Pastoral Burnout: An Interview with Dr. Frank Tallerico

burnoutPastoral burnout is a real and terrible problem. The fact that it is a problem at all only serves to remind us that our world is broken. The fact that it happens so frequently in Evangelical churches is alarming. This should not be so, and the church needs to take a more serious look at burnout, its causes, and its potential cures. To that end I am happy to interview Dr. Frank Tallerico.

Frank Tallerico is currently serving as a chaplain for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in Charlotte, NC. He pastored in three churches in southeastern Ohio for a combined 34 years. He knows the nature of ministry, the demands of the job, the rewards, and the potential for burnout. In this interview he shares with us some of the insights he has gleaned from both personal experience and from his current research project on pastoral burnout. May this be an encouragement and a resource to many churches.

What prompted you to study burnout? Good question. I think my answer is twofold. First, I’ve had an interest in helping pastors in the work of ministry in any way that I could. I’ve been helped by many a pastor in my work, and I wanted to pass that on. Second, I was very aware of the pressures of ministry and the thought that, in the midst of ministry pressures, maybe I should do something else … anything else than pastoring. So, I’ve spent some years studying how to better understand factors that lead to such a desire to quit or move on to another profession.

What is burnout? Technically defined, burnout is a process that starts with emotional exhaustion leading to depersonalization, and then to a feeling of a lack of personal accomplishment. Experientially defined, burnout is the feeling of just going through the motions. This doesn’t mean a pastor has lost his desire to serve, but that that desire has a bit less zeal. Of course, we all experience things differently.

What are some of the potential reasons for pastoral burnout? How common is it? Often, the reasons for pastoral burnout are mainly considered to be personal reasons. A good deal of research on pastoral burnout has focused on the personality of the pastor. For instance, those who are considered to be extroverts are less likely to experience burnout, while those who are considered introverts are more likely to experience burnout. My research interest was more on the organizational factors leading to burnout. I was really interested in how church leaders (Elder boards, Deacon boards, Sessions, etc.) can help reduce burnout leading to a pastor leaving the church/ministry. In regard to organizational factors, here are the factors that were sounded out by the pastors I interviewed: lack of healthy relationships; self-care; understanding expectations; and delegation (lack thereof). As to the question of how common burnout is research has lamented the number of pastors leaving the ministry (1500 each month). It was found that 70% of pastors are stressed out and burnt out enough to consider leaving the ministry. That number, to me, is too high, and something needs to be done. I hope to help in some small way.

How can pastors work to prevent burnout in their own ministries? What role, if any, do theological convictions play in prevention? Let me answer the second question first. My research participants were all self-identified Calvinists. One pastor shared how he once served in a denomination he considered Arminian, and in that denomination he felt as though he was burning out. But, by God’s grace, he came to understand and embrace the Doctrines of Grace, and since then he has not experienced any feelings of burnout. It was also interesting that 90% of the pastors interviewed said that they may have been close to an experience of burnout, but did not consider leaving the ministry. So, maybe theology has a moderating effect on the experience of burnout. Now, to the question about how pastors can prevent burnout in their own ministries. First, pastors should take the time to take two assessments—Maslach Burnout Inventory and Areas of Worklife Survey. Both tools will help identify potential areas of burnout to pay attention to and to make appropriate changes in light of the findings. Second, pastors should intentionally seek another pastor with whom they can share their life, ministry, etc. Research has shown that pastors who have someone to share with do have a reduced sense of burnout. So, these are a couple to consider.

How can churches work to help prevent burnout in their pastors? I think this question gets at an important dimension often overlooked. First, church leaders should seek and find assessment tools that will help them identify potential factors that may have a negative impact on their pastors. Second, no-less-than a semi-annual meeting called specifically to review expectations that pastors have and that church leaders have, with the intention of having a loving, honest discussion that leads to resolution or an understanding of differences. Third, on a no-less-than annual basis, pastors and church leaders should meet to review the church’s stated vision, job descriptions of pastors, and to assess how pastors and church leaders are doing. Fourth, policies need to be written and reviewed on a no-less-than annual basis. These policies need to include: vacation policy, Sabbatical policy, and compensation policy. Finally, the development of a training regimen, that includes an understanding of burnout and factors contributing to burnout. The responsibility for training should be on the pastors and key church leaders. Of course, I could go on and on, but I will stop here.

 In closing, I hope to put my 34 years of pastoral experience and my educational background to good use as a consultant to pastors and church leaders. I believe that pastors who stay the course will have the greatest impact for Christ in His Kingdom.

____________________________

Frank Tallerico is currently serving as a chaplain for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in Charlotte, NC. He pastored in three churches in southeastern Ohio. He received a BA (Bible) from Cedarville University, a MA (Theological Studies) from Reformed Theological Seminary, a DMin (Pastoral Care) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and is currently a PhD candidate (Industrial & Organizational Psychology) at Grand Canyon University.

 

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