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The Idiot’s Guide to Church Burnout

Just before my youngest daughter went to sleep, she walked down to the couch where I was planted. The remote had become affixed to my hand. She made what would become a life-changing observation. With the innocence and simplicity of a seven year-old, she said, “Dad…it seems like you’re always tired or mad.”

Up to that point, I had been a licensed, marry-and-bury, lead-worship-and-preach pastor for 17 very full-time years. But secretly, I wanted out. So I did what any people-fearing pastor would do: I didn’t tell anyone…until the Rams played the Steelers on Monday Night Football in November 2004. The Rams were losing that night, which put me in an awful mood. My mood carried into a garage cleanliness discussion with my wife—a discussion that eventually elevated to knock-down, drag-out proportions. My three daughters hid in their rooms while Dad spewed verbal wildfire all over the house.

I had become the man I promised never to become.

Burnout was never something I saw coming, but when it hit me, I was absolutely leveled. And the part of burnout I missed was this: the root cause of burnout had nothing to do with being tired, overworked, or underpaid (although I clearly possessed all three). For me, burnout happened when I became increasingly unable to inject my unique blend of passion and personality into an environment that could help meet a legitimate need in the world. That’s a clinical way of saying that I was a square peg in a round hole. My dreams were a million miles away from the dreams the position of “pastor” could provide.

My friend Jim tells me that burnout is “an exhaustion of the will.” I think he’s right. And when I look back on the whole experience, I see that a church staff environment can become a breeding ground for burnout. Here’s how it got a hold of me.

I lost grace.

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I had slowly become someone who was more interested in maintaining the standard than in helping those who couldn’t meet the standard. Everything and everyone began to frustrate me. Key leaders. Musicians. Graphic Designers. Web guys. Drummers who thought “softer” meant “slower.” Everyone.

I dreamed of other occupations.

I’d wonder what it would be like to be a schoolteacher, a filmmaker, a circuit speaker, a barista, or best of all—an entrepreneur who owned his own business.

I dreaded the end of vacations.

Two days before my vacations ended, I began to get in bad moods and would have given anything to just drive to Montana, find a cabin, and live in seclusion for the rest of my days. (I think that’s also called “depression.”)

I didn’t believe anything noteworthy was being accomplished.

I felt like I was putting in my time just to maintain the program, not to change the world.

I experienced increased migraines.

We all have one prominent physical ailment that exerts itself when our emotions are undernourished. For me, it has always been migraines.

Nothing was going to change at the church. More importantly, nothing was going to change in my heart. So the morning after the Rams loss, I met with the senior pastor of my church and resigned.

My first two months out of pastoral ministry were like an HD video with a heavy Gaussian blur. My only desire was to make breakfast every morning, then take the girls to school. There was literally nothing beyond that. Somewhere during that time, God led me to purchase The Journey of Desire by John Eldredge. For the first time in my life, I could actually discern my own God-given desires outside of the assumptions of pastoral work in a local church. Through an emotional 15-month process, I discovered me. I discovered that I love being a dad and that I had a lot of making up to do.

I discovered that I am a risk-taker and an entrepreneur. I discovered that I love to preach but with media, not spoken words. I discovered that I needed to live into, and out of, a Kingdom-grace in all of my relationships with people. I discovered that I needed to stop following the principles of Jesus and start following His person. And finally, I discovered that I was a terrible employee and that I needed to be the leader, but one who leads from the middle of a group of close friends.

Talk to anyone who’s found the exact point where their God-given passions intersect with the world’s greatest need, and you won’t find burnout at those crossroads. Talk to leaders who are living the exact dream God has given them, while making a difference in the world, and burnout simply isn’t present. That’s because they’re pouring their lives into people and systems (and here’s the key) because it’s exactly what they want to do. Label it “calling,” “passion,” or “desire.” Call it whatever you want, but these people would be doing this exact job for no money at all.

I want to be clear. Burnout is a very real thing. I’m not questioning its existence. I’m questioning its root cause. And I really don’t think the root cause is being overworked and underpaid. I think the primary cause is our inability to marry our deepest God-given passions and desires to a structure or organization where we honestly believe that God can change the world through us.  

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Gary has been married to Angela for 22 years, and is the father of three daughters. He served as a pastor for seventeen years, and has a Masters Degree in Creative Arts. He is the author of "Pursuing Christ. Creating Art.", and is the co-owner of Floodgate Productions, and the Founder and President of the Floodgate Foundation.