Pastors used to be some of the happiest and healthiest people alive, with better life expectancy than the general population. But in “Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work,” journalist Paul Vitello reports, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”
High levels of stress, depression and burnout are leading to broken bodies, broken minds, broken hearts, broken marriages and broken churches. According to Christianity Today, burnout is responsible for 20 percent of all pastoral resignations. That’s hardly surprising, since surveys reveal that pastors relegate physical exercise, nutrition and sleep to a much lower priority than the average worker.
I’ve been there and done that—and suffered the consequences. But through painful personal experience, and also through counseling many others since, I’ve learned that God has graciously provided a number of ways for us to reset our broken and burned-out lives, and to help us live a grace-paced life in a burnout culture. Before we get to these, let’s consider why so many pastors are joining these statistics.
WHY SO MUCH BURNOUT
First, the work is so enjoyable. Yes, there are discouraging times in pastoral ministry, but it’s often a dream job. We get to study God’s Word, preach the glorious gospel of grace, develop leaders, equip people to serve and help people to die in faith. We see people growing in grace and gifts. It’s so satisfying and fulfilling that we sometimes want to do it all day and all night.
Second, the work is so endless. We could spend 50 hours on each sermon and still it would not be “perfect.” There are always more people to visit, more souls to be evangelized, more articles to write, more ministries to launch, more opportunities to serve, more churches to plant. There’s no clock to punch, and there are no starting times or end times to the day. Even if we worked 24/7, there’s still more that could be done.
Third, the work is so momentous. Everyone’s role in life is important. Without garbage collectors our streets would stink and disease would be rampant. Without glaziers our homes would be either dark or drafty. But without pastors, souls will not be saved and multitudes would perish forever in hell. The consequences of our work are massive. How can we sleep or take a day off when there are perishing souls that need to be saved?
Fourth, the work is so unseen. So much of our work is invisible and intangible, we can be tempted to go into overdrive in more noticeable tasks in order to prove that we are as busy, strong and needed as everyone else.
HOW TO RESET OUR LIVES
In Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, which 9Marks reviewed here, I explore a number of ways men in general, and pastors in particular, can learn how to live a grace-paced life in a burnout culture. From counseling a number of pastors through the reset process, I’ve found that the quickest and most productive fixes are in the areas of sleep, Sabbath and the sovereignty of God.
Paul Vitello’s survey into the decline of pastors’ health and happiness identified a number of causes: stress caused by cell phones and social media, a reduction in the availability of volunteers in the era of two-income households, and the misperceptions that taking care of themselves is selfish and that serving God means never saying no. Most of the research, however, showed that the biggest reason is simply that pastors aren’t taking one day off a week.