulting from burnout is called cynicism (Maslach, 2018), and has been positively correlated with low job performance (Upadyaya et al., 2016).
Examining burnout at an organizational level, researchers seem to be unanimous in affirming that low job performance is one of the measurable constructs of burnout (Upadyaya, et al., 2016; Santos 2014; Maslach & Jackson, 1981a). Studies further indicate that burned-out individuals are not only dissatisfied with their jobs and life; they are also more pessimistic; they produce less work and with lower quality; they are more prone to absenteeism; and they are more likely to experience job turnover (Upadyaya et al., 2016; Bagnall et al., 2016; Schaufeli et al., 2009; Maslach & Jackson, 1981a; Freudenberger’s, 1974). According to Maslach (2018), burned-out workers do the minimum necessary to keep their jobs. When burned-out workers reach the point of taking sick days in order to cope, their absenteeism increases the workload and stress levels on their healthy counterparts and it becomes apparent that burnout may be cyclical (Lourenco, 2016; Begi, 2013). A higher stress level in healthy employees caused by the absenteeism of employees suffering burnout in turn increases the likelihood that those healthy individuals will experience burnout too (Michie & Williams, 2003).
Bagnall et al., (2016) purport that most of the discussions on burnout interventions focus on individual-centered solutions (p. 8). While such interventions may produce temporary positive results, those solutions tend to be relatively ineffective when compared to interventions implemented at the organizational level (Maslach, 2018; Bagnall et al., 2016, p. 8). In addition, Bagnall et al. (2016) claim that the most effective and lasting solutions to burnout are obtained not when they are only initiated at the organizational level, but rather, when solutions are implemented simultaneously at organizational and individual levels. Ironically, while most of the research produced on burnout focuses on organizations, especially large organizations, most studies, research projects, and proposed solutions to burnout seem not to be aligned with the search for more effective, practical, and lasting interventions which would incorporate individual and organizational solutions in unison. So far, solutions to the burnout syndrome appear to be limited to palliative treatments implemented to keep the organizational machinery functioning. Such solutions tend only to alleviate one’s emotional and physical exhaustion temporarily, all the while masking the real roots of the burnout syndrome – high job demands and the lack of job resources (Upadyaya et al., 2016; Demerouti & Bakker, 2011; Demerouti, Nachreiner, & Schaufeli, 2001).
Understanding Pastoral Burnout
Hessel (2015) agrees with Maslach et al. (2001) when he asserts that the treatment of burnout has progressed in other areas; however, more research needs to be conducted to identify situational factors in certain work occupations and cultures (Hessel, 2015, p. 173). One such field where burnout deserves more focused study is the clerical one. While review of the literature indicates that more studies on pastoral burnout are conducted in the western world than in the eastern world, pastoral burnout is a real issue for pastors worldwide (Barna, 2020; Nichols, 2019). Whether chronic pastoral stressors may vary from country to country, one’s prolonged response to chronic ministerial stressors might lead to emotional exhaustion, and consequently to burnout despite geographical location (Nakano, 2017; Santos, 2014). Therefore, advancing from the above general survey of burnout, this study now turns attention to understanding pastoral burnout with its causes and effects.
It may be that faithful ministers in times past considered the idea of leaving ministry unthinkable, Exantus (2011) estimates that 1800 pastors from all types of denominations abandon their ministries each month. As Pinion (2008) puts it: “pastors in the United States are dropping like flies” (p. 93). The average pastoral tenure within the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, is three to four years (Exantus, 2011). Presently, scholars seem to agree that many good ministers are leaving their ministries and/or are being forced out of their congregations (Exantus, 2011; Pinion, 2008; Baggi, 2008). In a study of 734 former Protestant pastors, Lifeway Research (2015) confirmed this previous research. They discovered that 32% of the participants experienced burnout and considered leaving their ministries as a consequence. Fifteen percent of the pastors who began their first pastorate left their ministries within five years and never returned to church leadership. Out of the 15 percent, 44% of these pastors left ministry because of unresolved conflict or ministry burnout. In summary, multiple studies confirm that churches are rapidly losing good leaders because of burnout and/or ministry disappointments (Exantus, 2011; Baggi, 2008).
As might be expected, stress is a leading cause of burnout among pastors. In a study of 424 male and female ministers, Tomic, Tomic, & Will (2004) discovered that ministers who faced high levels of stress in ministry experienced burnout in all three dimensions of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI): emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and low job performance (Tomic et al., 2004). While any job can have high levels of stress there are specific factors associated with the stress of pastoral ministries, and as Exantus (2011) argues seminaries are not adequately training ministers for these aspects of ministry life (p. 26).
Research on pastoral stress and burnout has found multiple causes related to the nature of pastoral ministry and pastoral life. Hessel (2015), for example, found a variety of stress contributors related to pastoral burnout, which he organized into seven key themes. These themes are: (a) spiritual care, (b) family concern, (c) poor control of schedule, (d) managerial control, (e) unnecessarily elevated status, (f) absence of a mentor, and (g) [poor] relational skill. Hessel (2015) further condensed these themes into three categories: (a) spiritual formation, (b) family support, and (c) management skills. He concludes pastoral burnout may or may not occur depending on how well adjusted and balanced these three factors are. Working from Hessel’s observations and adding to them, the following is a summary of factors associated with pastoral burnout.
Poor daily devotional habits. Hessel (2015) and Chandler (2009) assert that pastoral burnout may be mitigated if pastors learn to rely on God for strength. Sadly, Exantus (2011) reports, “Eighty percent of pastors spend less than fifteen minutes a day in prayer, [and] seventy percent say the only time they spend studying the Word of God is when they are preparing sermons” (Exantus, 2011, p. 40; London & Wiseman, 1993). Ministers who have a positive attitude towards prayer and have a regular devotional life tend to experience lower levels of burnout from emotional exhaustion and cynicism, even while they maintain higher levels of personal accomplishment (Hessel, 2015; Turton & Francis, 2007).
Lack of confidence. Personality factors and emotional stability seem to have significant impact on burnout (Golden, Ciarrocchi, Piedmont, & Rodgerson, 2004; Tomic et al., 2004). Beaumont (2010) and Mueller & McDuff (2004) agree that a lack of confidence may be another factor in pastoral burnout. Pastors who lack confidence to deal with pastoral demands may experience high levels of stress which may lead one to experience burnout (Maslach, 1993; Maslach et al., 1986; Maslach et al., 1981).
Ministerial family issues. Ministers who lack social support at home may have higher chances of experiencing burnout than those who do have support at home (Tomic et al., 2004). Moreover, a lack of boundaries between ministerial demands and personal family care may also lead pastors to experience pastoral burnout (Hessel, 2015; Wells, Probst, Mckeown, Mitchem, & Whiejong, 2012).
Lack of companionship. Research conducted with 1,482 Catholic parochial clergy in England and Wales demonstrated that clergy who experienced the companionship of dogs scored lower on emotional exhaustion and cynicism than those who did not have a dog, which suggests that the companionship of dogs in particular seems to mitigate the negative constructs of burnout (Francis, 2007).
Ministerial longevity. Studies have shown that younger ministers are more vulnerable to burnout (Santos, 2014; Randall, 2007; Tomic et al., 2004). Ministerial longevity seems to play a crucial role in pastoral burnout and turnover (Lifeway Research, 2015; Hessel, 2015; Santos, 2014; Beene, 2007). Studies seem to agree that pastors with longer tenure in ministry are less likely to experience pastoral burnout. Sadly, whereas 50% of pastors serve beyond their first five years of ministry, the rest tend to leave ministry to pursue other fields (Barna, 2006; Zondag, 2004).
Pastoral dissatisfaction. Studies seem to indicate that dissatisfied pastors are more likely to leave their ministries (Lifeway Research, 2015; Hessel, 2015; Santos, 2014; Barna, 2011; Zondag, 2004). Other studies have established the positive correlation between job satisfaction and burnout (Upadyaya et al., 2016; Schaufeli et al., 2009).
Pastoral autonomy. A lack of pastoral autonomy appears to be another possible contributor to pastoral burnout (Miner, Dowson, & Sterland, 2010). Rainer (2016) suggests that pastors tend to feel frustrated when church members disrespect their authority and leadership. Hessel (2015) argues that a lack of well-defined leadership roles could be one of the reasons why pastoral autonomy is violated. Evers and Tomic (2003) concur with Hessel (2015) when they observe that “role ambiguity and a lack of social support” could lead clergy to burnout (p. 329).
Nichols (2019) claims that burned-out pastors tend to be more impatient with church members. Frustration, disrespect, and impatience generate conflicts between pastors and church members (Rainer, 2013; Cordeiro, 2009). For Rainer (2013), ongoing church conflicts and criticism could lead pastors to emotional exhaustion. Emotionally exhausted pastors are more likely to become dissatisfied with their ministries and to abandon their congregations (Martin, 2018; Dolghie, 2018; Santos, 2014). In summary, pastors whose ministerial autonomy is low are more likely to be unsatisfied with their ministries, to experience pastoral burnout, and consequently to abandon their congregations (Hessel, 2015).
Lack of existential fulfillment. In 2009 research demonstrated that 36 individuals, mostly nurses and physicians, who traveled to South America as short-term mission workers experienced improvement in burnout rates after they returned to the United States (Campbell, Campbell, Krier, Kuehthau, Hilmes, & Stromberger, 2009). Perhaps short mission trips may work well to help pastors recuperate their physical, emotional, and spiritual levels of energy, as well as their sense of existential fulfillment (Stetzer, 2017; Bolsinger, 2015).
Creating space. Stetzer (2017) recognizes that ministers often have highly demanding agendas, and, because of this, he recommends ministers purposely schedule rest into their day, week, month, and year. This can consist of recovery from work in the evenings and on weekends, physical exercise, good dietary habits, one-two days off with family, time spent in personal spiritual growth, and an annual vacation with extra finances for vacation costs provided by their church (Stetzer, 2020; Upadyaya et al., 2016; Hessel, 2015; Rainer, 2013; Sonnentag, 2003). Pastors needed three types of relationships to help them avoid spiritual dryness: friends who know them personally and intimately, mentors to hold them accountable for their spiritual lives and to provide them with guidance, and organized boards to help them lead (Stetzer, 2020). Although Stetzer (2020) suggests three types of relationships to help ministers cope with pastoral burnout, this author suggests adding a fourth type of relationship to the list – familial friendships. Pastors must use their days off to enjoy their families and participate in activities that promote closeness amongst family members.
Highly Demanding Congregations. Pastors whose daily meditation lives are dry are less likely to be able to provide healthy spiritual leadership for their congregations (Hessel, 2015; Exantus, 2011). Highly demanding congregations seem to be very detrimental to a pastor’s emotional, physical and spiritual health (Hessel, 2015; Exantus, 2011; Vitello, 2010). Whereas Hessel (2015) claims that large congregations are more demanding than small congregations, Danielson (2017) and Santos (2014) claim that small churches are more likely to cause pastors to experience pastoral burnout. Despite this disagreement about the size of the congregation involved, these and previous studies seem to agree that highly demanding congregations seem to be a relevant factor in pastoral burnout. Highly demanding congregations appear to be negatively associated with job satisfaction (Hessel, 2015). One could easily conclude that, whereas healthy work environments have psychological safety impact on individuals’ health, highly demanding working places such as congregations may be toxic to their ministers (Upadyaya et al., 2016).
Extended work hours. Extended work hours is another factor which seems to contribute to pastoral burnout (Hessel, 2015; Exantus, 2011). Exantus (2011) argues that pastors work on average 46 hours a week. Vitello (2010), though, seems to indicate higher numbers. In his view, pastors tend to work long hours, feeling as if they are on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Management responsibilities. Flynn (2009) indicates that pastors see management-type responsibilities as another burnout contributor. The demand to manage building issues, educational programs, and staff, especially when placed upon an individual who lacks managerial skills, may lead to a pastor experiencing burnout.
Rural locations. Data also suggest that rural clergy have higher chances of experiencing emotional exhaustion and burnout (Rutledge, 2006). A study by Danielson (2017) seems to support this finding by demonstrating that solo pastors in small churches in the state of Montana scored lower in work engagement than did pastors who served in congregations with more than one paid ministerial position.
Rainer (2016), Exantus (2011) and Malphurs (2003) seem to agree that the American evangelical church is in crisis. The crisis appears rooted within pastoral families burned out from the high demands of ministerial responsibilities (Barna, 1993). Clearly, churches as organizations and pastors as individuals are not divinely immune to burnout syndrome. Indeed, studies clearly demonstrate that churches and their pastors are negatively impacted by burnout, perhaps even more so than in secular environments—due to the added spiritual pressures involved in pastoral burnout (Nakano, 2017; Abernethy, Grannum, Gordon, Williamson, & Currier, 2016; Adams, Hough, Proeschold-Bell, Yao, & Kolkin, 2016; McGarity, 2016; Souza, 2015; Lifeway Research, 2015; Santos, 2014).
Pastors claim that a church’s demands on them and their families are often unrealistic (Hessel, 2015; Exantus, 2011). According to Barna (1993), pastors tend to believe that pastoral ministry impacts their families negatively. One out of three pastors classify pastoral ministry as a “hazard to their families” (Exantus, 2011, p. 22). Yet, ironically, clergy at the same time feel immense familial pressure because their congregations expect them to have ideal families. What is more, pastors tend not to find enough time for their families (Hessel, 2015). They often face sexual problems and appear to have difficulties raising their children (Exantus, 2011). On top of these issues, pastors seem to believe that their lack of compensation contributes directly to marital conflicts. Not only is pastoral burnout detrimental for the pastor and his or her family, but burned-out pastors tend to experience a decrease in the quality of their ministerial performance (Nakano, 2017; Santos, 2014). Consequently, churches also suffer negative effects from their minister’s burnout.
The question that arises from this ample research: It is clear that pastoral burnout is a problem for pastors, their families, and their congregations, but what can be done to improve the current situation? It is the opinion of this researcher that churches and denominations should educate on burnout, promote early awareness, and promote big conversations. Issues related to burnout, pastoral or otherwise, should be learned, taught and discussed by educational institutions with leaders, workers, and employee’s families to help prevent burnout (Bagnall et al., 2016; Hessel, 2015). Seminars, workshops, and new curriculum should be considered as possible avenues to promote awareness and individuals suffering from burnout should be identified, examined by experts, and offered restorative treatment options (Upadyaya et al., 2016). Melville & Reuters (2020) report that the Church of England is currently pursuing “Big Conversations” with clergy, parishes, dioceses, and the wider church by defining boundaries in order to fight pastoral stress and burnout with the intent to call individuals involved in the life of the church to share responsibility “for the welfare of ordained ministers and their households.” The “Big Conversations” initiative has established a working group to provide clergy with coaching, consulting, and/or mentoring to enable ministers to feel more confident and better equipped for ministry (Beaumont, 2010; Golden et al., 2004; Tomic et al., 2004).
While this review has shown that clerical burnout is problematic for pastors; it has also led to the realization that pastors’ families and their congregations are also affected by this burnout. However, pastors have been the primary subjects of almost all the studies, and there remains a clear need for future qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-method studies on the effects of burnout on the clergy member’s spouses and children.
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