Have you lost your sense of calling and joy?
Do you feel like you are experiencing far more criticism than encouragement?
Do you have fatigue that just doesn't seem to go away?
If you've answered yes to these, it could be a sign that you are experiencing burnout.
Burnout is something that we don't talk about much in ministry. Rarely did we hear about it in seminary, and it just isn't something we bring up with friends or our congregation. But it is there.
We've all known several pastors that have burned out and many suspect that we might be in the early phases ourselves.
Sean Nemecek, Regional Director of Pastor-in-Residence Ministries and co-host of the Hope Renewed podcast has just finished writing The Weary Leader's Guide to Burnout, a phenomenal resource for church leaders in a time where we seem to be moving faster than ever. In this conversation, Sean shares some warning signs of burnout and some thoughts on how to move forward when you are recognizing the signs of burnout in your own life.
Are you compromising your way to burnout?
Sean Nemecek is the West Michigan Regional Director for Pastor-in-Residence Ministries and a co-host of the Hope Renewed podcast. Sean is a 3rd generation pastor. He served as a pastor for 18 years before joining PIR. Now, Sean coaches pastors through ministry issues, conflict, forced exit, transitions, and burnout. He also consults with churches and leadership on sabbatical planning, work culture, and pastoral support. His blog, The Pastor’s Soul (pastorsoul.com), teaches churches and pastors how to invest in the pastor’s joy for the good of the church. Sean has been married to Amy for over 25 years.
As always, we are here for you, and we're praying for churches and teams all over the United States!
Read the Full Transcript
Sean Nemecek: Oh man, does it ever. I coach pastors through burnout, and that’s kind of where this book came from. More and more, I’m seeing pastors who are really reaching out for help and in desperate need. Saying things like, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.” So it’s definitely a chronic, if not epidemic, issue with pastors.
Matt Steen: It’s just been accelerated since March 2020. I mean, we’re so tired of talking about Covid. But really, it’s just been turned up to 11 since then, right?
Sean Nemecek: Yeah. I think during Covid, there were so many pastors who were neglecting their own self-care so that they could care for others that when thing started to settle down a little bit from the pandemic, that’s when I started to really see things get bad for pastors.
Matt Steen: Yeah, yeah.
Sean Nemecek: And then they realize they’ve just spent the last two years or more without caring for my own should, and I’m in trouble.
Matt Steen: Yeah, we’re starting to see guys leaving all of the sudden. We’re starting to see also a wave of [00:01:48.29] whirl fails because of the residual effects of isolation, frustration, exhaustion, all of that. Man, I tell you. I love how you started the book out. You’re talking about the landfill in Centralia, Pennsylvania [00:02:07.20]. I grew up not all that far from there. So any time you talk about the fire underground, [00:02:16.15] that’s awesome. But for people that don’t understand the story, it was a landfill that they decided they were going to burn it all off. And what they forgot to factor into the account for was the underground coal vein. It’s just been burning since the 60’s or something, which is frightening if you think about it.
Sean Nemecek: Nobody knows how far the burn has gone. It gets incredibly hot, spews out toxic fumes from time to time. It’s a horrible situation.
Matt Steen: Oh, totally. But to look at it, you wouldn’t know it’s there. So I love the analogy of how you played that out. So without seeing ourselves spewing forth toxicity and all that kind of stuff, how do we know that that burnout fire is going on under the surface?
Sean Nemecek: Yeah, a lot of times we’re in burnout long before we realize it.
Matt Steen: Yeah.
Sean Nemecek: Burnout tends to be a long, slow slide. A lot of small choices that lead to this vast emptiness inside eventually. So usually some of the indicators that we know we’re in burnout are we’re experiencing a fatigue that won’t go away. It’s not the type of thing that you can take vacation and recover from. You can see it’s definitely connected to the workplace. When you think about work, you’re just like, “Man, I don’t even know if I can go today.” Another indicator is that work has become harder. You’re less effective at the work that you’re doing. You could be working harder and be producing less. Or working the same amount and just not finding any effectiveness in our work.
Matt Steen: It feels like that’s just kind of the state of the world we live in though, right? Everything seems to be ratcheted up. So how do we tell the difference between what’s going on culturally and societally and what of that is burnout. Do you know what I’m asking?
Sean Nemecek: Well, we do live in a culture that is predisposed to burnout. The way we approach work as a culture and the workplace environments that we have that treat people more like commodities than human beings can tend toward burnout. So it’s all around us. It’s happening not just in pastoral ministry, but in every field we’re seeing that. I just talked to a doctor or a nurse about the turnover they saw during Covid.
Matt Steen: Yeah.
Sean Nemecek: But in pastoral ministry, it really can show up when we kind of lose our sense of calling. We forget why we’re doing this work, or we just can’t draw it to the surface anymore. So many pastors are driven in ministry by that sense of call. It’s what excites them. It’s what gets them going. It’s what allows them to get through the hard times. And when they lose that, they feel completely lost. So a lot of pastors, that’s really at the root of it. They feel stuck. They feel hopeless. Some of them will get cynical. Maybe a lot of pastors will get cynical.
Matt Steen: If it’s a sign of burnout, we’re all in trouble.
Sean Nemecek: Well, it definitely is a sign of burnout. It’s only one of the signs. When I’m talking to pastors, the one thing that really helps me nail it down is when I ask them, “What brings you joy?” And they say, “I don’t know. I’ve forgotten. I can’t remember what brings me joy anymore.” It’s like when they get up in the morning, they look in the mirror and the person in the mirror is a stranger to them. They’ve really lost their sense of self and who they are as God’s child.
Matt Steen: Wow. Lost your sense of joy. That’s… man, that’s tough, right? Because if we don’t know what brings us joy anymore, so much of how do we give hope to the congregation we’re supposed to lead, how do we help the congregation understand what joy is and what the joy of the Lord is. That’s frightening. So how do we know? You said so many of us fall into burnout and it’s going on before we even know it. As you talk with guys, as you even talk with guys who are preparing for ministry maybe, how do you help them set up a dashboard or some early warning systems on this type of a thing?
Sean Nemecek: Well, burnout starts with the culture that we’re working in. There’s a burnout inventory that’s specifically for pastors called “The Francis Burnout Inventory” [00:07:50.29] that measures just on a balance scale the negative things that are happening in ministry, the positive things that we experience in ministry. It simply asks the question, are there enough positive experiences to outweigh the negative?
Matt Steen: Wow.
Sean Nemecek: And most pastors would say no. They experience far more criticism than they do encouragement. They experience far more discouragement than they do excitement about ministry. So when we’re looking at those types of things, we want to ask, what’s the environment that I’m working in? And secondly, how am I responding to that environment? So if we find ourselves starting to compromise on our values, starting to fall into people pleasing behavior, starting to go along to get along, then we’ve really started to move down that road into burnout. It’s a bunch of compromises that happen over a long period of time. So yeah, watch what you’re compromising on. Pretty soon, many of these pastors find that they’ve compromised so far that their values are completely flipped upside down. The things that should be most important are taking a backseat. Like their relationship with God, their time with God, their time in prayer, their study of the Word for the encouragement of their own soul. These are taking a backseat because they’re putting out fires because of crises in the church. So yeah, just notice where your relationship with God is. Are you reading scripture just to get the next sermon? That’s a big warning sign.
Matt Steen: Yeah. So tell me, a guy is sitting here listening to this going, “Oh no. I’m starting to see this in me.” What’s next? Is this a quit your job tomorrow? How do you get out of this decline?
Sean Nemecek: It starts by getting some help. You cannot get out of burnout on your own. A lot of guys think, “If I just work harder.” “This is just a season, and I’ll get through it.” The anxiety and shame that accompanies burnout just creates this spiral. You need somebody. Even if it is just a friend or another pastor, somebody to talk to who can help you see things from a more objective perspective, who can speak hope into your life. When you don’t have hope, they can hold hope for you. It’s really important to get somebody who can just love you for who you are as a friend and having that relationship. But I also encourage professional relationships like getting a counselor for a coach or a spiritual director. I had all three when I went through burnout. It was necessary. I had a team of people I was working with, and they each spoke into my life in different ways. But without that, there’s no way that I would have been able to make it out.
Matt Steen: That’s so cool. You have obviously survived.
Sean Nemecek: Yeah.
Matt Steen: Last I checked, right?
Sean Nemecek: So far, yeah.
Matt Steen: So far, so good. So there is hope on the other side of this, but it’s leaning it, it’s humbling ourselves and saying, “Oh boy, I need help.” Right?
Sean Nemecek: Yeah, yeah. And then when you have that help, then it’s taking a serious look at your relationship with Christ and the stage of your own soul and going back and remembering what scripture says about your identity in Christ before anything else. Before you are a pastor, before you are a husband or wife or child, just recognizing what God says about you as his creation, as his child. Who you are in Christ. And doing the work of separating our identity from our work or from what people say about us or from so many things that can drag us down and finding that security in Christ is essential. Because having that help of a friend and the security in Christ creates the environment where we can start looking at some of the harder things that we need to deal with in our lives.
Matt Steen: That’s so hard in pastoral ministry, right? We have the conversation often with especially churches that are getting ready to go through [00:12:56.07] succession. It’s one of the things that we ask the church is that you cover the cost of counseling for the pastor and their wife. Because as much as we would like to say that our identity is in Jesus, it is hard as a pastor to not find our identity in being pastor. Right?
Sean Nemecek: Yeah, yeah.
Matt Steen: I almost wonder if we struggle with this vocationally more than most jobs out there, simply because of the weight and the burden and the call and how much we’ve sacrificed or given up for it.
Sean Nemecek: Yeah, I think - you asked the question if they’re just done, if they need to quit ministry. The answer to that is, it depends on the environment that they’re working in. Some churches recognize their pastor is in burnout and they’re incredibly helpful. They pull back on his duties so that he can focus on caring for his own soul. They send him on sabbatical or give him other resources. They’ll pay for counseling. Other churches are like, “Well, you got yourself into this. You’re just stuck.” If that’s the case, then I tell pastors, get out now. Because sometimes you cannot heal where that wounding is taking place. If it’s continual, if it’s active, you’re probably going to have to step out. But this is where that friend comes in to help and helps you discern the way forward.
Matt Steen: Yeah, so you mentioned the sabbatical piece. You mentioned that a two-week vacation isn’t going to solve this. As you look at it, and I know every case is different, but is this something that a 90-day sabbatical can solve? Or is this something where you need to think 6 months or a year?
Sean Nemecek: A sabbatical can be part of the plan. It can be a tool, but it’s not going to solve it on its own. If you’re taking a sabbatical thinking you’re going to fix your burnout in 90 days, or even 6 months, it’s probably not going to happen. The clients I work with on coaching them through burnout, I tell them, you’re going to feel better in 3-6 months, but you’re not going to feel like yourself again probably for a couple of years. 2-5 years usually is what it takes, depending on the depth of their burnout.
Matt Steen: That’s got to be disheartening for guys because a lot of them I imagine can’t remember what it felt like at their best, right?
Sean Nemecek: Yeah. Well, some of them remember in that person feels like a stranger to them. Like yeah, I don’t know how to get back there. One of my great joys is telling pastors, in 3-6 months you’re going to be feeling a lot better and seeing the hope spark in their eyes. Because usually in that 3-6 months, they go from “I can’t do this anymore” to “I’m excited about ministry again.” And that is really, really good. Mostly what they need is just a friend to help them through that journey. So many pastors are isolated. Many when I ask them, “Do you have any friends who can come alongside you,” they say, “No.” They say, “I don’t know of anybody who is a safe person, who doesn’t want ministry from me in some way.” So that’s a big problem. It’s something that we have to work to fix before they are out on their own again.
Matt Steen: Yeah, totally. Wow. Well Sean, I am grateful for the work that you do both with the book, with what you’re doing with [00:16:25.26] PIR, all the coaching and the walking alongside pastors that you do. It is so needed. Because this is not something that I remember being taught in seminary or Bible college. I don’t know what many people would say that this is something that they were taught. So thank you for this. Again, the book is [00:16:47.02] The Weary Leader’s Guide to Burnout: Journey from Exhaustion to Wholeness, which just sounds like it’s going to be a hard, hard work to read through. It sounds like it’s something that it’s going to be difficult for us to process if we’re going to be honest with ourselves. But it also sounds like something that every pastor in this country needs, especially after the last three years that we’ve been through. So I’ll link off to the book down below. But Sean, where else can people find you if they want to reach out to you?
Sean Nemecek: Yeah, they can go to seannemecek.com. I’ve got all of my connections there. Or pirministries.org. If they want to reach out for coaching, that’s the place to go. And they can find out more about the book at wearyleadersguide.com. There’s all sorts of endorsements and information there. And if they preorder, there’s some free gifts they can get too.
Matt Steen: I like free.
Sean Nemecek: Yeah.
Matt Steen: Well, very cool. Sean, thank you for the time, man. Thank you for your ministry and thank you for taking the time to share with out crowd.
Sean Nemecek: Thanks Matt, really appreciate it.
Matt Steen: Yep.