Defining Pastoral Burnout
Pastoral burnout is a condition that affects Preachers, like me, who work in pastoral ministry roles. It is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and a loss of passion for one's work. In this article, and because I know most who read this are skilled in the Word, I will forego reminding you of scripture. Let’s simply reason together.
Burnout results from a combination of factors. These can include excessive stress, church conflict, lack of support, and violated boundaries. The consequences of pastoral burnout are severe, long-lasting, and affect our relationship with the Lord. It is important for church leaders to seek support and implement self-care strategies to avoid this spiritual exhaustion. I would suggest "prayer", but we Pastors do plenty of this and still become useless in ministry due to not heeding the Holy Spirit. Or, perhaps, that is just ME, right?
Here are twelve (12) reasons Pastors become burned out:
Excessive workload: Pastors often have a heavy workload, with multiple responsibilities. These include preaching, leading worship, administrative duties, and community outreach. This "busyness" leads to feelings being overwhelmed with too much to do and not enough time.
Conflict within the church: Pastors face conflict with laypeople, board members, and others which is emotionally draining.
Lack of support: Pastors feel like we are carrying the weight of the church alone, without adequate support from congregants or colleagues. I testify, personally, to the truth of no support from other Pastors. I have found them the most self-centered individuals I have ever met. There are small pockets of true friendship, but these instances are rare. Pastors smile and are polite to one another, but these relationships are purely "transactional". My heart has been broken because of this. As a United States Marine, I served with men who watched over me, and protected me while I slept (and I for them). The servants of Jesus, however, wait for me to sleep so they can harm me and my family.
Isolation: Pastors work in a high-pressure environment and become isolated from others. Lack of true fellowship always leads to spiritual exhaustion.
Burnout from preaching: In preparing and delivering sermons, we sometimes feel the pressure to be constantly creative, inspiring, and relevant. I know - "you should depend on the Holy Spirit"! Of course, you do so 100% of the time, right?
Lack of boundaries: We struggle to create boundaries between our work and personal life due to being "on" 24/7/365.
Financial stress: Facing financial pressures is a common theme. This rears it head more prominently in those of us who Pastor and work jobs outside the church.
Health challenges: Poor health, either physical or mental, increase feelings of stress and exhaustion.
Congregational expectations: We feel pressure from God's People to meet their expectations of what a Pastor is, and should be doing. Their expectations are far from either biblical and practical most often.
Poor leadership: Pastors burnout when we feel unsupported our ideas and suggestions are not valued.
Long hours: Pastors may work long hours, including nights and weekends. This is the catalyst for burnout due to lack of self-care.
Emotional exhaustion: Many preachers experience emotional exhaustion from counseling those going through difficult times. Truthfully, there are times when we are counseling that our own spiritual stability is in question.
In summary, Pastoral burnout is a condition whereby a church leader because physical, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. There are many reasons this occurs but can be avoided with a resolute outlook and prayer life.
Pastors Burn Out and Leave Ministry
I am currently serving as a Pastor of a congregation. Further, I have led the congregation for some years now. Although this article, and its title, may seem a bit accusatory, I've earned the right to be so.
During one stretch, I pastored without respite for perhaps six (6) years. My wife became ill and I kept my schedule as if nothing was wrong. Our church leadership approached me, respectfully, and insisted I go home, take care of her, and take time off. The Pastor's Wife is important to them, and me, so they stepped up! They reminded me of lessons I had taught them and now insisted I follow my own advice!
I do not say this to take the sting off of what must be said in this section either. So many teach that judging another is biblical error. The reality is contextually, and hermeneutically, that is not what Matthew Chapter 7 teaches at all.
Those teaching this false doctrine have damaged the cause of Christ. I could put together the Christian apologetics case that preaching the gospel, itself, is judgment on the world. Sure, it offers remedy as well however, sharing Jesus, even if done in love, is a form of judging.
In the prior section, I listed twelve (12) reasons why we, as Pastors, become burned out. There is a tie which binds them together: refusal to set limits on ourselves and others. This is the chief challenge in serving God's people. You have read text where Jesus, Himself, separated from others for time alone.
If our Master did so, why do we have such a hard time? The answer boils down to two (2) words - false guilt. It doesn't matter how many people you lead, church location, or management style. If you believe: “to him which will put no more honest than we can bear”, what is the real reason for our exhaustion? Either the scripture is wrong, your interpretation of it, or it is true.
Here are six (6) reasons why Pastors are the issue and not "Pastoring":
This wound is self-inflicted: we must put limits on ourselves no matter ultimatums, threats, or false guilt. You owe no one your sanity.
God called and equipped you: If God called and equipped you to lead, either He made a bad choice or you have.
You’ve put family last: 1st Timothy 3 frames what comes first (family) and second (church). Nowhere in scripture does it command putting family on the back burner in deference to the church. If, however, our family is rebellious and standing in the way, that is another conversation. Even then, Pastors refuse to step away from their duties until it is too late.
Pastors allow church members to abuse them: Yes, Jesus does turn the other cheek however, “for everything there is a season” as Ecclesiastes teaches. Jesus didn’t always turn the other cheek! If so, explain His rebuke of Peter or the storming of the temple to cast out the moneychangers. Pray and push back because nothing will burn you out faster than allowing ongoing abuse without confronting it.
Refusing to set boundaries: It is truth in love. For us, this is truly one which is difficult to overcome. Those you serve are no more worthy of grace than you. If this is true, why not walk away like Jesus? Does our Lord expect more of you than He did while on Earth?
Pastors think “serving” is more important than preaching: true, these can be the same thing but Jesus simply told Peter to do one (1) thing if He loved Him: “feed His sheep”. Your job is to preach the gospel and not “manage” a corporation. I serve a micro church and we have just enough people to cover the duties required. You do as well so allow them to walk in the gifts God has given them by TRUSTING THEM.
Pastors are Gifts from God but Not God
Yes Pastors are gifts from God, as are you, but we are not God! Although most of us strive to remain humble, most often we become “full of ourselves”. Most act but I know a side you never see. Those with the softest voice, and act most humble, are hardly so. With people treating us as minor celebrities, hanging on our every word, and anxious to be a part of our lives, losing humility occurs much to often.
Along with that, we believe that we are called to solve issue which none are equipped to. For instance, where, biblically, is a Pastor commanded to “come running” each time a congregant calls? Where is it written that we must provide “couples counseling” to save their marriage, while ours suffer?
This leads to the following items we, as church leaders, should consider refraining from:
Responding to most congregational demands: we are called to “feed the Lord’s Sheep”. We are not doing so while suffering from exhaustion out of misapplied “grace” theology. The greatest act of grace we can often show those we lead is setting boundaries.
Stop allowing Trustees, Deacons and others set the agenda: They (really Jesus did) hired you to lead – so lead! God’s people often believe they have more power over us than they do. Of course, remain humble, but you must stop being afraid of making people angry! I know what most fear more than anything: being voted out/fired. I want to be sympathetic to this because I do not have this fear. Not because I am so brave, but because my “call” is different. I am a place holder for the “coming Man of God” (whoever that is). Yet the cost of your “fear” is an “unsound mind” and “spirit” due to burnout. Trust God and learn to say “no”.
Believe God: It is truly that simple: It is not your church Pastor! It is not yours to lose either because you did not die on the cross. Need I say more?
In summary, “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away – blessed be the Name of the Lord”. We preach faith but when it comes to exercising it in the most crucial moment, we refuse.
Signs of an Exhausted Pastor
Signs of an exhausted Pastor are becoming spiritually abusive to others, drop in power of the preached Word, and being backslidden away from Jesus. Pastoral burnout comes strictly from a place of disobedience. Is it the congregations fault you refuse to say no?
We must be real with the Lord especially when we are disobedient. Pastors are not feeding sheep when exhausted. Exhaustion morphs into things much worse that will eventually destroy your ministry.
Here is the result of stress and burnout induced disobedience:
Refusal to follow church doctrine or teachings: Jesus walked away several times to “be alone”. Your refusal to step away for sabbatical is refusal to follow the example set by our Lord.
Disregard for the truth in love: the church I lead loved me enough to tell me I needed rest and politely “insisted” I do so immediately. Their warning was clear, however. If I would have refused to listen, this disobedience would have harmed our church unity.
Failure to meet self-love obligations: when you are not focused and are instead exhausted, you are not pastoring. First and foremost, is “loving others as yourself”. In this case, you are neither loving others nor yourself.
Lack of accountability and transparency: we tend to hide our burnout and weariness behind nice smiles and well-timed scripture delivery. God’s Sheep can only provide a small level of accountability. Where is the rest coming from?
Sudden family issues: your frustration and weariness will result in a shorter fuse with those closest to you. This veers into the territory of marital conflict because of a refusal to “care for the temple” the Lord has provided.
Fretting Sunday morning worship: the more exhausted a Pastor is, the harder it becomes to show up at all. If you force yourself to get out of bed on Sunday morning, things are well beyond bad. Be honest with both the Lord and yourself.
Disrespect for church members: this is where the church begins to implode spiritually and emotionally. Exhausted Pastors cause damage without realizing it. By trying to be “everything the sheep need”, we can quickly become “the very thing they do not”.
Inadequate or inconsistent teaching: by not “practicing what you preach”, you demonstrate hypocrisy.
Engaging in activities that bring discredit to the church: need I say more?
In summary, refusal to practice self-spiritual care can only lead to a disobedient walk. It is crucial to recognize the signs and if you do not, listen to those who do.
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