Is burn-out an American phenomenon?

Part of my sabbatical is designed to understand how better to help pastors and their families avoid the crash and burn. There are many pressures (finances, conflict, loneliness, the fishbowl, etc.) on ministry families and while any one of them may not be overwhelming, together they can bring a minister to his/her knees. Worse yet, they can tempt the leader to seek comfort in ungodly ways.

But a friend of mine who cares greatly for ministry leaders was recently talking to an African pastor. This pastor has NOTHING. He ministers to those who have NOTHING, to those living under trees. They live in a country that is in the midst of a civil war.  He has his wife spend months apart ministering to the poor. When my friend asked about pastoral burn-out, this pastor could not comprehend the question. It didn’t compute–and not because he didn’t understand the concept.

Why? Are we Americans soft and weak given that we live in the land of plenty? Probably. But are there other explanations? I think so. Foremost in my mind is the place of expectationsin the life of Western pastors. Expectations of success, growth, contentment (from self and church community) create pressure and when expectations are only partially met, it leads to the temptation to discouragement and looking to greener grass. Secondly, I think living in constant crisis without hope for change rarely allows for collapse–unless it is to die. It is common for the greatest emotional collapse to happen when one has the opportunity to pause and reflect. In crisis, we do not reflect. When the crisis abates, then we reflect and see that our assumptions and expectations do not fit with reality. It is that point that leads to either leaning on the Lord while changing our expectations to match his OR either trying harder or choosing another assumption that causes greater pain.

What do you think?


Filed under Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Cultural Anthropology, pastoral renewal, pastors and pastoring

7 responses to “Is burn-out an American phenomenon?

  1. Amy

    I think that we don’t rest…at all. I’m horrible at it. Other cultures put people first and spend time doing more simple things. We have a culture of EVERYTHING…and yet we lack so much.

  2. Scott Knapp, MS

    Personally I feel “burnt out” most when my efforts to make life work reasonably well are frustrated for extended periods of time, and I feel let down by God because He won’t honor my efforts to reconstruct Eden and permanently (or at least until I die) move in, and I don’t have any reasonable assurances (viewable evidence, Scriptural promises of relief) that I can hang my hat on. By that definition, some “burn out” is inevitable, because I’m “made in His image” for a perfect world, and am existing in a fallen world…some burn out can’t be avoided. I think the bigger part of my “burn out” comes from stubborn demands on my part that God make life work, or that those around me cooperate with my own efforts. I’m going through one of those periods in my life right now, and my employment situation is causing me great frustration and anxiety due to some recent changes. It has the potential to cause me “burn out” in a short period of time due to the severity of these changes. I’m doing a lot of thinking about what I have a reasonable right to expect from my job (no violence, respect from upper management, reasonable hours) and what inconvenience I should relax and tolerate as life in the fallen world that is fully under God’s control (seeming disruption in my career path, unfair treatment by the state Counseling board). What a timely topic to bring up for consideration!

  3. jenny

    Agree with both comments so far. We have so much, but it seems to distract us from what’s important. We spend time acquiring more stuff (both material and intangible), maintaining the stuff we have, moving the stuff around, worrying about the stuff we don’t have that others have etc etc. And we fool ourselves that the stuff is important. I wonder sometimes if this post-structuralist life we live is just a big distraction from what’s real. People, relationships, God.
    Realised in relation to something quite mundane that was annoying me the other day (why the company who makes and the man who installs my garden shed can’t do it properly) that this world is fallen, it’s imperfect. I’m going to come up against that imperfection many times each day. I’m going to be responsible for at least some of the imperfection myself – a sobering thought. So now what do I do? Who asked that question “so now, how do we live?” I think that’s the question. How do we live in an imperfect world? How do we become more like Jesus?
    Great topic for discussion and reflection during your sabbatical. I look forward to reading more of your and others’ thoughts.

  4. Jayne W.

    Dr Phil … (hi! … ex LEAd student enjoying your blog)

    Yes, “expectations”. I agree. (actually, I first read that word as “expectationsin” … or “expectation sin” and i was instantly convicted). LAUGH.

    I am just into my third year of my first pastorate of attempting to turn around a dying church … and I have spent most of that time expecting God to do something with all my efforts (and I bearing the expectations of others to make something of all of their efforts.) Burn out #1 came at the 6th month mile marker. I hit the wall at 120 mph. I recovered at a Franciscan retreat house, learning that I had greatly exceeded my own human limitations.

    I took flight again at the 1 year mile marker, and given the crazy months of summer which stretched into the Fall, and quickly into the holiday season … I hit the wall again at 18 months. Hit it bad. “I quit God.” (I’ve quit many times before, but this time I *meant* it).

    I recovered, again, by seeking some pastoral mentoring and wise counsel … and also at the Francis House.

    I am now at the 2 mile marker, in the crazy months of summer, quickly falling away into the Fall … and … do you see a pattern??

    It has taken me this time to discover my cycle of burn-out. The great thing is that I can see it coming this time. What I am sure of is that it is the placement of expectations of my own doing, upon myself, and not learning to respect my humanly limitations. But also having NOTHING would help, since I demand upon myself to maintain all the ‘trinkets and toys’, and to keep up with the ‘latest and greatest’ church fads (because seriously, who wants to be a pastor that is not hip?! SMILE).

    I want to be a high capactity person (rather American ideal), but truth is, God has designed me as a low capacity, highly contemplative kind of girl.

    So, I am discovering the ‘pace’ of my own limitations in a context that demands constant attention and never ending to do lists. And learning (trying) to not be lured in to the tyranny of Expectationsin.

    I am looking forward to more of your posts on this topic … thanks for pursuing it for us.

    Jayne W.

    ps … i apologize if i’ve ‘double posted’ … email was incorrect 1st time.

  5. Tans

    Interesting question. Whilst I haven’t been to the USA (which apparently is even faster and more obsessed with clock time) the difference between work attitudes in Sydney and East Africa makes me think burnout is a western thing.

    My most missed aspect of being in Africa is the sense of being ‘in the moment’- I had a conversation with an Africa Pastor about my possibility of working in his village. He gave me his full attention, and it wasn’t until I was leaving and heard singing that I realised his church had been waiting for him to preach! If that occurred in Sydney the Pastor would have excused himself, or felt very stressed and his frustration would have shown in the conversation.

    I agree expectations play a big part. A friend once told me “it’s not about resting from work, but working from a place of rest”.

  6. Nice comments all. Jayne, good to “see” you again. Lord’s blessings on you ministry!

  7. Hi,

    I would like to share with you a good ebook that’s free to help pastors and their wives with discouragement and burnout. You can find it at: . It’s quite helpful.

    If you have pastor friends or even their wives, we are currently inviting pastors and pastor wives to join charter membership club for free for 2 months,you might want to share this with them. You may visit for more information.

    We would also like to invite you to view our video on this topic at

    Feel free to share this with your friends or people you care for.


    Susan David

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