The purpose of burnout: An interview with Dr. Archibald Hart

By Dr. Archibald Hart

Dr. Archibald Hart is dean emeritus in the department of clinical psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He has written close to 30 books, many which deal with stress, burnout and depression. His passion is to see healthy pastors in ministry. Over the years, he has participated in Focus on the Family’s clergy ministry.

Jerry Ritskes and his wife, Renee, are the past directors of our Clergy Care retreat centre at Kerith Creek near Calgary. Their passion is self/soul and marriage care in ministry.

Dr. Hart and Jerry sat down to discuss burnout. Here is their conversation.

Jerry Ritskes: Pastors love to minister out of the overflow of their heart. It is such a painful thing when the passion begins to fade and is replaced by a sense of depletion and discouragement. It seems to be one of the most common issues we face in ministry. Often it begins with stress, but becomes more invasive to the soul. What is the correlation between stress and burnout?

Dr. Archibald Hart: There is a difference between stress and burnout. Stress is physiological – like high blood pressure and increased heart rate. It’s also quite common, but the treatment is quite different. Prolonged stress can lead to burnout, which is a type of depression. In burnout, you become demoralized, lack confidence in yourself and even in God, become more withdrawn, and experience a significant amount of emotional exhaustion. I’ve experienced it myself and it was a real turning point in my life, though the feelings of hopelessness were quite strong.

JR: I’ve also been through burnout, and you’re right, the feelings of hopelessness and failure were very strong. What type of pastor suffers from burnout most?

AH: The Type B personality tends to experience burnout more often and more profoundly than the Type A person. He is more easygoing and feels things more deeply, but he is also more withdrawn and doesn’t have the same energy to pursue the things which keep him healthy. This person needs a support group or a counsellor to help him verbalize what he’s going through. In burnout, you have a negativity that comes about through distorted thinking. You can’t necessarily recognize this or understand it on your own. One of the big issues we face is the whole area of success in ministry. What does that mean? Most of us have a poor theology of success and failure and we need to talk that out with someone who can challenge us on it.

JR: Pastors who experience emotional burnout feel like the tank is empty and that they just don’t have much left to give. It’s important not to ignore the situation, but to find solutions so ministry doesn’t degenerate into merely trying to survive. How can we deal with burnout while we are in the ministry?

AH: In burnout, antidepressants are not really the answer. This type of psychological depression comes about through a deep sense of loss. You need to pay attention to your physiology and get assistance with subsidiary things like insomnia or high blood pressure, but you also need to deal with this on the psychological and spiritual level. We are often spiritually anemic and need upgrading. You need to think through the basics on a different level – our purpose, our view of God, our calling and sense of failure.

JR: Yes, we deal with burnout on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels. Here’s an unusual question: How can we turn this type of burnout into something purposeful in our lives?

AH: In burnout, your brain is attempting to disengage you from your situation so you can reorient yourself and your goals. It’s often God’s way of calling us to a halt and rethinking what He wants us to do. Sometimes, burnout is God’s will for your life, because of how it helps us realign with God’s purposes. Very often we are not doing the right things, so it leads to a theological depression as well. You need to embrace the burnout as a call to change. As you sort out the “cognitive distortions” – the bad habits in thinking – you can learn to cope with things better.

JR: I don’t think most of us see burnout as having a God-given purpose. It’s usually thought of as a problem or a defect to overcome. But like you referred to earlier, burnout can be a real wake-up call from the Lord. What steps should a person take to deal with their burnout?

AH: I’m a strong believer in getting help. You need to externalize your thoughts in order to deal with them. Going it alone rarely works; you can’t trust yourself. If there’s a high level of stress, you need some good stress management/reduction tools. Lack of sleep distorts your thinking and you need to find ways to get more sleep. Our digital world is also very disruptive to our ability to sleep.

JR: I’m not sure if this is direct or indirect, but it seems that in the last few years the digital world is creating a whole new level of personal exhaustion. For those who spend huge amounts of time in the digital world, we can have trouble with a “racing mind” syndrome. Our mind jumps from one topic to another and we have difficulty giving one topic quiet thought.

AH: I would say that’s accurate. Would you say that all this digital activity is depleting our emotional and moral strength in significant ways? It’s no wonder that a thoughtful person can succumb to moral failure if their thought process is compromised. When we are addicted to the digital world, it seems like our defenses are weakened.

JR: The way we integrate our digital tools into our lives can wreak havoc with sleep, times of reflection and a quiet mind. Often people feel the need to check their email constantly, even in bed, on days off or even on vacation. If rest and sleep affect our levels of burnout, then it’s no wonder that our digital activity is having a moral impact on us.

AH: Pastor’s wives are also very prone to burnout. When they have to live with a pastor who is experiencing a sense of failure, it’s very hard on them. Often, they have nowhere to go for help. Many denominations provide mentors for young pastors. We need to make sure there is support for the women as well. My wife is on the phone right now talking with a pastor’s wife. She’s a great listener, and this is what people need.

JR: Solomon talks about his own disillusionment with life, pleasure, work and virtue. It’s like as he entered old age he struggled with depression more. Is this common in life and ministry?

AH: It seems to happen a lot, but it doesn’t have to happen. When we neglect dealing with faulty thinking, we become more prone to disillusionment and depression. As we get older, we don’t have the same resources to defend ourselves. Our brains lose neurons as we age and I’m sure this plays a role. If we provide more help for people to deal with things as they come up, then I think we can ease this for later in life. We’ve never given much thought to aging in ministry and it is something that needs attention.


Dr. Archibald Hart is co-author of the book, The Digital Invasion: How Technology Is Shaping You and Your Relationships.

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