Don’t Call it Burnout. Pastors Get Depressed, Too

Cover Photo: Pinterest Sets Several Mental Health Awareness Month Initiatives (adweek.com)

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, major depressive disorder affects as many as 16 million people a year in the United States. That statistic is not exclusive to those who suffer from chronic depression; it includes adults that have reported suffering from one major depressive episode in a given year. As many as 1 in 5 adults suffer from mental illness each year. This means that most people will suffer from a mental health crisis in their lifetime. This includes your pastors.

In an article titled “9 Signs You’re Burning Out in Leadership”, Carey Nieuwhof reflects on a season in his life when he experienced what he describes as “burnout”:

Here are 9 things I personally experienced as I burned out.

I hope they can help you see the edge before you careen past it:

1. Your motivation has faded. The passion that fueled you is gone, and your motivation has either vapourized or become self-centered.

2. Your main emotion is ‘numbness’ – you no longer feel the highs or the lows. This was actually one of the earliest signs for me that the edge was near. I wrote more about emotional numbness here.

3. People drain you. Of course there are draining people on the best of days. But not everybody, every time. Burnout often means few to no people energize you anymore.

4. Little things make you disproportionately angry. When you start losing your cool over small things, it’s a sign something deeper is very wrong.

5. You’re becoming cynical. Many leaders fight this one, but cynicism rarely finds a home in a healthy heart.

6. Your productivity is dropping. You might be working long hours, but you’re producing little of value. Or what used to take you 5 minutes just took you 45. That’s a warning bell.

7.  You’re self-medicating.  Your coping mechanism has gone underground or dark. Whether that’s overeating, overworking, drinking, impulsive spending or even drugs, you’ve chosen a path of self-medication over self-care. Ironically, my self-medication was actually more work, which just spirals things downward.

8. You don’t laugh anymore. Nothing seems fun or funny, and, at its worst, you begin to resent people who enjoy life.

9. Sleep and time off no longer refuel you. Sometimes you’re not burnt out; you’re just tired. A good night’s sleep or a week or two off will help most healthy people bounce back with fresh energy. But you could have a month off when you’re burnt out and not feel any difference. I took three weeks off during my summer of burnout, and I felt worse at the end than when I started. Not being refueled when you take time off is a major warning sign you’re burning out.

9 Signs You’re Burning Out in Leadership – CareyNieuwhof.com

I’ll just shoot straight here: The symptoms that Neiuwhof identifies as telltale signs of ministry burnout are what every mental health professional worth his or her salt would identify as telltale symptoms of clinical depression.

But in Christian circles, pastors don’t get to experience depression. Pastors go through “ministry burnout”. Pastors don’t get to experience anxiety. For them, it’s “spiritual warfare”, or “not finding their worth in Christ”. The stigma around mental health disorders is being steadily lifted in our culture, except for, it seems, those who are in church leadership.

And that’s not fair. It’s also dangerous. Because instead of receiving care and grace, pastors are prescribed a laundry list of “should’s”:

“You should take some time off.”

“You should understand that your true worth is in Jesus and stop putting so much pressure on yourself.”

“You should spend more intentional time feeding yourself spiritually.”

“You should take those thoughts captive.”

“You can do [insert remedy here] to avoid burning out.”

And the worst response to an individual suffering from a mental health episode is, “You should be doing more.”

Yes, pastors are responsible for their spiritual health, and spiritual health often correlates with mental health. But depression often stems from circumstances that are out of our control: death, sickness, job-loss, and other stressors of daily life, not to mention chemical imbalances in the brain and body. There is real healing from hurts such as these to be found in Christ – I am not denying or diminishing that – but the term “burnout” further stigmatizes what should be recognized as a very real mental health struggle, and makes it out to be a situation that pastors can easily avoid if they would simply do [x, y, and z]. This causes pastors to avoid being honest about what they are going through, and instead of seeking healing in Christian community, they attempt to cope alone. That’s never a good thing.

You can read more of my thoughts on this topic in my essay, “Vulnerable Relationships: A Step Toward Avoiding Lonely Leadership”. Download it here.

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