Avoiding burnout even in seminary

Posted May 08, 2013 | The Discipleship Project


By Michael Dodds

Michael Dodds

I used to be a teacher. I taught middle and high school foreign language classes for nearly five years, and while I was by no means perfect, I was a pretty good teacher. I loved explaining the intricate rules of making French past participles agree with preceding direct objects. My face lit up when talking about the differences between the Spanish pretérito and the imperfecto. I shared stories and pictures of my travels abroad, and a few times I even got to accompany my students overseas and see them walk into a Parisian boulangerie for the first time and clumsily order a baguetteen français! 

When I wasn’t teaching, I kept busy in other ways. I directed school plays and musicals. I went to staff meetings. I sponsored the French club. I helped administer standardized tests, and I went to more staff meetings. I made lesson plans. I graded papers, and I went to even more staff meetings. What I didn’t do nearly enough of was take care of myself. I didn’t stay in and read novels. I didn’t go to the gym and work through my frustrations with a vigorous workout on the elliptical machine. I didn’t go out and meet new friends in the new cities where I found myself living. I worked, and I worked, but I never played. Not even four years into my career as an educator, I burned out. Looking back, I’m frankly surprised it didn’t happen sooner.

After I left the classroom, I spent two or three years working a few odd jobs that tapped into some of my unique skill sets, but none of my passions. Work was just that—work. The thought of living that kind of life made me miserable, but I got through those years by doing those self-care things that I had neglected when I was teaching. I read, and I regularly went to the movies. I made new friends and reconnected with old ones. I was a regular at the gym at six in the morning, and I became a Thursday night karaoke superstar—in my mind at least.

It was during those years that I started to sense a call to ministry and a seminary education. I moved to Indianapolis and enrolled at Christian Theological Seminary to pursue a Master of Divinity degree. I went to my classes. I read my assigned readings. I wrote my reflections and my reports and my papers. I went to chapel and to seminary forums. But because of time and money—or lack thereof—I stopped going to the movies. I didn’t spend as much time with friends outside of the seminary. I stopped working out. I started slipping back into that old routine and I started noticing signs of burnout.

Our current model of seminary education and pastoral formation is wearing candidates for ministry so thin that we shouldn’t be surprised at the number of potentially excellent pastors who burn out within their first few years serving the church. It’s a number that rivals the number of outstanding educators who leave the classroom within the first few years of teaching. We ask seminarians to take out large loans to pay for their education and support themselves during their studies. We assign excessive amounts of reading and writing, but we pay little attention to their spiritual well-being and rejuvenation.

CTS realizes that there is something about the way that way we are currently doing things that just is not working any longer, and for the sake of the Church, we have to try something new. One embodiment of that new direction is The Discipleship Project. Together, we are starting the process of re-evaluating how we educate leaders for the twenty-first-century church. As a seminary, we are taking the first steps towards shaping pastors who dedicate themselves to the sacred and important work of the church, but who also know how to do the sacred and important work of taking care of themselves.

Michael Dodds is a second year M.Div. student at Christian Theological Seminary and a member of the first cohort of The Discipleship Project. He serves as Student Associate Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Kokomo, Indiana. He enjoys mid-morning workouts at the gym and singing Elton John and Garth Brooks songs at karaoke.

The Discipleship Project is a groundbreaking approach to theological education at Christian Theological Seminary that is inspired by Jesus’ pedagogy in the New Testament gospels. To request permission to repost this content, please contact centerforpastoralexcellence@cts.edu.