3 Strategies to Avoid Burnout from a Veteran Sex Addiction Counselor

Pastor D made an appointment to see me because of a combination of discouragement in his ministry, declining physical energy, and increasingly intense marriage conflicts. After we met, I realized he hadn’t told me half of what was going on. He was on the brink of resigning from his ministry, feeling that whatever he thought it meant to be called as a minister in the past wasn’t working now. His wife was threatening him too: “It’s either the church or me. You can’t have both.”

A bit more probing in our sessions revealed some ongoing conflicts in the lives of his congregation that had taken a serious toll on his time, sapping him of strength and robbing him of hope. Over months and months his body reacted to all this stress with exhaustion.

It took more than one or two sessions to peel back the layers of confusion and deceit he had wrapped around himself. Specifically, he admitted he had found comfort in a secret life of internet pornography. He was sure no one had found out, but the guilt was tormenting him. He could hardly look at himself in a mirror, especially on Sunday morning.

Strategies to Avoid Ministry Burnout from a Veteran Sex Addiction Counselor

Ministry Burnout No Longer Surprises Me

I’ve been counseling porn addicts and victims of sexual brokenness for nearly 30 years now. I hate to sound callous, but I’ve heard stories like Pastor D’s so often it no longer surprises me. Here we are at a time when the need has never been greater for caring, courageous counselors and ministers to help those in need. Yet a staggering number of us are abandoning our “calling” because of our own patterns of brokenness.

Our eyes usually glaze over with statistics, but I want to give you just a few that represent the serious epidemic of ministry stress and trauma:

  • 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend (Pastoral Care Inc.)
  • 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job (Pastoral Care Inc.)
  • 45% of pastors say that they’ve experienced depression or burnout (Pastoral Care Inc.)
  • 40% report a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month (Pastoral Care Inc.)
  • Over 1600 Protestant ministers in the United States are forced out of their positions each month (Ministering to Minsters Foundation)
  • Nearly 1 in 4 ministers experience a forced termination at least once during their ministry (Ministering to Minsters Foundation)
  • Only 54% go back into full-time church related positions (Ministering to Minsters Foundation)
  • 21% of youth pastors and 14% of pastors admit they currently struggle with using porn (The Porn Phenomenon)

I don’t have numbers for other helping professions like counselors, but I have no doubt they are similar. As the numbers above indicate, those of us who spend our lives trying to help people in trouble are vulnerable to complications of our care for them.

Dr. Charles Figley calls this compassion fatigue–an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.

Pastor D was actually a victim of compassion fatigue himself. More commonly it’s called professional burnout. Is there anything we can do to avoid the carnage of compassion fatigue or secondary trauma?

I’d like to recommend three strategies we need to adopt if we are going to avoid ministry burnout and the long term dangers of secondary trauma.

Strategy #1: Acknowledge the Reality of Idealization

The term “idealization” describes the way we think about life and about ourselves. One of my favorite client populations to work with is young, new ministers or counselors in their first job. I love their enthusiasm and high ideals. There is a difference between ideals and idealization, however. As happy as our ideals may be, my years of experience warn me that many of these ideals will not survive the “real world.”

Subsequent conversations with Pastor D revealed he had once been an enthusiastic, forward-thinking minister, filled with ideals, but years of weariness and disappointment had taken a toll.

As wonderful as ideals may be, idealization is different. Idealization occurs when ideals have become distorted and bent out of shape. They are no longer simply embraced as means to an end, but risk becoming ends in themselves. When that happens they become impossible to achieve and a set up for disenchantment, disappointment, and failure. We must never lose our ideals, but when ideals get twisted into idealization, they end badly.

Several years ago, William Grosch and David Olsen conducted an extensive scientific study of burnout in professional clergy. They noted a strong correlation between idealization and stress, particularly when the idealization comes crashing down and the person is left disappointed and disillusioned, either with himself or others.

“Most clergy began their careers with high ideals, enormous optimism, idealism about their ability to be helpful, and a commitment to help people. They believed that the right combination of quality training, compassion, and commitment would enable them to bring healing to a wide variety of individuals. They entered the field not to make money, but to help as many individuals as possible.

The sad reality is that for many, idealism, commitment, and compassion gave way to disillusionment and despair. Contrary to their initial expectations, many of their well-intentioned ministerial efforts were both ineffective and unappreciated, leading to discouragement and, in some cases, burnout and despair. Most never dreamed that so much time would get caught up in dealing with committee meetings, bureaucracy, difficult parishioners, and routine, boring matters. This is not the career for which they went to school. In addition, actually being helpful turned out to be more difficult than they had anticipated.

Disillusionment sets in for some as their initial optimism and enthusiasm fades. This disillusionment can manifest itself in a variety of ways, ranging from boredom, to cynicism towards parishioners, to anger at committee meetings, to simply dragging through the day. They continue to go through the motions, but the joy is gone. Many report feeling that their spiritual well is completely dry. Others reach the extreme of total burnout and breakdown; some even resort to sexual misconduct, leading to ruined careers.” [1]

Watching a young counselor or minister’s ideals crash and burn is worse than a train wreck in slow motion. Though Pastor D had begun the train wreck some time before he got to my office, the crash was still in motion.

My first bit of advice to rookies is this: draw strength and motivation from your ideals, but acknowledge the existence and dangers of idealization. Pastor D’s failure to do so meant he had set up impossible expectations for himself and his work. When the inevitable setbacks came, he lost hope because of his idealization.

Strategy #2: See the Trap of Internalization

Idealization usually ends badly, maybe not permanently, but it always leaves scars. Before it comes to a crashing halt, idealization often accompanies the second pitfall for ministry burnout–internalization.

Internalization describes dynamics inside a caregiver related to motivations, feelings, and attitudes. The root of the word “internalization” is “internal.” And that just means “inside.”

Pastor D had prepared well for his work as a minister and caregiver. In seminary, he took classes in pastoral counseling and even subscribed to a journal attempting to integrate theology and psychology. He was affirmed as a promising preacher and prided himself on his persuasive skills in conflict resolution and teaching. He certainly acknowledged that all these abilities came from God—at least he would have said so. But when his ministry began to spiral out of control he began to wonder. Why was he experiencing so much failure? What was going wrong?

Internalization describes both a focus and a reservoir from which we draw strength to keep going. Though sometimes the term is used in a positive way to describe a person’s “internalization” of values and beliefs (in contrast with one who merely holds them at arm’s length), this was not Pastor D’s problem. For him, internalization meant he found his strength and confidence from looking within himself, instead of outside.

Those who go into professional care like Pastor D are usually very self-directed and have a high level of motivation. The idealism that made him want to change the world and make a difference in other people’s lives was closely connected to his own sense of internal strength and drive. Pastor D was not alone. Chances are, you too are motivated by your belief you have something to offer others. I certainly feel that way also. The problem is, internal strength and drive always have limits.

For Pastor D the limits of his own internal resources were most evident when his own marriage began falling apart. That wasn’t supposed to happen—not to him! Others maybe. But it didn’t seem right. Initially, he blamed his wife. If she were more supportive and understanding things would be different. That only made things worse between them, however.

My second recommendation for caregivers to avoid ministry burnout and compassion fatigue: develop a healthy understanding of your own capacities and limits in caring for others. It is especially important that you surround yourself with honest truth-tellers who aren’t afraid to let you know when you have crossed the line.

Strategy #3: Guard against the Destruction of Isolation

One of the most astounding statistics I’ve seen about caregivers like clergy and addiction counselors relates to relationships. In a 2015 survey of 4,000 ministers, 70% said they have no close friends. I call this caregiver isolation.

As a group, clergy and other caregivers are notoriously lonely. Ironically, they are also very socially active people! They may be the most well-known in the community. And yet, in the midst of all those relationships, they may feel extremely isolated and detached from meaningful connections.

The following observation by R.G. Turnbull could have been written about Pastor D:

“Whether as pastor, administrator, counselor, visitor or preacher, the minister has responsibilities which force him into a lonely position. As he engages in these, he finds himself alone. He is a pastor and thus will seek to shepherd the flock. This involves visitations in homes, hospitals, as well as counseling individuals in need. . . . All this tends to isolation of spirit as confidences cannot be broken and secrets dare not be passed on to others. A strange loneliness comes over him. Why should he have to carry these burdens? Why should he be caught in the mesh of unsavory and intimate details of moral life? He may spend a sleepless night in the afterglow of an interview which has drained him dry. The loneliness of spiritual life is real to the preacher who wrestles with the truth in his study and in preparation for the pulpit.” [2]

Sadly, Pastor D took this loneliness to a very dark place in his own secret life. Until he came to see me, he had no one around him who would look him in the eye and ask about his thought life or intimacy with his wife the past week. I am not sure he expected that from me either at first. But it was necessary to combat the problem of isolation.

Though I began to pierce some of the bubble of Pastor D’s secret world as his counselor, I also knew I was not enough. He needed a support network that would endure over the long haul. I encouraged him from the beginning to find other men he could share his soul with, but for various reasons he was unable to do so.

Our relationship gradually shifted from counselor/client to mentor/mentee. For the three years we continued meeting together, I asked him the tough questions he needed to hear. He trusted me enough to answer truthfully, even when he was ashamed of himself.

In addition, having a counselor/mentor relieved some of the pressure in his marriage relationship. Having someone to process the routine misunderstandings and frustrations of marriage with enabled him to develop more transparency and trust with his wife as well.

I believe the single most important thing for any of us in a people-helping profession is to have a good mentor. A young counselor, therapist, or pastor who has a good mentor and develops patterns of honest disclosure and transparency will avoid many of the dangerous traps I’ve described that lead to ministry burnout.


[1] William Grosch and David Olsen, “Clergy Burnout: An Integrative Approach,” in Journal of Clinical Psychology, 619

[2] R. G. Turnbull,  A Minister’s Obstacles, (New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1964), 113.

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