Pastor burnout: Who helps the helpers?

Local couple plans to counsel struggling pastors

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Worshippers aren’t the only ones leaving the church.

The pulpits too are experiencing an exodus as pastors — burned out and depressed from being overworked and undertrained — are leaving the vocation.

A 2013 study from the Schaeffer Institute reports that 1,700 pastors leave the ministry each month, citing depression, burnout, or being overworked as the primary reasons.

According to the study, 90 percent of pastors report working 55 to 70 hours a week, and 50 percent of them feel unable to meet the demands of the job.

As the American church struggles with transition — more people leaving the church or not finding their way to it in the first place — American pastors are finding themselves under an increasing amount of stress.

Not only are pastors the caretakers of the congregation and the deliverer of God’s word, oftentimes they also are the building managers, business leaders, and accountability officials for their individual churches.

Pastors often could use a helping hand, an ear to bend or a shoulder to lean on. Rarely, though, do they ask for it.

“Pastors in a lot of American churches are struggling with those realities and having a hard time dealing with them,” says the Rev. Marty Boller, 63, of Cedar Rapids. “Pastors are quitting like crazy because they’re just getting burned out.”

Boller and his wife, the Rev. Sandy Boller, have seen first-hand what burnout can lead to. Both pastors in the Vineyard churches, they’ve worked with many colleagues trying to get through the depression and burnout that comes with too much stress.

“We do a lot of coaching, we’re coaching them through these transitions,” Marty Boller says. “There’s coaching going on in any profession, it’s just going alongside someone and asking the questions: ‘How’s it going? How are you doing?’ For pastors, we’re always ‘telling and selling,’ but we’re seldom asking.”

That’s why the Bollers, too, are in transition. They are leaving behind 30 years at the pulpit to to be the ear and the shoulder these struggling pastors need.

“Very rarely do pastors take care of their own soul, make sure they’re OK,” Marty Boller says.

According to the same 2013 study from the Schaeffer Institute, 70 percent of pastors suffer from depression, and 50 percent say they would leave the ministry but have no other way of making a living.

“We’re trying to help people through coaching and spiritual direction,” Sandy Boller says. “The art of spiritual direction is sitting with people and allowing them to get quiet themselves so they can hear from God. We just need to help get them out of the traffic of life.”

Marty Boller says it’s easy to see how pastors can fall into a “rut” and begin to spiral. Most denominations, he says, aren’t set up for caring for the caretakers.

“There are conferences for denominational health, for congregational health, on how to maintain the church, but we find we aren’t caring for the pastors, for the leaders of those churches,” Marty Boller says.

Some 90 percent of pastors surveyed by the Schaeffer Institute say they felt they weren’t adequately trained for the demands of the job, and another 90 percent say the reality of ministry wasn’t as it was described.

“Pastors are a crazy animal. We believe we are an instrument of God, we share God’s word, we’re the ones people come to with questions or when they’re in crisis, so we have to stay strong,” he says. “We have this illusion that if we don’t stay strong, people are looking at us as weak. So it’s really a catch-22 situation for pastors – they need to be able to reach out and ask for help, but they need to be strong for their congregations. Getting pastors to come to a point where they admit they need help is really difficult.”

The goal, Sandy Boller says, is to reach out to pastors before it’s too late, to help them before they leave the ministry for good.

“With spiritual direction, we give them a place to be ‘real,’ ” she says. “It’s a safe place to be who they are and get the help they need.”

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