We all know pastors who are burned out from the stresses of 2020 and 2021. Maybe we are willing to say, “I am burned out” — but I wonder if it would help us to think about a congregation being burned out.

A Harvard Business Review article by Yu Tse Heng and Kira Schabram provides a concise summary of research on burnout. Burnout is a complex condition that can manifest in any of three distinct symptoms: “exhaustion (a depletion of mental or physical resources), cynical detachment (a depletion of social connectedness) and a reduced sense of efficacy (a depletion of value for oneself).” These researchers urge business leaders to identify which of these resources are depleted and take action to replenish them.

While developing a burnout treatment plan requires much more than reading a 5-page HBR article, the simplicity of the distinct symptoms helps pastors to take a few steps.

The first is to listen to yourself. Which symptoms of burnout are featured in the stories you tell? Ask whoever listens to you — spouse, friend, colleague or therapist — for feedback. What does the listener hear in your stories? Are the themes clustered around exhaustion, isolation, helplessness or something else?

Someone listening and reflecting back then creates space for you to listen to the people in your congregation.

I recommend starting such listening with congregational leaders and giving them feedback on what you are hearing. Help them to listen and give feedback to others. Some leaders will be more gifted and practiced with such skills, but the key is to share this work and encourage listening to each other. This is not therapy: it is a skill that congregations need to practice in these stressful days.


Your burnout is unique. Your recovery will be, too.

By Yu Tse Heng and Kira Schabram

Save the world or savor it?

Q&A with Gregory Boyle

Before you go…

As we listen to each other, themes will likely emerge that will give clues about how to support each other through burnout. Heng and Schabram’s descriptions of burnout’s three distinct symptoms suggest simple courses of action for each, with compassion and agency underlying such actions. Being a good pastor, in this case, does not require developing a program, but rather activating compassion and encouraging lay leaders to act in ways that nurture and replenish based on the specifics of the situation.

If we are all suffering from some degree of burnout, then none of us can bear the full weight of care. Maybe we don’t need to.

David L. Odom

Director, Alban at Duke Divinity

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