Recently, a cartoon popped up on my feed from one of the Anglican groups I’m in. The cartoon depicted a minister, alone at the front of the church building, slumped over, crying. The title of the post was ‘Who comforts the comforter?’. As I continued to notice the details within the picture, I also noticed the emotions that welled up in me: sadness, anger, confusion, and compassion. This minister, who is both surrounded by objects that proclaim God’s faithfulness and care, and who is sitting at the front of a building that has most likely been recently filled with people, is alone and broken. Why is that? What has led to this moment?
Burnout within ministry leaders has come to the fore in recent years, particularly in response to the impact of lockdowns and post-lockdown life on churches, as well as the increasing administrative load ministers are undertaking in response to policies to do with protecting vulnerable people and other compliance issues. There is an increasingly large pool of articles and resources explaining the phenomenon of burnout within clergy, how to care for ourselves, and how to build resilience in ministry. It’s encouraging that the Australian Church is having this conversation in the open. However, as I look around at how many of my colleagues in church leadership are not doing well, I wonder how many of them have had moments like the one in the cartoon.
A recent Partners in Ministry Webinar on avoiding burnout and building resilience in ministry stated that 25% of church leaders suffer from burnout, and that another 56% of leaders are at risk of burnout. When you think about numbers like that you may begin to feel similar emotions to the ones I had viewing the cartoon.
My first experience of burnout in ministry occurred 15 years ago when one of the teenagers in my church took their own life. The fallout in the local community was immense. For weeks I was always prepared to care for someone in grief. By the end of the month, I experienced a tiredness that was all consuming. For months I was emotionless: unmotivated and unresponsive to anyone or anything to do with ministry. When I went to a psychologist, the first thing they said was, ‘That makes sense – I see a couple of people in your position every year’. Perhaps you’ve heard of stories like this or experienced something similar.
Burnout can be broadly described as a psychological condition in response to prolonged stress within a role. It is particularly prevalent in people-oriented industries. There are three common dimensions of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism and detachment from the role, and a sense of ineffectiveness or lacking accomplishment. There are several helpful tools that can help identify areas of risk or signs of burnout, but even in naming those three areas above, my guess is that some people could identify they might be at risk.
So, who comforts the comforters?
The Anglican Church of Australia has mandated professional pastoral supervision for those in church leadership as part of its implementations of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The Royal Commission found that ministers had few structures of accountability in their roles, due partly to the structures of the Church, as well as the isolated nature of their work, resulting in ethical concerns for the welfare of those under the minister’s care, as well as their own welfare.
While leading the Church brings about a deep sense of joy and purpose within ministers it can also be incredibly isolating – both for those working as solo ministers as well as those leading team ministries. The introspective nature of ministry work – often done in the mind before it manifests amongst a congregation, and the role of a leader – with the weight of responsibility in decision making and pastoring, contributes to this sense of isolation.
Pastoral supervision is an intentional, boundaried relationship, where space is created to critically reflect upon the ministry practice of the supervisee. This space within pastoral supervision allows ministry leaders to openly share what has happened in their ministry with someone who understands, while being outside of their context.
One of the illustrations I share with new supervisees to describe what pastoral supervision is and its benefits is like the mudroom in a farmhouse. Having spent the last decade living in rural Tasmania, I was introduced to the concept of a room where you take your muddy clothing and footwear off before entering the home, clean and fresh. Pastoral supervision provides a supportive space where ministry leaders can critically look at their ministry – how it has affected them and how they might be affecting others, before continuing in their context. Research in burnout and ministry resilience states that one of the key components to combat burnout is a formal program of critical reflection that brings insight, leading to future impact. Pastoral Supervision provides this.
The good news for church leaders in the Anglican Church of Australia is that help is at hand. Through the rollout of professional pastoral supervision, there is a regular space for leaders to unpack the realities of ministry with someone who will listen, support, and gently challenge them. Those in Christian leadership understand the all-encompassing nature of ministry – the ups and downs, the absurd and the profound, and the impact it has on your personal life. It’s not only nice to have time where someone is there to pay attention to you and your context – it’s essential to being able to keep on doing it.
Top tips for ministry leaders receiving professional pastoral supervision:
- Make the most of the time – Supervision is not just another ‘tick in the box’. See it as crucial time for your well-being and development.
- Put the work in – Become reflective in your practice by noting what happens in ministry, bringing something ‘live’ to supervision, and committing to working on it afterwards.
- Be honest – A supervisor is only going to work with what you give them in a session. The more open and honest you are, the more room there is for God to work and change you.
Top tips for churches in supporting ministers in receiving professional pastoral supervision:
- Continue praying for leaders – Uplift leaders as they serve in their role, as well as the impact it has on them outside of ministry.
- Be generous – The minimum number of 6 sessions may not be the most beneficial experience of pastoral supervision for leaders.
Consider funding regular supervision sessions, as well as other professional development and self-care opportunities for ministry leaders.
Joel Kettleton is an ordained Anglican Priest. Having served in parish ministry over the last decade, in 2022 he studied a GradCerti of Professional Pastoral Supervision, and now offers pastoral supervision to ministers around the country. Joel has a deep passion to see the Australian Church grow, with a call to support Christian leaders. He lives in Melbourne with his wife, Kristina, and three children. To help keep happy and healthy, Joel enjoys playing music and trains in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.