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How Pastors Can Know If They’re ‘Not Ok’; Gravity Leadership Talks to Chuck DeGroat

chuck degroat
Screenshot from Vimeo / @Gravity Leadership

There are five warning signs that pastors can look for to tell if they are “not ok” and are approaching burnout, says Chuck DeGroat. DeGroat, who is an author, pastor and licensed therapist, shared his insights in a conversation Thursday with Gravity Leadership’s Ben Sternke and Matt Tebbe.

“We’re supposed to be sort of above fatigue,” said DeGroat, observing that because of their role, church leaders have more challenges than the average person with addressing these warnings signs. Pastors have to deal with “the trauma of everyday life in ministry…the moral injury of bearing witness to the events of people’s lives in a way that other people don’t bear witness to…the fatigue that comes from sitting with people in multiple spaces over the course of a day and hearing stories of abuse or vocational dissatisfaction.”

It is all the more important, therefore, for pastors to be able to recognize the signs that they are approaching burnout before burnout actually happens. 

Chuck DeGroat: 5 Warning Signs of Burnout

The first warning sign church leaders should pay attention to, said Chuck DeGroat, is what he calls the “internal dashboard.” The dashboard has four categories, and people can imagine lights lighting up and blinking in each, signaling something is wrong. The first category is cognition or a person’s “self-talk.” 

“Particularly when we’re unhealthy and on the verge of burnout, our self-talk becomes much more catastrophic,” said DeGroat. “So listen for that.” The other categories on the dashboard that pastors should pay attention to are their emotions, their bodies, and their social awareness. Concerns for each of these categories could include, respectively, irritability, anxiety or shame; insomnia or digestive issues; and withdrawing from other people.

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Said DeGroat, “Sometimes, it’s just a yellow blinking light of just becoming a bit more irritable, and sometimes you’ve got four or five of those going off at the same time, and you need to pay attention to that.” 

The second category DeGroat mentioned was “relational rupture.” Essentially, this means that church leaders are taking the symptoms from their dashboard into their relationships. Instead of relating to people in a healthy way, they resort to freeze, flight, fight, or fawn. The last term refers to not being honest and being too compliant toward others. DeGroat encouraged viewers to look for changes, such as withdrawing or being combative, in the relationships that are most important to them.

The third warning sign is fantasizing about living a different life. Pastors should watch out for feeling trapped and believing they just need to get out of their situation to survive. DeGroat cautioned that simply changing to a new job will probably not make the problem better, echoing advice Carey Nieuwhof gave recently on the Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast. “If you quit your job, guess what?” asked Nieuwhof. “You bring you into your next assignment, and if you just naturally run at an unsustainable pace, you’re going to have that problem.”

DeGroat acknowledged that there are times when it is wise to leave a job, but said that discerning whether that is necessary is typically a process that happens in relationship with other people, versus being motivated by panic or a need to escape.

The fourth warning sign is unhealthy coping mechanisms, that is, numbing pain with activities such as drinking or binging television. However, DeGroat, Tebbe, and Sternke agreed that any behavior—whether it is negative, trivial or even good—can be used in an unhealthy way to avoid pain. Even activities such as sermon prep or morning Bible readings can be ways of “avoiding connection to one another, connection to God,“ said DeGroat.