The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: How Do You Prevent Clergy Burnout?

Sarah M. asks, “I keep reading about clergy burn-out. Have you ever experienced that? Does your religion or denomination take any preventative measures to guard against it?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“I’ve experienced what I’d call clergy fatigue but not complete burnout. Yes, exhaustion, depression, depletion of spiritual reserves is common among clergy. Unlike many of professional folks, clergy never get a weekend off and only the most disciplined manage a full day off a week at all!In addition to one month vacation and 2 weeks study leave each year, my denomination strongly encourages congregations to provide a three month sabbatical for pastors every 5-7 years. I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Lily Foundation for such a sabbatical in 2012. This interval of rest, travel, and education gave me renewed enthusiasm for my call extended my tenure at my present parish.”

The Rev. Steven Manskar, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, responds:

“Clergy burn-out is very real. It is all too common today. The global coronavirus pandemic makes pastoral leadership and care very difficult. Pastors cannot visit people who are hospitalized or living in retirement and assisted living communities. Pastoral care must be done by telephone or computer. Because it is not safe to gather in-person for worship pastors and the people are cut off from fellowship and sacraments. In congregations that choose to move from in-person to virtual worship some pastors must deal with members who object and threaten to stop giving and leave the congregation. All of this wears on the soul and nerves, which can lead to burn-out.

“Pastors must develop a network of support. I’ve found the best defense against burn-out is being part of a small group with other clergy and habitually praying the daily office of morning and evening prayer. It’s also helpful to be in a small accountability group with members of the congregation who commit to watch over one another in love. These disciplines help keep me grounded in Scripture, prayer, and relationships of mutual accountability and support.

“These practices, which are proven and effective means of grace that guard against burn-out, are central to the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition. It’s important for pastors to develop them as habits. Some seminaries teach and encourage them, but they are usually not taught as necessary survival skills for pastoral ministry. Each United Methodist congregation has a Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. Part of the mission of this committee is to help the pastor succeed and encourage her or him to develop and practice healthy habits and spiritual disciplines.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Most people think clergy burn-out only occurs because we work long hours or lack good self-care practices. I believe burn-out comes from a lack of appreciation more than anything else. Not just for clergy but for every person trying their best to do well by others. Sincere appreciation can go a very long way in supporting your clergy from burning out. Our denomination recommends full and fair compensation for all clergy, healthy spiritual practices, and a sabbatical every 6 to 7 years of service to a congregation.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Clergy burn-out is as old as Christianity itself. The earliest known case is that of Timothy, ‘first bishop of the church of the Ephesians,’ described in the Second Epistle of Paul to Timothy. Timothy bears all the marks, mental, emotional, and physical, of a minister overwhelmed by the demands of his charge. Paul offers every known remedy to his ‘dearly beloved son,’ giving direction, counsel, exhortation, encouragement, medical advice, and arranging a ‘sabbatical’ of sorts.  

“Yes, I have experienced ‘burn-out.’ I went into the pastorate  with little preparation for the challenges involved, and the demands and expectations of today’s churches. In my generation, at least, clergy burn-out was ascribed to personal weakness or failure on the part of the minister. The only remedy applied was to separate the minister from his charge, and look for a replacement.

“Today we have learned much about ‘Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder’ (PTSD) which may apply to the battering and bruising ministers encounter while serving ‘the church militant.’ Sadly, those who have supervision of the minister’s life and doctrine often intervene too late, and do too little to help. I still believe that the Presbyterian system of church government holds the key to a better way: as one body, ministers and elders should labor together, each one supporting and complementing the work of the others. No one should be left to shoulder the burden of the pastorate alone, but pastors usually are.”

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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