Stress Management Series
Burnout As High Human Stress (SL#93)
by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., adapted from SkillTrack® Vol. 11 - Stress Management

1. Article Objective and Introduction
Objective of this article: to establish practical ways to discover and to guard against excess stress in life and leadership. The term "burnout" actually comes from the process of a rocket engine flame going out, because its fuel--which is burned to create the rocket's firepower (literally)--has been used up, exhausted, or shut off.

Before getting to the good news, it has to get even worse first. Understanding the very bottom incurred by stress mismanagement will hopefully be a strong motivational tool in encouraging you to manage your own stress consciously. Burnout is the ultimate, downward spiraling result of ignored stress, like the condition of a car run for too long, too hard, and with no maintenance. In The Platinum Rule, Tony Alessandra says:

"When people strive too hard and too long to reach a goal, they burn out. Burnout is a state of fatigue and/or frustration brought on by an intense pursuit of a goal or devotion to a cause. It brings on a series of physical, emotional, and psychological problems."

The apostle Paul seemed always on the verge of burnout in every respect; spiritually, emotionally, and physically. He comments to the Corinthian church:

2 Corinthians 4:7-10--"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body."

2. Three Progressive Burnout Stages
A helpful description of progressive burnout symptoms has been created by George Everly, published in his article, “Occupational Stress Management.” (For more detail, see #1 Study Resource later in this article.) Everly identifies three major stages of burnout which may be adapted to your experience as a minister:

3. Ministers Also Face Burnout:
Research and studies: These have shown that "helping professions" are the group of occupations most susceptible to professional burnout. Clearly, church and community ministry are right at the heart of the helping professions. Whose work could in fact engender more "devotion to people" than Christian ministry? William Turner, writing in The Quarterly Review (January-March, 1985, p. 19) outlines the following symptoms of pulpit burnout:

A picture of the minister in burnout can include a number of symptoms in addition to those of pulpit burnout described by William Turner. Six general categories, of varying levels of concern, are listed below, incorporated into an activity for self-reflection.

Burnout Danger Zones: All of the factors of stress, and the occupational tendencies of church leadership, work together to make ministry a burnout "danger zone" if stress is not handled correctly. These can be positive attributes but turn to danger by excess or mismanagement:

All of these can help church leaders to the conclusion that resting, or whatever might be needed for refuel, is not an option. But this is not, and can never be, the case. Once the limitations, the dangers, and the opportunities are acknowledged, then the road to burnout recovery or prevention can be followed. Refueling can and must be done, even in the ministry! The fire that led you to the work of the church, and that confirmed your calling as you began, can be maintained, and if lost, it can be regained! Work ahead!

Review and Reflection: Read and consider the following list of ministry burnout symptoms. Write a brief description of any thoughts that you have--whether you have seen in others or felt yourself any of these. Do any of these, or could any of these, sound like you or someone you know?

Action Planning: "Burnout" is entering the stress danger zone, but you do not have to go there, unpack and stay there. You can seek help take action, and begin the healthy process of recovery. This article is not to drive you to inevitable loss, but to review your most severe stress symptoms and look for specific actions you can set in place to move toward a new beginning.


#1 Study Resource--The Stages of Burnout
Cited on page 78 in Controlling Stress and Tension, 5th ed.
by Daniel A. Girdano, George S. Everly, Jr. and Dorothy E. Dusek.
Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997, 1993, 1990, 1986.

Note: These stages usually occur sequentially, from Stage 1 to Stage 3, although the process can be stopped at any point. Again, the behavior list may assist you to analyze your own behavior and to look for healthy responses to such extreme stress.

Stage 1: Stress Arousal (includes any two of the following symptoms)

Stage 2: Energy Conservation (includes any two of the following)

Stage 3: Chronic Exhaustion (includes any two of the following)


#2 Study Resource: Understanding Stress and Burnout
from Quest Travel Seminars:

There are two types of instinctive stress responses that are important to understanding stress:

"Fight-or-Flight" as short-term response: Some of the early research on stress conducted by physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon (1932) established the existence of the "Fight-or-Flight" responses. His work showed that when an organism perceives a threat or experiences a shock, it quickly releases hormones that help it to survive. These hormones help us to run faster and/or fight harder. They increase heart rate and blood pressure and deliver more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles. . . . In addition, these hormones focus our attention on the threat, to the exclusion of everything else.

All of this significantly improves our ability to survive life-threatening events. Unfortunately, this mobilization of the body for survival also has negative consequences. . . . In this state, we are excitable, anxious, jumpy, and irritable. This then reduces our ability to work effectively with other people. Since our body and mind is in this heightened state, it is then difficult to concentrate, make good decisions, or rationalize.

"General Adaptation Syndrome" as long-term response: Endocrinologist Hans Selye, 'Father of Stress,' looked at the long-term effects of exposure to stress and identified the "General Adaptation Syndrome." Selye identified that when pushed to extremes, organisms reacted in three stages:

1st--Alarm Phase: reaction to the stressor
2nd--Resistance Phase: resistance to the stressor
3rd--Exhaustion Phase: resistance is exhausted, and resistance declines

In the business environment, this exhaustion contributes strongly to what is commonly referred to as "burnout." My own reflection on this information is that these insights from the studies of Cannon and Selye may readily be traced in the experience of ministers serving in local congregations or nonprofit organizations.

Concluding Reflection: The information in this article seeks to open the door to examine healthy responses in other articles in this series. Hopefully, this article also supports the Christian premise that there is hope and health available to stand beside us as we take responsibility for our choices. Make written notes of your personal reflections, assessment, application, and action planning. Information and strategies regarding "ministry burnout" seek to provide encouragement and coping skills--where are you in the journey and what could you be doing?

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© 2008; hosted and copyrighted by Lloyd Elder & Associates, Inc.
For full citation of referenced works, see Bibliography/Links at
Adapted by Lloyd Elder, Th.D., Founding Director, Moench Center for Church Leadership