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7 surprising strategies for burnout

May 9, 2016 | by Jim Farrer

For many decades researchers have documented the stress and burnout of pastors. According to the Globe and Mail two of the top three drugs prescribed for United Church of Canada clergy are antidepressants. In 2014 Leadership Journal reported percentages of pastor responses in the following categories:


18.2 percent      I’m fried.

28.4 percent      I’m learning to endure.

26.5 percent      Burned out in the past. I’ve changed. It’s gone.

17.6 percent      Not sure if it was burnout or something else

 9.3  percent      Never been burned out

Results of research from various fields of study reveal some unanticipated and simple solutions to the harmful effects of stress.

1. The importance of really worrying
In one nationwide survey, 42 percent reported “worrying a lot” and that they could spend at least 25 percent of their day worrying. However, according to research conducted by Penn State psychologist Thomas Borkovec, worrying in a correct manner and in the right time and place can actually be helpful.

Here’s the method: Choose a “worry place.” It should not be for relaxing but only for worrying. Spend the time “stewing” about your issues, fantasizing worst case scenarios or trying to problem solve.

During the day when a worrisome thought pops into your mind, you should remind yourself that you can and will think about your worries later. In St. Luke 5:16, it appears that Jesus practiced such a strategy and went off by himself to tell his worries to the Most High God in prayer.

2. Confession is good for the body
Robert Ornstein’s Healthy Pleasures reports that psychologist James Pennebaker asked
one group of students to journal about attending sports games and other events. A second group was asked to write/journal about the most upsetting and traumatic experiences of their entire lives and to include their deepest thoughts and feelings about those experiences.

At a six-week follow-up, those who confessed an emotionally traumatic event had an improved immune function and at a six-month follow-up, had fewer health complaints, doctor visits and drugs prescribed than the control group.

3. Having a good cry
Tear researcher William Frey found a difference in the chemical content of tears caused by chopping onions and tears triggered by experiences such as a sad personal event or a sad movie. Emotional crying is an eliminative process in which tears actually remove toxic substances from the body, helping to restore psychological and emotional balance.

4. Groaning and screaming
One of the overlooked resources in the Psalms are the prayers of lament. When we believe that it would be irreverent to complain, we can recite the words from passages such as: “How long, O LORD?” (Psalm 13) Psychologists Louis M. Savary and Patricia H. Berne in Prayerways suggest the therapeutic potential of groaning and even screaming (in a secluded place). Psalms 43 and 44 provide appropriate phrases.

5. Putting back the commas
Dr. James Lynch, professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, discovered a way to aid patients with hypertension which could no longer be helped by medication. The solution: He tape records his patients’normal speech. Upon replay the tapes reveal that the clients talk much faster than they realize and that they seldom pause to breathe. The patients are then trained to put in commas and periods, to come to a full stop and to take a breath before the next sentence.

6. Singing in the choir
Research by Robert J. Beck at the University of California, Irvine, shows that immunoglobulin A, one of the most common antibodies in the body, increased by 150 percent during rehearsals and 240 percent during a performance when singing a major work with a choir. This singing also lifted the performer’s mood.

7. Keeping a gratitude journal
Studies by Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, show that keeping a gratitude diary for two weeks provided sustained reduction in perceived stress (28 percent) and depression (16 percent)! This demonstrates what the psalmist declared in Psalm 30:12: “O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”

Photo source: istock

Jim Farrer

A broadly-trained church consultant, Jim Farrer is the founder of Vital Signs Church Consulting and a member of the Society for Church Consulting. A veteran of ministry positions in Canada and the U.S., he has trained leaders from 18 denominations and led seminars and coaching sessions nationwide. His articles have been published in the Journal of Evangelism and Missions and the Great Commission Research Journal. You can reach him by e-mailing or calling 814 629-5211.

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