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Bullying and Burnout


Stress is well recognised as being an increasing problem in the workplace today, and burnout is a word that most people will be familiar with. Although the reasons for workplace stress are many and complex, there is still little recognition of bullying as a significant cause of stress and burnout. As this website demonstrates, bullying is as much a problem in churches as in secular workplaces, and is likewise a significant, yet often poorly recognised, cause of clergy burnout.


What is burnout?

A web-search for burnout (also known as stress breakdown) should provide many detailed descriptions, and our Book List includes books on this topic. Briefly, burnout is a condition which progresses over time until the sufferer reaches a point of complete physical, emotional and mental exhaustion (complete burnout).

Burnout is the result of stress overload, when the demands and pressures placed on a person exceed their resources. It is a normal neurophysiological response to excessive stress, and not an indication of deficiency or weakness in those who experience it.

Physical symptoms may include:

Emotional symptoms may include:

Mental symptoms may include:

For clergy, burnout may also affect their spirituality, and they may find themselves:

But it is important to remember that symptoms in this last group are a consequence of the physical, emotional and mental exhaustion of burnout, and not an indication of spiritual failure or inadequacy.


Bullying and burnout

Few articles on burnout include any mention of bullying as a possible cause. However, burnout is often more likely, more severe and can progress more rapidly in people who are being bullied. Reasons for this include the following:

Bullied clergy may face additional pressures:

Articles on burnout will often suggest various stress-management techniques, but these are rarely of any long-term benefit when the stress is caused by bullying. The only effective way of preventing complete burnout in clergy who are being bullied is for those with responsibility for their welfare to take positive action to stop the bullying, and to protect them from further abuse.


Compounding the problem

Although burnout is a word most people are familiar with today, comparatively few people have a good understanding of it or readily recognise its symptoms. Burnout may be mistaken for laziness, incompetence, instability and various types of mental illness; in particular, the symptoms of burnout are frequently mistaken for those of depression.

As burnout progresses, a person's efficiency decreases, and bullied clergy may find it increasingly difficult to fulfil the obligations of their ministry. Clergy experiencing burnout may find that the expectations on them seem to increase as their energy and efficiency decrease, as congregations, unable to see that their pastor is exhausted, bring to their constant attention all those people who have yet to be visited, jobs that have yet to be done and so-on. The normal tendency in these circumstances is to try to work harder in order to meet these expectations, but this only increases the exhaustion and so compounds the problem.

Growing congregational dissatisfaction with their minister's performance is readily exploited by those perpetrating the abuse, who will point to the increasingly obvious symptoms of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion as evidence that the minister is lazy, ineffective, uncaring and spiritually deficient. The consequences of the bullying are thus being presented as the cause of dissatisfaction and problems within the congregation, to further undermine and pressurise the minister, and to divert attention from, or perhaps to provide a justification for, the perpetrators' own behaviour.

Coping skills also decrease as burnout progresses, so bullied clergy may find it increasingly difficult to deal with the perpetrators' behaviour as they become more and more exhausted. Again, this is likely to be exploited by the perpetrators, but friends, family, colleagues and superiors may add to these pressures by spiritualising the problem and making unhelpful remarks. (See What Not to Say to a Bullied Minister.)

Clergy experiencing burnout may be referred for counselling, but this can also compound the problem rather than alleviate it. It may tend to reinforce the idea that it is the minister, rather than the bullying, that is the problem, and the perpetrators may use this as an opportunity to suggest (often under the guise of sympathy and support) that the minister is mentally ill. Moreover, counselling is of itself a stressful process, and is generally not recommended for people who are already under any significant stress. (See also Counselling with Care.)

Ultimately, anything which constitutes a denial of the bullying a minister is facing, or which holds them responsible in any way for what is happening, or which triggers (or reinforces) any feelings of failure and self-blame, will add to the stress the minister is under, and so increase the likelihood of complete burnout.


Taking action

Complete burnout is preventable if the right support is given early enough. However, when clergy are being bullied they often find that there is little or no support available to them. Worse still, any "support" that is offered may actually be counter-productive, not necessarily through any deliberate intent, but through ignorance.

Bullying which is allowed to continue unchecked will almost inevitably lead to complete burnout. So preventing burnout in bullied ministers needs a twofold approach:

Firstly, a minister who is showing signs of burnout needs to be enabled to stop and rest. How long they need to rest will depend on the extent to which they are suffering from burnout, but rest will only be effective if the minister is also freed from further stress. Fear of losing their job (and with it their home and livelihood) will add to rather than relieve the stress a bullied minister is experiencing, as will a fear that time off work will enable their abuser(s) to consolidate their power.

Secondly, it is vital that the cause of the stress - the bullying - is tackled. This means that those who are responsible for the minister's welfare, and who have the power and authority to take sanctions against the perpetrator(s), must act to ensure that the bullying is stopped, and that the minister is protected from further abuse. (Exactly who will be responsible for taking that action will vary between denominations.)

However, if, as is often the case, the bullying is denied or the symptoms of burnout are seen as a sign of personal and ministerial inadequacy, a bullied minister may be forced to choose between their ministry and their health. Sometimes in this situation, a bullied minister may be able to move to a new ministry position relatively easily (and, if so, would be very wise to consider doing so), though children's schooling, a spouse's career or other family commitments may limit the options.

However, if burnout is relatively advanced it may prove difficult, if not impossible, to find a new position. Not only will the minister's health make him/her seem an unattractive prospect to congregations seeking a new minister, but the very process of finding another position may prove too much. If things reach this stage clergy may find the only option left to them is to resign from ministry, either temporarily or permanently, or to retire on health grounds.


Raising awareness

By raising awareness of the potential for bullied clergy to suffer complete burnout (stress breakdown) with its all too frequent consequences of ill health retirement and long term disability, we hope to encourage churches to take bullying more seriously, and to accept the need for positive action to protect clergy from such abuse.



Understanding Stress Breakdown by Dr William Wilkie (Newleaf)

Bullying: from Backyard to Boardroom (1st edition) edited by Paul McCarthy, Michael Sheehan & William Wilkie (Beyond Bullying Association)
(This book can be read online at

How Bullying has Affected Me, on this website, gives a good description of a minister experiencing burnout (amongst other things) as a result of being bullied.

Where next?

BALM Home Page
Introducing the Founders of BALM
How to Support a Bullied Minister
What Not to Say to a Bullied Minister
How Bullying has Affected Me
Bullying and Spirituality
Group Dynamics
Links to Other Websites and Organisations
Book List
Counselling with Care
Bullied in Ministry
Bullying in the Church
Bullying and Burnout
Submission on Clergy Stress
Media Requests
Additional Resources on Church Abuse