Monday, February 4, 2013

Recognizing the Signs of Burnout

by Angie Mabry-Nauta

“Look around the room, and get a good glance at your classmates.”

Two short months stood between our group of thirty-seven and the future for which we had been preparing while in seminary. Yes, we had much to accomplish before our official duties began. No matter. We were bright lights and even the most tightly woven bushel would have been challenged to dim us.

We obeyed our pastoral care professor and looked around the room.

“Most of the faces that you see here today will not be in ministry within seven years,” he continued. “The statistics for burnout are well documented, and the causes for it plentiful and unique to each person. Care well for yourselves. It is more likely to happen to you than not.”

Our lights faded.

Ministry is both a rewarding and demanding vocation. It crosses over into every aspect of our lives and encompasses all of who we are, whether we’re a religious professional or a church volunteer. Each person has her own unique gifts.  Regardless of who or where we serve, all who answer God’s call give . . . and give . . . and give. It’s the Christian way, after all. And usually we are all too happy to sacrifice ourselves for others.


Six years into congregational ministry, I had an epiphany. What I believed would happen to my classmates—not me—occurred. I burned out. My top three telltale signs were:

  1. That which used to inspire me drained much of my energy. Preaching, and creating and leading worship services were the lifeblood of my ministry. Each filled me with great joy. . . until producing sermons and worship services came to feel like pulling my own teeth.
  2. I came to loath the parts of ministry that challenged me. Leadership development, administration and mediating conflict were my constant “growth opportunities.” At one time I willingly offered myself to refinement in these areas but burnout kidnapped my pliable spirit.

  1. I lost my compassion and patience with people. The core of my ministry was sharing God’s heart. I mulled my words to accurately and passionately communicate God’s unending love. I had a large capacity to forgive when people hurt me, even love them more through the difficult times. Not so with burnout—grace became hard.

Does any of this strike a chord with you? If you’re feeling “not like yourself” in your service to God and others, take notice. You may be burning out. Take action now and care well for yourself.

Spend quality time with God in silence, prayer and journaling. Engage a spiritual director or work with a counselor. You may even need to negotiate a sabbatical or temporary leave. These steps may just be the best gifts you give not only to yourself, but to your ministry and the people you serve.

Rev. Angie Mabry-Nauta is a writer and an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America (RCA).  A member of the Redbud Writer’s Guild, Angie blogs at “Woman, in Progress…” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @Godstuffwriter.


  1. Every pastor who still wants to be in the ministry five years from now needs to take a day or two off each quarter to hit the “refresh” button.

    The most valuable assets we have, after all, aren’t our offices, computers, books and other tangible resources. Instead, our greatest assets are intangible--our creative souls.

    By “creative souls,” I’m speaking about everything inside us that makes us who we are at the office (and away from church, too). This includes our knowledge, skills, perceptions, understanding, craftsmanship, and wisdom. It includes our abilities to come up with brilliant ideas, new solutions, artistic expressions, and bursts of insight and intuition that surprise us.

    I list 15 ways pastors can hit the refresh button at Enjoy!

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts, David. I agree completely about the necessity for ministers to take that time to "hit the 'refresh' button." Unfortunately, I fell in line with many pastors by NOT taking these breaks. Speaking only for myself, I overestimated how much people needed me. I wouldn't take the time because I "had" to be there for my congregation and the community ministry we hosted. I hurt myself and everyone around me by making that short-sighted decision. Peace to you!

  2. An author, speaker and director of a mentoring ministry for wives (, no one prepared me for the flame-become-smoldering wick condition I suffered last July.
    At my husband's urging, I took July off-against my better judgement (to my great surprise, the wheels didn't come off the ministry wagon!) During that month, the Lord filled me to overflowing as I sat on my porch praying, listening, reading and journalling. Upon my return to ministry, I found myself prepared for the new challenges that lay before me.
    Thanks you for this article Angie. It's a good check list to refer to often.
    By the way, I've already planned to take the month of July off in 2013 and am looking forward to it!

    1. Wow, Sandy...thanks for your testimony. I ache with you about the "flame-become-smoldering wick condition," as well as the suffering. PTL that you listened and allowed the Holy Spirit to heal and rejuvenate you. Even more praise for you being proactive about July 2013! I pray that the women that God brings across your path will follow your example! Shalom.

  3. God, our Heavenly Father, programmed the remedy for burn-out into his creation. Even He rested on the seventh day. He required rest for his people and the land every seven years. The sabbatical was God's idea! Use it!

    1. I totally agree. This is easier said than done for ministers, I fear. We seem to be amongst the worst about overworking. (See here: found that it was often difficult for me to rest. I either dug into work at home (laundry, helping clean, etc.), caught up on denominational work, had appointments or workshops, or enjoyed fun but busy days with my girls when I was away from church. Most of that time, I carried my congregation with me in my mind and heart, and therefore never laid down the mantle. I believe I've learned my lesson, though. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Hi there!
    So we're coming to the end of our 20th yr ministering as a couple.
    We guarded ourselves well. Took a day off most weeks. Put a fence around family time. No danger of us getting burnt out.
    Until last yr when immense grief after multiple bereavements tipped us over the edge.
    What I realised only last week was that as our children had grown our boundaries had become smaller. Our safeguards needed to be adjusted in the same way that routines have to change as children's needs alter.
    It's really, really tough. We're trying a phased return to work, but it's not working out very well.
    We are a transient people. Things change all the time. We need to constantly watch, assess and keep track of happening in us and our ministry. We have another 20 yrs to give. Even if it takes months to restore our strength, that's ok x

  5. "We are a transient people. Things change all the time. We need to constantly watch, assess and keep track of happening in us and our ministry." EXCELLENT point, Karen! Yes, our needs do change over the years, even months, if not weeks and days of ministry! I remember reading about what seemed to be a barrage of death around you last year. HUGE grief! :( Glad you are listening to yourself and taking your time returning to ministry. God needs you at your strongest, as do you. God will let you know when it's time...until then, rest in God's loving care. Much peace to you, my sister!

  6. Good advice. Sadly, we often feel guilty for needing to take a break. If only we could accept our very human need to Sabbath. It's not just a habit for our parishioners.

  7. "It's not just a habit for our parishioners." So true, Stephanie. I remember quite clearly feeling guilty when I took a break. I could "see" congregants' faces in my head, and "hear" their voices in my ears. Both, of course, were disapproving of my choice. Ugh... Thanks for reading and commenting!

  8. Much wisdom in all the entries posted here. I especially appreciate Dave Sanford's explanation about our creative souls. What we offer to the faith community is truly our selves, and we need to be healthy in order to do it. Marva Dawn's "The Sense of the Call" really helped me see that modeling Sabbath living is one of the greatest things we can do for our parishioners. She and Eugene Peterson have helped me understand my ministry as less a set of tasks and more a sharing of the faith journey together. If we can manage to keep that as a working paradigm, it is easier to keep the balance that must be maintained in the midst of the busyness of ministry. I've experienced burnout and the threat of it enough to know how important this is.