Clergy and Burnout: The Question of Control

People are talking about job burnout among clergy. It’s a topic in newspapers around the world. It’s the talk of talk shows. Those within the clergy wonder how to spot signs of burnout. They hope to prevent burnout or at least minimize it through early diagnosis. Others may worry about such vulnerability among their community leaders. Many are concerned that burnout suggests reduced concern for their spiritual wellbeing. And many look for ways to alleviate burdens on members of clergy.

Burnout is a syndrome of chronic exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy. It is incompatible with the role of energetic, involved, and confident leadership.

The Areas of Worklife Model, discussed previously in this series, identifies six factors to consider in preventing or alleviating burnout.

Control is the foundation of an engaged worklife. Work that one chooses is always more attractive than work that is inflicted. Control matters not only in choosing what you do, but where, when, and with whom you do what you do. For clergy, control varies quite a bit. Some parts of the job have a rigid schedule: events happen at specific times and places. Religious organizations often have clear authority structures: senior officers can determine many details of the worklife of others.

So what to do?

  1. Job Crafting is the practice of using whatever latitude a job provides to emphasize those elements that most effectively further your core values. The general idea is that people often have more latitude than they use. The approach does not encourage neglecting core responsibilities. Those responsibilities are usually surrounded by a lot of other tasks that permit some discretion. In fact, it’s likely impossible to do every legitimate part of a job. So, shape your time to emphasize those elements you value most.
  2. Negotiating. Addressing a responsibility that goes beyond your latitude requires a straightforward conversation with the boss. The boss may be the person to whom you report or it may be the members of one’s spiritual community. The conversation requires careful preparation to present a persuasive argument that a different way of doing things will serve everyone better.

Gaining control over worklife is a challenging task. As scary as it seems, it beats burning out or leaving a calling that one loves. One cannot take either of these strategies lightly. The affect other people as well as oneself. But they are core steps along the way to a more fulfilling worklife.


  1. It would seem that this occupation has extraordinary challenges. Unpredictable events such as tragedies and funerals are not in clergys’ control. When staff is limited and lay people are not licensed to marry and bury, what can be done to ward off exhaustion? Thankfully there are lay people who can perform duties of hospital visitations, visiting shut ins, and leading studies. But sometimes the congregation wants, and needs, the presence of a pastor. Do you think that one religious affiliation/denominations more prone to burn out than another?

  2. Thanks for sharing your insights on this issue.

    You make an excellent point about the power of teamwork to extend one’s capacity by working with a network of lay people to address essential functions. As you point out, there are limits to how far one can go down that road as there are specific and exclusive responsibilities that one cannot delegate or share.

    The issue of workload will be the subject of the next post in this series. There are real limits to how much one person can do. The point of control regarding workload is using one’s discretion to assure that you are giving priority to activities that align most closely with your core values. That doesn’t assure that everything gets done, but gives the edge to those things one most cherishes.

    I don’t know about differences in demands among various affiliations or whether other factors, such as age or other demographics shape demand to a greater extent. It is clear that demands vary considerably across situations, and that raises questions of fairness, resources, and recognition.

    More later

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