How to Avoid Disaster Aid Burnout

This article was originally published in Church Law & Tax on January 27, 2017.

Understanding and preventing burnout equips us to serve well.

In recent weeks, tornadoes ripped through the southeastern United States. Having spent five years in Hattiesburg, Mississippi—one of the areas hit hardest by the tornadoes—I know many of the people who will be called on for help. They are good people, but they are not superhuman.

When disasters like these strike a community, people turn to the church for help. The church is exactly where we want people to go in a time of crisis, but pastors and church leaders don’t have unlimited capacity to help meet every immediate need. In the days and weeks after the event, the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual demands that will hit them will be even higher than the already-high impact of daily ministry. If they aren’t careful to care for themselves while caring for others, they may soon be unable to care for anyone at all.

Many church leaders have difficulty knowing when it’s time to take a break from their helping efforts—and they must take a break. When the needs of disaster survivors take precedence over all other responsibilities and activities—including self-care—church leaders burn out and lose their ability to effectively care for those whose needs will continue to be great for some time. For pastors and other church leaders, an essential aspect of disaster ministry response is learning to recognize burnout and practice strategies for healthy coping.

What is burnout?

Burnout is the state of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion caused by a depletion of the ability to cope with your environment. It is the result of your responses to the ongoing demands and stressors of daily life, and it occurs when your perceived demands outweigh your perceived resources. Burnout involves the depletion of physical and intellectual energy that happens when you are overworked, stressed, and involved in demanding situations over a long period of time. It leaves you feeling tired, rundown, overwhelmed, and irritable.

Burnout has also been associated with a reduced sense of personal accomplishment and a sense of discouragement as an employee. It can happen concurrently with the emotional and spiritual energy depletion that is indicative of compassion fatigue: when exposure to too much pain and suffering weakens your ability to actually feel the level of compassion you usually would. When you are in a situation in which the demands on your body, mind, and heart exceed your resources—and the situation continues for a long time—then you are at significant risk of burnout.

Recognizing, preventing, and treating this condition is vital. Burnout can destroy your productivity, sap your energy, and (in extreme cases) lead to a total collapse.

How are church leaders at risk?

There are many factors that put church leaders at risk of burnout: such factors can be personal, social, work-related, and spiritual.

Personal factors that can contribute to burnout include being a perfectionist or demanding near perfection from yourself and/or others, being pessimistic or negative and quick to find fault, feeling the need to personally be in control of everything around you, developing multiple physical ailments, and being a Type A personality with high demands for achievement.

Social factors include unresolved marital or family problems, people in your life with expectations for you to help them, lack of friendships or close relationships, insufficient sleep, lack of exercise, or feeling that you have many demands with little help or support from others.

Work factors include extended periods of time without a break, unclear or poorly defined expectations from a boss or from those you serve, a sense of failure or fear of losing your job, working in a disorganized or chaotic environment, or working with little or no recognition or support.

Of significant concern for church leaders are spiritual factors: feeling the need to push as hard as possible in doing the Lord’s work, wanting to represent the church and God as caring first for the needs of others. All of these factors increase stress and make it difficult to find relief.

What are the signs of burnout?

The signs of burnout be grouped as physical, emotional, behavioral, and spiritual:

Physical signs of burnout include:

  • Chronic fatigue;
  • Low energy;
  • Low immunity;
  • Frequent illness; and,
  • Poor or changing appetite.

Emotional signs include:

  • Self-doubt or a sense of failure;
  • Constant self-doubt or questioning;
  • Flat affect and lack of enjoyment in things that usually make you happy; and,
  • Sense of defeat and discouragement.

Behavioral signs of burnout include:

  • Procrastination or avoidance of responsibility;
  • Withdrawal or isolation of yourself from others;
  • Turning to excess food or drugs; and,
  • Lack of discipline in your self-care habits, such as exercise, hygiene, or grooming.

Spiritual signs of burnout include:

  • Spiritual disconnection and isolation (e.g., “God has abandoned me”);
  • Religious strain (e.g., “God is so far away from me”); and,
  • Major changes in spiritual meaning-making (e.g., “Why would a good God let such a bad thing happen? I don’t think I can believe in that God anymore”).

What can church leaders do to address burnout?

There is no one “right” way to address burnout. Intervention needs to be tailored to the unique experience and interests of those involved. Following are several examples of how burnout can be addressed among first responders.

Maintain faith:

  • Get in touch with and do things in which you find meaning and purpose;
  • Read spiritual, inspirational, or religious materials, such as Scripture;
  • Stay involved in church life and discuss spiritual topics with others;
  • Attend community-wide church services and engage in spiritual disciplines like prayer, worship, and Bible study; and,
  • If you are experiencing spiritual struggle, talk to someone you trust, such as a close friend or family member, chaplain, or counselor.

Plan well:

  • Set a goal and break it down into easily managed pieces;
  • Take small steps, working through each piece, until you reach your goal;
  • Reward yourself as you complete each step and when you reach the goal (a reward can be a break, some social time, or simply working on a less demanding task);
  • Tell others in your life what your goals are and enlist their support; and,
  • After you reach your goal, work to maintain your improvements.

Balance life activities:

  • Engage in meaningful leisure activities, including activities you have enjoyed in the past and new activities that get you out of a weekly pattern;
  • Schedule regular vacations and be intentional in finding times to relax;
  • Exercise regularly;
  • Prioritize sleep and practice good sleep habits (e.g., going to bed around the same time each night); and,
  • Eat balanced meals each day.

Keep an optimistic perspective:

  • Balance the reality of a situation—avoid focusing only on the negative;
  • Recognize there are multiple contributing factors to your difficulties;
  • Focus on the big picture and avoid “all-or-nothing” thinking;
  • Think realistically and gather the facts—avoid “jumping to conclusions”; and,
  • Avoid rigid expectations and watch for the words “should,” “must,” or “have to” in your speech and thoughts.

If you have tried these strategies but continue to feel burned out; if your reactions worsen over time; or if they cause interference with daily behavior at work, at home, or with other relationships, it may be appropriate to talk to a professional. You can get professional help from your primary care physician, a mental health provider, or another church leader.

Remember that an essential part of caring for others is caring for yourself. Don’t let burnout keep you from caring for your community—not just in the hours and days after a disaster strikes, but in the weeks, months, and even years to come.

Dr. Jamie D. Aten is a disaster psychologist and the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Disaster Ministry Conference at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). He is also the co-author of the Disaster Ministry Handbook. He got his start in disaster ministry after moving to South Mississippi just six days before Hurricane Katrina. You can follow Jamie on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website,