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True and False Burnout: Are You Deceived?

I knew I was in trouble when one Sunday morning I got angry with my six year old little boy because he ate one piece of bacon too many. Not shouting angry, but upset over something meaningless. Two days later I sat working on Power Point slides for the Sunday morning announcements. My three year old little girl was looking over my shoulder. As I finished the slide announcing my next sermon series, Hope when You Are Hurting, featuring man about my age sitting with his head in his hands Emma asked, “Daddy is that you?” When I asked her why she thought the picture was me she said, “Because you hold your hands like that all the time.”

I knew theoretically that I was susceptible to burnout, the professors in seminary told me it could happen to anyone. But when they said “anyone” I thought what most people think: anyone but me. Turns out I had three commonly held misconceptions:

1. My church is not large, I will not burn out
I thought, like many do, that only those pastors whose churches are large, or rapidly growing burnout. My church is not a country chapel, but it is not what you would call a large church. When I began to see the signs of burnout, I disregarded them because deep down I thought that my church was not large enough for me to experience burnout.
2. I am not overworked, I will not burnout
I had meetings, but not countless ones. I had responsibilities, but none too great to handle. I had people to care for, but not more than I could pray with and counsel. I had to preach three times a week, but I loved preaching. In fact I even had time to take a day off, and even though the phone rang a few times, I was able to rest. So again I ignored the signs because I thought only pastors who worked 20 hours a day, ate in their car, saw their family at church on Sunday and fueled themselves with Starbucks and Monster energy drink burnout.
3. Things are going great in my church, I will not burnout
I remember hearing a pastor share about a time when he came home to find four men waiting next door at the church. They exited their vehicles and walked to his house. Upon entering his home they aired grievances, to him and his wife in their living room. He made two statements: “That night I was talked to worse than I have ever been” and “I lay in bed and listened to my wife cry herself to sleep.” Though some of our church family had been to our house, it was enjoyable. Our business meetings had not broken out into a brawl. I received no hate mail. So again I ignored the signs. I was not enduring great difficulty, so I could not possibly be burning out.

I was wrong. I was burning out, even though my church was not large, I was not overworked, and things were going great. But why? Even though the commonly mentioned burnout factors were absent from my ministry, I was growing irritated, depressed, lethargic, and apathetic. Why was I having chest pains every Sunday morning on the way to church? Why did I dread preaching? Why had I begun to expect the worst instead of the best? Because I had erroneously neglected to recognize the real causes of burnout.

What really causes burnout and why it can happen to anyone?

1. Burnout is caused by stress–and any sized ministry is stressful.
Mega church pastors are not the only pastors who experience stress. Every size church has its own flavor of stress: stress is stress no matter the flavor. Being responsible for proclaiming God’s Word in a fresh manner three times a week is stressful, even though I enjoyed preaching. Funerals are stressful, even though I wanted to be there and care for the family. Visiting the hospital is stressful despite the fulfillment of caring for those in need. Budget meetings are stressful, even when the budget looks good. I love being a pastor, but it is stressful and stress causes burnout.
2. Burnout is caused by lack of refreshment–and any pastor can neglect himself.
I took a day off, but was I really being refreshed? Did I feel any better, was I embracing my role in the church or did I go to bed dreading getting up the next morning and going to the office? If you are not being refreshed by your time away then it isn’t working like it should. Even though you are taking the prescribed day off you can still neglect yourself.
3. Burnout is caused by not dealing with disappointment–and every ministry has disappointment.
Every pastor encounters disappointment. It’s part of living in a fallen world. For some reason we think that we are not supposed to be disappointed when fewer people show up than we hoped, or when we prepare all week long to preach and no one seems to respond. It is okay to be disappointed, but not okay to fuel your disappointment with obsession. It is not okay to blame yourself, unless its your fault. It is not okay to mask those disappointments with statements like “This is the number of people God wanted here” when you know for certain that there were some people God wanted to come that chose not to. Disappointment is reality and left unchecked it will burn you out.
4. Because the enemy is the enemy of the big and small–and you are not exempt from his attacks.
What does the Bible say, “He is a lion looking for big prey?” No. He is a lion looking for whomever he can devour. Satan will use burnout to devour you, and he can operate outside the commonly mentioned devices.  

Pastor, look beyond the commonly mentioned causes of burnout and into its root. Prayerfully care for yourself and stop equating the danger with size, workload and difficulties.

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Mark is the senior pastor at New Bethel Missonary Baptist Church in Benton, KY. He is married to Shawna and has two children, Garett and Emma. His passion is preaching and leading believers into a missional lifestyle.