Could your pastor be close to burnout? Our survey says yes

 
Rachel Jones | March 15th 2016

“I knew I was working in a high-pressure parish but did not realise the extent until I collapsed at 11pm.”

That was what one person wrote in response to our new survey about working patterns and stress levels among people in paid Christian work. Almost 500 pastors, women's workers, and youth and children's workers completed an online survey we conducted, which investigated working patterns and stress among people in paid Christian work. Here’s what we discovered:

  • Christians in ministry on average work double the number of hours they are “officially” supposed to
  • Almost half do not regularly have a day off a week
  • One third of survey respondents have experienced burnout
  • Two thirds are only intermittently meeting with friends or others who might support them
  • 80% feel guilty that they are letting people down by not doing a good job
  • Over half have experienced some level of feeling worthless and believing themselves to be unsuited to their ministry role

Long working hours


On average respondents confessed to working almost double the number of hours they were contracted to do. The effect was particularly pronounced for those who were on part-time contracts—but around 15% of people surveyed reported working over 70 hours a week, placing them firmly in the zone where there are increased risks to both mental and physical health.

Experiencing burnout

It’s no surprise then that a massive third of all respondents to the survey said that they had experienced burnout—some of them multiple times. A further quarter felt they had been close to the edge with exhaustion and stress a number of times, but had pulled back with help from family, friends and other Christian leaders.

"Even accounting for potential bias in those who chose to fill in the survey, this is a shocking level of illness relating to ministry,” says TGBC Publishing Director Tim Thornborough, who designed the survey. “People are zealous to do gospel work, and are often working unsupervised and unsupported, but under the critical eye of members of the congregation. People will regularly push through the tiredness or keep going on adrenaline and coffee, only to crash badly at some stage."

We commissioned the survey because we wanted to get an idea of the scale of the problem ahead of the release of a new book by Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout. Christopher wrote the book after experiencing burnout himself, and pastoring many younger ministers in similar situations: “I sense that burnout is more common than we think—that behind the facade, there are lots of people who aren't coping. None of us thinks we are on the path to burnout until we are nearly burnt out; it is precisely those of us who are sure we are safe, who are most in danger. We need to heed Paul’s warning: 'So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!' (1 Corinthians 10 v 12)"

Causes of stress


When asked what single factor causes most stress, respondents overwhelmingly pointed to difficult relationships with members of the congregation, and to stresses within leadership teams. But almost half also pointed to stresses caused by the lack of time, and the expectations they were placed under to do too many things outside their competence. "I don't live above the shop—I live in the shop; always here, always available,” commented one respondent.

Experiencing joy in serving Christ

But it’s not all bad news—we found that very few respondents complained about their stressful, busy working lives—some testifying to the joy they experienced in and through it. When asked what energised and refreshed them, one youth minister said his greatest joy was "being at youth group—the prep is now over, and now it's just a matter of teaching what's been prepared. It's my favourite time of the week.” Many others listed various forms of exercise as their number 1 way of refreshing themselves, but admitted that they struggle to find the time to do it.

"These findings are an urgent call for ministers and other church workers to guard their ways"

"The levels of burnout among Christian workers are the same, if not greater than those quoted for the most stressful professions; in particular, those experienced by Junior Doctors," said Tim. "What this survey doesn't show is the stress among those who work in other jobs, but give their spare time to serving in the local church in preaching, leadership and youthwork. These findings are an urgent call for ministers and other church workers to guard their ways, but also for churches to understand and support those in ministry, and to ensure that their zeal to serve the Lord does not lead to burnout."

Over the next few weeks on the blog we’ll have a series of articles exploring the results further. In the meantime, to learn more about burnout and how to avoid it, get yourself a copy of Zeal without Burnout by Christopher Ash.

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Rachel Jones

Rachel Jones is the author of Is This It? and the award-winning Five Things to Pray series, and an editor at The Good Book Company. She leads Bible studies for young adults and helps teach kids at her church, Chessington Evangelical in Surrey, UK. Rachel studied History at Manchester University before joining TGBC.

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