“And if you don’t like it, there’s the door!”
Those words spoken from the pulpit out of the mouth of a ministry colleague introduced me to pastoral burnout. After delivering that doozy of a sermon, he disappeared behind the platform and broke down sobbing.
A month away from ministry and a year rebuilding spiritual, emotional, and physical strength led to decades of effective ministry.
But it was almost over before it began. My friend faced burnout. Most of us will too.
I have felt the heat of burnout in my own experience (31 years of pastoral ministry in three churches). Telltale signs for me include:
- Avoiding people (I am an enthusiastic extrovert). When I have over committed or feel the tug of fatigue, this is a sure indicator of trouble. I look at my calendar and groan. I think of excuses for canceling meetings (or even better, not setting them up in the first place). Isolation can kill.
- Procrastinating. In my church context I preach series of messages throughout the year. Usually, I stay ahead of the curve by scheduling study on Thursday mornings and all day Friday. But when I am fatigued, I find myself starting late and pushing the deadlines. That results in poorly prepared sermons, more stress, and guilt. Delay steals fruitfulness.
- Impatience. The little delays and irritations of life (sanctifying experiences usually) result in anger rather than humor. A volunteer blows an assignment, a staff member questions a decision, a family member disappoints and I am ready to blow. Anger does not produce righteousness.
- Temptation. Satan knows me well (I have given him plenty of ammunition over the years) and he seems to have an uncanny knack for raising temptation whenever I struggle with bitterness or resentment. Private failure destroys effective ministry.
Burnout impacts those of us who serve others in ministry, academics, or charitable work. We love what we do. We love those we serve. We answer to a high calling. We are trained, experienced, and often well resourced.
So, why do we lose battles with burnout?
Burnout is not new. The Apostle Paul wrote of being “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” He went on to complain of the “daily pressure on me of my anxiety for the churches” (2 Cor. 1:8, 11:28). Augustine wrestled with despair, calling it sin. Luther was well known for his melancholy. And Charles Spurgeon wrote knowingly of the “minister’s fainting fits.”
In our own day, suicides by prominent pastors point to the reality of emotional pressure for those who serve. And how many seemingly effective pastors have failed out of ministry because they responded to the pressures of ministry in unhealthy, even destructive ways?
I have twice faced burnout. As a new pastor I had invested in a young couple who was working with our student ministry. I had them to our home, helped them financially, and gave them visibility within the church. One Sunday evening I went back to the office and found a note slipped under the door. They quit and took some students with them. They were clear that I hadn’t done enough for the student ministry.
I sat at my desk as waves of anger rolled and visions of revenge danced in my head—not very spiritual, but very real. I had worked hard for two years in this turn-around church setting. We had grown. What would happen now? What would people say?
I faced a decision right there that would define my future ministry: Would I trust others to help grow the church, or hold close any ministry in the fear of betrayal? I chose to endure possible hurt rather than stop growing as a pastor and leader. And we grew, slowly.
The second time was the summer after we finished our first building—a multi-purpose gym/sanctuary. We celebrated the completion of our new building just in time for the Great Recession of 2008-2009. My expectations of a new season of prosperous ministry ran into the reality of tight finances (I had to wait for payroll a time or two) and staff turnover. We had a new building with almost no furniture (we had to rent metal folding chairs to hold services) and a gym with no equipment.
That’s when the call came in from our bank.
For two years ,we had counted on the release of a construction performance bond related to wetlands. Tens of thousands of dollars that we had earmarked furniture, basketball hoops, and volleyball equipment. Now, I learned that the county wanted to hold the money for another year.
I hung up the phone, looked around, and took out paper to write my resignation—the only time I’ve ever done that. I was beaten.
I don’t have a silver bullet for ministry burn out; there isn’t one. But I have learned some strategies that have helped me stay positive in ministry for 31 years.
- Pay attention to your spiritual life. This seems silly to say to ministers, but the reality is we deal with the things of the Lord so relentlessly, that we can neglect our own spiritual care. Remember Paul’s challenge to the Ephesian elders? “Take heed to yourselves” (Acts 20:28). Or the counsel for young pastor Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself” (1 Tim. 4:16).
- Stay active. I go to the gym weekly. I believe a walk with the Lord and walking may be the two most important elements in my longevity in ministry.
- Be honest. You need to tell someone the truth—ugly or beautiful though it be. I warn every new hire that I will deal in the reality of ministry, that I will tell them the truth. It’s up to them to deal with it.
- Pursue friends. Be intentional. Don’t sit alone and sulk (I’ve done that. It doesn’t tend toward growth). Find some other minister you enjoy and spend time with them.
- Pace yourself. Take a regular day off every week. When you sense unusual impatience or irritation, schedule downtime. This is long-term care. We are not automatons; we are human beings in need of rest and re-creation.
- Grow. Conferences like the GC2 Summit on December 6th are vital to our spiritual health. We learn, connect, and grow at these kinds of events.
I don’t have all the answers for burnout. I wrestle with the very same pressures you do. What I do have is a commitment to finish well. And, I’ll pay the price to do that, by God’s grace.
“And, if you like that, I hope to see you at the door” of the GC2 Summit on December 6th.