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Burning Out: A Pastor’s Story

February 11, 2019 No Comment

By: David Haberstock

Something seemed off. What were we missing? I’m a pastor (best job in the world, right?). So how could anything be wrong? My family is ok. My marriage is ok. New parish. New challenges. Untold blessings that I am thankful to the Lord for. What’s wrong? Why am I angry at times without knowing why?

My wife had told me for years that I needed to get a further degree and eventually teach. (That had been my original plan, till being blessed with my wonderful wife and children). She always thought I was bored.

Then I went to a professional development program for pastors called Doxology where they talked about being “burnt out” and “compassion fatigue.” As they discussed the signs and stages of these conditions, I thought: “There’s something to this. I’ve got snippets of these thoughts, feelings, and behaviours at many of the stages of burnout and compassion fatigue. I’ll have to look at that when I have time.”

It was the end of June 2017 that I went to the first Doxology “Gathering.” It was a four-day intensive retreat of meditation on God’s word, prayer, discussing mental health, and pondering the art and practice of being a Seelsorger—German for something like “Doctor of Souls”. It’s an old Lutheran way of talking about the ministry of a pastor. He is a doctor of Souls—someone who has the healing balm that all men need, because he has been called and authorized by our Lord Jesus Christ (through the Church) to hand out the fruits of the tree of life at the right time in the right way.

It all sounded good at the time. But then, summer kicked in. Vacations. Other priorities at church. No time to ponder what I’d learned at the Gathering. But I pushed my wife to come to the next Doxology retreat called the “Grand Reunion.” It wasn’t a marriage retreat. (What was it? We didn’t really know going in.) But pastors and their wives were supposed to attend together so they could be fed on God’s Word in worship, attend sessions on varying topics of faith and life, and—something very odd—actually sit together in worship, as well as spend time together with other adults without the kids!

I was on holidays just before the Grand Reunion, and decided to take another look at the things I’d studied at the previous Gathering. I wanted to learn whether I had ‘compassion
fatigue’ or not. So I found the little survey they’d given me and tallied it up. Turns out, I was at very low risk for compassion fatigue. (Yay! I am still compassionate!)

The surprise was that I was instead at very high risk for burnout!

What a revelation. It made sense. My personal trouble was not so much boredom but burnout—burnout from a mishmash of expectations. Expectations parishioners had expressed to me that (as a people pleaser) I tried to live up to. Expectations that I perceived to be real, but were more about what I had placed on myself. Expectations that have little to do with what my job as a pastor actually is—the job as Jesus defines it. Satan delights in me trying to minister from my own strength and resources, rather than from the authority and power Christ gives in His Word and Sacraments.

You’d think it would be one more nail in the coffin to be told you are at high risk for burnout. But for me, it was inspiring. Now I can actually put my finger on what’s been off. Now I have a few strategies—written down in my Doxology notes—about what to do about it. I have the correction and blessing of Jesus to be the pastor I’ve always wanted to be. I have another retreat to go to yet (along with a leader from my congregation). I have some consultation hours with the executive directors of Doxology that I can make use of. I have hope.

This was news to me, that I might be burning out. I’ve always been pretty even-keeled. Emotionally stable. But life throws us curve balls, and none of us can get through it on our own. We’ve all seen pastors who are wrestling with stress from difficulties in the parish or home life, or who are just going through the motions. As Christians who care about each other and about our pastors we know it’s not good. But what should we do about it? We don’t know. We can’t put our finger on what’s wrong.

Doxology helped me put my finger on it. And Doxology has given my wife and I a passion for helping my brother pastors and their families. Doxology is expensive to go to (travel costs to the United States are quite high!), so it’s not going to be the answer for everyone. (That’s one of the reasons we are exploring holding the program in Canada). But awareness of various mental health issues that pastors wrestle with is a start. We want to help improve the mental health of our pastors and their families, and thus of our congregations too!

A major component of that is increasing understanding of what the Bible (not our culture) says a pastor is: what his primary tools are (the Word, the Sacraments, prayer) in doing the ministry Christ has given to His Church. This can help both pastors and our parishes immeasurably. This is a goal I and my wife share goal, as sinners under the mercy of Christ’s cross; as people who love Christ and His Church.

Rev. David Haberstock is Regional Pastor for Lutheran Church–Canada’s Central Region. Since writing this article in 2018, Rev. Haberstock has found increased comfort and joy in chanting the Psalms daily. “Through this,” he notes, “the Lord is teaching me to pray and trust in Him to perform the tasks of ministry, rather than merely trusting in my own reason or strength.”