Some Reflections on Ministerial Burnout
One of the most disinteresting comments that can come from a pastor’s mouth when asked how he’s doing is, “I’m so busy.” It is not only disinteresting, but if he has a habit of saying that each time he’s asked about his ministry, he may be, either implicitly or explicitly, suggesting that God is a hard task-master (Matt 25:24). In reality, God is not a hard task-master: Psalm 103:14, “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” God is not just gracious in the way he saves us, but he is gracious in what he requires of us as shepherds. He does not desire that we should burn-out, even if there are seasons where, providentially, we carry many burdens.
Burnout in the ministry almost always involves some specific sin(s) in our lives. In my own experience, the major sin involved in ministerial burnout is pride. Sometimes this can manifest itself in terms of an incessant work ethic that’s aim is the promotion of our name rather than the promotion of God’s name. We would never admit it, of course, but our hard work that leads to fatigue is often a result of trying to make a name for ourselves. We need to remember the importance of the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer: hallowed be your name! Yet we erect our own towers of babel, but God, who is jealous for his glory, sometimes crushes these towers into a heap of ruins. This is also his grace to us.
Pride also makes us think we should do this or that task because we do it best. Sometimes insecurity creeps in and we overdo things because we don’t want someone else doing it better. Our pride causes us to fail to recognize how Christ has given many gifts to the church and, wonder of all wonders, they didn’t all land in one minister’s lap.
Pride will also keep us from listening to others who are witnessing our mad craze. Usually, a pastor’s wife is best able to see when her husband is doing too much and she should warn him. God has given us godly wives for many reasons, one of which (for the Pastor) is to monitor him in a unique way during his ministry. Oddly enough, sometimes we should say, “the woman you gave to be with me, I listened to her and….rested.” But if we reject a wise word from our wife, we may be rejecting a word from the Lord who uses instruments to accomplish his will.
If you have experienced burnout, ask yourself how the sin of pride has brought your downfall.
Now, when burnout happens, there are several things that ought to happen. If the pastor detects pride as a major reason for his burnout, he should confess not only his sin, but his need for grace and forgiveness. He is still one who struggles with indwelling sin and the grace he has offered from the pulpit towards his flock should be the grace he receives from his flock as he lessens his load in various areas.
The worst thing that can happen is for the burnt-out pastor to remain silent and try and fix the problem himself. Some in the congregation will have an amazing opportunity to not only pray for the pastor but do some tangible things to help him recover so that he can get back to the place where he is able to serve them well again.
When the matter is in the open (to some degree), the steps to recovery can take place. But varying forms of self-medication (drugs, alcohol) can be a real temptation to a pastor crying out (silently) for relief. Yes, he has likely sinned and made mistakes, but he should not have to suffer in silence.
That said, there are certain periods and seasons in a ministry when things are particularly busy and stressful. Who can forget the heavy burdens that pastors carried during covid? Even those who made mistakes were not necessarily trying to be cowardly, indifferent, or brazen. Most of my friends in the ministry were genuinely trying to serve the Lord faithfully, but the context of the times resulted in a lot of emotional anguish that many of us have not yet fully recovered from.
How does one know they are suffering ministerial burnout? This is a complex question, but some things I have noticed include:
1. Simply getting the work done that has to be done, but not necessarily enjoying the process of doing the work.
2. Avoiding people. You create a sort of cave that you enter, and you only come out when absolutely necessary: Lord’s Day, meetings, weddings, funerals. But you stop looking for opportunities to minister to people (e.g., hospitality).
3. Struggling during public worship to focus and struggling in private to pray and read God’s word.
4. Physically you develop various bodily symptoms.
5. Sometimes depression or anxiety manifests in unique ways.
6. Emotionally you are drained; you are either on edge or you just don’t care about much; indifference to the life of the church and your own soul usually go together.
7. You think quitting or relocating will solve your problems.
Burnout can and does happen to ministers. Pastors need to be open about their struggles and sins to those who can help them. Not everyone needs to hear everything about your struggles. A Pastor’s wife can usually help the most, but even she should not bear the burden entirely. The elders should not fear if their pastor is needing to take a break (e.g., a few months). They should see it as an opportunity for the church and the community of God’s people to show the fruit of the Spirit in the exercise of their gifts. The elders may worry if their main preacher doesn’t preach for a while the church may lose people. And a congregation used to good preaching can be the hardest to convince their pastor needs a break. If the pastor is guilty of pride, the church can be guilty of unbelief by not seeking to properly see the pastor through his phase of burnout.
To prevent burnout from happening again, there should be open lines of communication between the Pastor and his elders. They should not only care for him but also keep him accountable so that burnout does not happen again and again and again…to the point that he’s basically a dead man walking. Maybe prayer requests at Bible studies need to be a little more particular and soul-searching or even we need to pray that our pastor manages his time and energies well (preventive maintenance prayers).
Again, remember that God is not a hard task-master. He is gracious and his calling for pastors is one that, for the most part, will not require burnout. We are saved by grace, but we also serve in a context of grace and by grace. When this reality hits home, we can mortify pride and minister in a reasonable way to people who should know that you are not their savior but Christ is.
Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.