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Battling Burnout

Shepherd’s Canyon offers help for those who have lost hope in ministry work

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In 2020, Kevin Bueltmann was asked to be the interim head pastor at his church in Montana. He was already serving as associate pastor and camp director for the church. Now, suddenly, after their head pastor’s resignation, he was in charge of everything.

Then COVID hit. He not only found himself navigating a new leadership role, but also managing the church and the camp in the midst of an ever-changing pandemic.

“After a year, I was completely burned out. I was angry at everyone, I was angry at God. I was not in a good space,” Bueltmann said.

His wife recommended a place she had heard about called Shepherd’s Canyon Retreat in Arizona.

Bueltmann was willing to try it. Especially because “spending a week in Arizona in February didn’t sound so bad.” So he and his wife headed south.

What happened next was life-changing.

The Bueltmanns met with therapists both in a group setting and individually, and began to work through key issues that led to his burnout.

“I learned I try to accommodate people…I wasn’t expressing [to the elders at the church] how bad things were,” he said. “I focused so much on helping others that I neglected my own emotional, physical and spiritual health.”

At the end of the retreat the therapists worked with the Bueltmanns to come up with a plan for his return.

When he got back to Montana, he put the plan in place. He continued online therapy with Shepherd’s Canyon while also completing an online program with a ministry called Delight your Marriage—a ministry that later offered him a job. Delight Your Marriage (DYM) told him, we want you to come work for us, but you’re not allowed to work evenings and weekends.

“I thought ‘wow, I had never had a church tell me that. Sign me up,’” Bueltmann said.

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Six months after joining the staff at DYM, Shepherd’s Canyon called and said they had a role for him and his wife to work as site managers. They took the job, and now, close to four years after going through the program himself, Bueltmann is the executive director.

His story, sadly, is not unique to many ministry workers’ experiences in the United States. In fact, Bueltmann said, Shepherd’s Canyon “grew about 40% last year. There are a lot of people asking for help.”

According to a 2022 Barna study, 42% of pastors have considered quitting full-time ministry due to stress, political division and loneliness.

Phil Lee, LMFT and counseling care director at Shepherd’s Canyon, has seen all these reasons, and more, first hand. He believes the number to be much higher.

For Lee, there is a serious problem in the church.

“We’ve created a congregational culture that doesn’t take personal or pastoral Sabbath seriously.” In addition, pastors and congregations often have a lack of boundaries in taking a day, or taking time off.

“Too often we cultivate a work/reward culture at the expense of a pastor’s health. We don’t care much about [their] mental or physical health, we just want them to get the job done,” he said.

This type of culture has very real consequences.

“People are getting worn down, stressed, anxious. They start developing unhealthy coping strategies like drinking, porn, affairs. They want to feel good, or at least feel something to numb their pain,” Lee explained.

They are looking for a way back from the brink.

Shepherd’s Canyon, and its intensive week-long counseling program, was designed to do just that. But Lee is quick to note these retreats aren’t meant to take the place of long-term therapy. Rather, they are a “short-term catalyst for change.”

The retreat is also not just for pastors. They work with anyone in a ministry role—from missionaries and military chaplains to Christian educators and worship leaders. Every retreat is facilitated by two licensed therapists and a chaplain. They do group counseling in the morning and individual therapy in the afternoon. And offer plenty of time and space in the evenings for self-care and reflection.

At the end of the week, every participant is equipped with an action plan.

But are we restoring pastors too quickly as a church culture in general? Is a week enough time?

“Absolutely we [as a church culture] prematurely restore way too many pastors. Almost to the extent that it’s assumed they will be restored—especially with sexual sin—it’s almost like it’s a given. It borders on criminal. Not just sexual sin, any number of deadly sins so to speak,” Lee said.

He also says pastors who struggle with what he calls a “cult of personality” are often being restored too quickly—people like Mark Driscoll or Bill Hybels. Usually because these pastors aren’t part of a system that holds them accountable.

Shepherd’s Canyon typically does not work with these types of ministry workers though. Lee, who does initial screenings and intakes with potential participants, says they are careful about who they accept into the program. They want to work with people truly looking to do the work of long-term change—even after they head home.

“By the time they come to us, the scandal [or issue] has been exposed. They’re trying to figure out how to put the pieces of their life and ministry back together. We can’t do long term therapy and that is almost always necessary. But we can help them find a therapist and find an action plan,” he explained.

While Shepherd’s Canyon is filling a dire need to curb the pandemic of burnout, how does the church create a culture that keeps burnout from happening in the first place?

Lee notes that, in order to move to a place where pastors aren’t succumbing to burnout, or being overworked, or even wrestling with congregational conflict and gossip, it has to start at the beginning of their training—in seminary.

“More efforts need to be put into preventative medicine,” he said.

He believes teaching pastors how to develop skills in personal communication and conflict, as well as how to work with people in their congregation who are facing serious mental health issues like addiction is vitally important.

“We need more practical theology in pastoral formation,” he said. Emphasis on things like “how do we handle dysfunction, bad habits, sin or lack of interpersonal communication [in the church].”

Lee says we need to be asking how we form wise pastors, not only from a theological standpoint, but also wise in the ways of human nature.

“Christians still sin, we see it all the time. We need to help [pastors] get serious about how sin has its way—those addictions and dysfunctions that get formed—and how to effectively counteract that. It needs to be a priority in the formation and training of people who go into ministry. We need to address it from the beginning.”

Main photo: Shepherd’s Canyon Executive Director Kevin Bueltmann and his wife Tawn with founders Dave and Barb Anderson / Screenshot from Shepherd’s Canyon Summer 2023 Newsletter

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Brittany Smith

Brittany Smith is a freelance writer living in Colorado Springs. She is the co-author of Unplanned Grace: A Compassionate Conversation on Life and Choice.