Pastoral burnout is a difficult issue to address – partially because it combines the hard data of how many pastors leave the vocation on a regular basis with the “soft data” (is that a thing?) with issues less easy to measure, like feelings and encouragement and relationship dynamics. I appreciated the recent Mortification of Spin podcast and would recommend it to your listening.
I’d like to add one thought to this discussion, something based on my own experience. (This was long enough ago that I think I can share it without offending anyone or causing any of my church family to fear for my current sanity.) Several years ago I went through a period characterized by loneliness and discouragement. I couldn’t fully explain to you all the reasons for this, especially since it would be difficult to put my finger on the exact reasons behind these feelings. In comparison to other pastors I know who’ve struggled, I would definitely place my struggle at the mild end of the spectrum.
Beyond getting some counsel and making it a regular matter of prayer, I wasn’t quite sure how to deal with what I felt was a lack of encouragement from the congregation. I honestly didn’t know whether people appreciated my ministry or not, so I often assumed the worst. I never struggled to the point of leaving the pastorate or moving away; it was simply an unseen weight I carried for a couple of years.
Eventually, I came under some conviction concerning the topic of encouragement. When I considered that I didn’t feel very encouraged by those I was serving, I was forced to realized that maybe they didn’t feel very encouraged by me or the church family either. Maybe the issue wasn’t me alone but a problem with the culture of the church. Maybe we weren’t yet a truly encouraging church family. And if there’s a cultural problem within a particular church family at least some (if not most) of the blame can be laid at the feet of the leaders, those who are called to shepherd that particular family’s culture and character.
So, rather than asking others to go out of their way to encourage me, I tried to go out of my way to encourage others. During our announcement time on Sunday morning, I began purposefully thanking people for their service to the Lord. I learned to write thank-you notes, make phone calls for the sheer purpose of gratitude and in general seek to make people feel appreciated and valuable. I began to use social media as an opportunity to highlight the amazing kingdom service of so many in our congregation. (Please be assured that none of this has been done perfectly or nearly as well as it could be. But I was at least trying.)
You can probably guess the moral of the story. Not only did people feel genuinely appreciated and loved, but I in turn began to reap what I was sowing. Today I can testify that the congregation I serve is incredibly encouraging to me and that they appreciate me as much as I appreciate them.
I know difficult situations between pastors and congregations are complex and posts like this can be harmful in their simplicity. But to anyone struggling with discouragement, at least take the simple step first: “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.” (Lk. 6:31)