In 2019, the World Health Organization reported that “it is estimated that one in five people experiencing conflict or crisis will have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia”. It is very likely that these statistics are increasing with the Covid-19 crisis.
Pastors are experiencing a great amount of stress and exhaustion, and some of them are even leaving the ministry. Pastoral identity is part of the problem. The struggle to clarify the identity creates stress that has very real consequences for the pastors’ health and the churches they serve.
- 75% of pastors report being “extremely stressed” or “very stressed” (1)
- 90% of them work between 55 to 75 hours per week (2)
- 90% feel fatigued and exhausted every week (1)
- 70% say they are underpaid (2)
- 40% report having a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month (1)
- 91% have experienced some kind of burnout in their ministry and 18% say they are “fried right now” (7)
According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is a special type of work-related stress, a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced achievement and loss of personal identity.
This burnout occurs when the results you get do not meet your expectations for an extended period of time. If you think burnout is a sign of weakness, think again. The symptoms of fatigue, being overwhelmed, insomnia, irritability, anxiety, sadness and depression are simply the fire alarms that get activated in your body and tell you to turn them off before you are all burnt. To understand this problem, it is necessary to know how stress works.
Stress is the body’s way of dealing with events that change or threaten to change the world around us.
Robert M. Sapolsky, in his book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”, describes it this way: “A stressor is anything in the outside world that hits and affects homeostatic balance, and the response to that stress is what the body does in order to restore homeostasis”.
Sapolsky uses the example of a zebra on the African plains. If the zebra thinks it hears, sees or smells a lion, then its body goes into a reaction called the stress response, going into fight or flight mode.
The first thing the zebra’s body does is mobilize the bodily functions it needs in order to survive. This happens when the hypothalamus, in the brain, sends chemicals throughout the body to respond to the stressor and hormones are released into the bloodstream.
Blood pressure increases so that if the zebra has to run, the body is ready to do so; the body’s energy reserves are opened so that the zebra can keep running. At the same time, there is an “additional storage inhibition” of new energy. In other words, the body stops doing anything that uses a lot of energy so that all energy is available to escape.
The same process takes place when a pastor feels stressed. This may be due to having a lot of work, conflicts with a leader, a situation that he does not know how to handle, or a broken family relationship. But the interesting thing about all this is that the pastor’s brain makes no distinction between those false factors that produce stress or the real ones like the lions in the mentioned case about the Zebras.
People can be stressed by two types of lions: external and internal. External stressors are things that are out of the person’s control and mind. These include: a new job, health problems, pain, tense relationships, uncertainty about the future, a person harassing or attacking him, or even, of course, real lions. It can also include another person’s stress because humans, like zebras, pick up on and react to the stress of others.
Internal stressors, on the other hand, come from within the person’s thoughts or actions. These could include destructive personality traits, undisciplined thoughts and concerns, suspicions, unhealthy eating and exercise habits, the inability to say “no”, a need to make other people like you, or perfectionism.
Stress and exhaustion
If stress is hyper-attention and a response to stressors in a person’s life, then exhaustion is the opposite effect. Exhaustion is when the body and mind can no longer respond to stressors. A person’s emotions and stress responses are turned off. Exhaustion is often described in the literature because of its differences when comparing it to stress.
Researcher Anne Jackson compares both in several ways. If stress is being overly committed, then exhaustion is disconnection.
Stress affects physical energy, while exhaustion affects motivation and drive.
Stress produces a loss of fuel and energy, while exhaustion produces a loss of ideals and hope.
It is this exhaustion what leads the pastor to develop an identity crisis in which his identity is broken, and his heart is wounded until he loses all of his strength. It is this exhaustion that leads you to have an existential void and to wonder if it is worth it to keep fighting or to throw in the towel. It is this exhaustion that leads you to disconnect emotionally from your wife or children and eventually lose them. It is the one that leads you to use pornography, to commit adultery, that leads you to lack of motivation and loss of interest. Physical exhaustion produces an identity crisis in the pastor, resulting in a broken identity.
Symptoms of a broken identity
If you suffer from a broken identity, you might:
- Be feeling distracted and unmotivated towards your life.
- Experience a feeling of disorientation and lack of direction.
- Develop a negative perspective of yourself, the world and your future.
- Be feeling anguish for not knowing well what your vital purpose is.
- Have a general feeling of dissatisfaction, regardless of how things are going in your life.
- Find it difficult to make decisions because you do not know what you really want.
- Have instability or emotional exhaustion, as if you do not know what you want.
- Fear the future because you cannot see it clearly.
- Be feeling unable to face changes that are occurring in your life.
Maybeif you have these symptoms it is time for you to stop for a bit and perhaps you may seek professional help. If you need to talk to a professional in these areas you can call 407 618 0212
 Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress- Related Diseases, and Coping (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004), 6. Italics in original.
 Anne Jackson, Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic (Grand Rapids, MI:
Zondervan, 2009), 95.