How to Handle Pastoral Burnout in a Covid-Plus World

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by Larry Doornbos, Director Vibrant Congregations

This morning, a friend emailed me a message that he’s repeated often in the past two years: “Again and again, we see that the COVID experience has revealed underlying fault lines, dysfunctions, and broader challenges.” A pandemic is just a piece of the iceberg that pastors and local congregations are dealing with, among politics, social media, challenging issues of justice and reconciliation, conspiracy theories, and more, hence the term “COVID-plus.” Unfortunately, navigating these waters leaves too many pastors in a place of pastoral burnout: drained, exhausted, and imagining a brighter day where they leave the pastorate behind.

When pastors inevitably hit a part of the iceberg and feel the waters rushing in, how do they patch the ship of their life and find the strength to go on? (All pastors know they will hit an iceberg—and hit it multiple times. The Titanic may have avoided the iceberg with the correct information, but no data or tools will make it possible for pastors to avoid a collision.)

Advice for pastors dealing with pastoral burnout

When an iceberg has been hit and the waters are rushing in, here are some recovery tools pastors can draw peace and strength from.

1. Know God’s story. Hitting an iceberg usually means an attack is coming. Pastors, you need to be deeply rooted in the good news that you are loved, wanted, and adopted by God (see Ephesians 1). God loving you, wanting you, and adopting you will never change. When facing an iceberg or an attack, the reminder of being a well-loved child of the great King is essential. We grow in this love mainly through our reflection on the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. We find strength and power in these moments through the bread and cup. These times of “remembrances, communion, and hope” are times when we are united to Christ and all his gifts (Reformed Church in America liturgy; Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 28). We need Christ’s gifts when we hit an iceberg.

2. Be imperfect. Professor and author Kelly Kapic says, “Many of us fail to understand that our limitations are a gift from God, and therefore good. This produces in us the burden of trying to be something we are not and cannot be” (You’re Only Human: How Your Limits Reflect God’s Design and Why That’s Good News). Somehow, many pastors were told they need to be perfect. Sometimes consistories encourage this by demanding pastors preach well, do pastoral care well, teach well—indeed, that they do all things well and with excellence. One of the gifts you give yourself as a pastor, and that consistories can encourage, is to live as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). The body of Christ recognizes each person’s gifts and limits and celebrates both. As a pastor, you need to embrace your gifts and your limitations. We see being finite as God’s good design.

3. Discover truths about yourself. As a pastor, you need to know the truth about yourself. Ask yourself these questions: Why do I respond the way I do when I hit an iceberg? Why do I think that I have to be perfect? Why do I have a hard time believing that God loves me and celebrates me? Faithwalking points out that many of our responses to these and other questions come from negative vows we made in our past. Those negative vows control how we respond until we identify them and push back against them. You can prepare yourself for hitting an iceberg and even recover from the collision by knowing the truth about yourself.

4. Know the story. Wherever you are in your life as a pastor, you are always telling yourself a story. When difficult and draining times come, you tell a story about why this has happened. It is a story about God, others, the situation, and yourself. Being a person of wisdom means identifying the story we are telling ourselves and testing the reality of that story with trusted friends. Several years ago, when I was hitting icebergs in my ministry setting, it was the ability to tell the story to trusted others and get insightful feedback that made it possible to navigate that time.

5. Recognize the downward slope. I am an introvert by nature. When I get tired, I become an incompetent extrovert. My family thinks it’s funny, and my wife says, “You must be tired; your poorly managed extrovert is showing.” Whenever you are in a challenging situation, there is the danger of another side of your personality showing itself. Some call this “in the grip” behavior. When you are in the grip, you start acting in ways that are actually the opposite of your regular ways of doing life. These changes are warning signs that you need to get a grip and do things that restore you. Recognizing this downward slope moves you on a path to the rest and recovery you need.

6. Pray the psalms. The rhythms of the psalms⁠—praise, lament, confession, celebration⁠—are critical for living in difficult and draining days. These rhythms open you to a wide range of emotions and prayers that keep you from getting stuck on the iceberg.

7. Lean on others. When you hit an iceberg and the waters rush in, you need a repair crew. Trying to repair things on your own is not the best way forward. It is essential to have a repair crew of supportive friends and other pastors (who have hit their own icebergs). This means, of course, that over the years, you’ll have built a wise and helpful network.

8. Access resources. There are excellent resources available to you as you prepare to hit an iceberg, when you make contact with the iceberg, and as you recover from impact. Books like Kelly Kapic’s You’re Only Human, mentioned above, or Chuck DeGroat’s book Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self are a great help. Faithwalking is a wonderful and safe place to learn about yourself and deal with anxiety. The Reformed Church in America has a program with Pine Rest that provides counseling for its pastors. The Christian Reformed Church in North America has a spiritual vitality toolkit for pastors.

9. Know when it’s time to leave. You know that there may come a time when God’s call is pointing you elsewhere. Wisdom in these moments comes from hearing the voices of others, looking at the situation with honest eyes, and knowing yourself. This may also be a time to learn about who you are and what an excellent next fit looks like by using a tool like the Birkman assessment.

How consistories and congregations can help ease pastoral burnout

How can consistories and congregations help pastors navigate waters in which they keep hitting unavoidable icebergs in our COVID-plus world? When consistories and congregations see the impact of an iceberg strike on their pastor, they can do one or more of the following:

1. Give time. Pastors need time to access and work with the tools above. Some of that time needs to happen before the iceberg strike. Be a grace-filled congregation and give your pastor(s) the gift of time to stay healthy and get healthy.

2. Embrace imperfection. Consistories need to celebrate the good gifts of their pastor(s) and refuse to shame and blame them for not being good at all things, all the time. Live as a healthy consistory as the body of Christ, affirming the goodness that interdependence brings. You can convey this way of life to the congregation and use your gifts to fulfill the calling of the body of Christ.

3. Speak and show encouragement. In this time of COVID-plus, actions and words of encouragement are critical. How can you, the leadership and congregation, speak and act in encouraging ways to build up the pastor and staff rather than tearing them down? More than 30 years ago, our son was born with special needs. The days and months after his birth were difficult. We had multiple doctors’ visits, hospitalizations, and surgeries. Our congregation gathered around us and supported us with time, care, and financial gifts. This care made it possible for us to survive this era. Meanwhile, we met another pastor in the hospital whose congregation demanded that he preach every Sunday, who provided little support and showed little care. As you can imagine, he soon left that congregation. The care and support of a congregation makes the difference.

4. Be an advocate for your pastor. When members complain about the pastor, when they say their pastor has hit an iceberg, and when they are just looking for someone to blame for things they don’t like, stand up for the pastor. There is always space for good conversations in consistory meetings, but outside of those spaces, one of the greatest gifts pastors can receive is a consistory that advocates for them.

Navigation in this COVID-plus world is challenging, and icebergs are inevitable. Whether these icebergs sink the pastor’s ship depends on using the right tools and having wise and supportive leadership.