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The Reality of Ministry Fatigue: 7 Lessons

Just over five years ago, I resigned from my role as Senior Pastor. After 21 years in ministry here in Australia and overseas as a missionary in Hungary, I simply couldn’t do the job anymore.

I was burned out.

For a couple of years, I had sensed I was heading toward burnout, but because of my sense of responsibility to God’s family, the church I had poured so much of my life into, I kept going until I had no choice but to stop and pay the price for years of accumulated stress and fatigue.

Burnout amongst pastors is a growing problem all around the world. Since that day I have spoken with many pastors and church leaders here in Australia and abroad who are really struggling to stay in the game. It’s hard to get an accurate picture of the extent of this problem, but what I do know is far too many pastors are impacted by potential burnout.

One thing I have had in the past few years is plenty of time to think about this topic. As I have sat back on the sidelines and watched the game being played, I have thought long and hard about my own life and the causes of burnout.

I would like to share some of these insights and lessons with you in the hope they may help you stay healthy and on track as a disciple and leader.

1. Burnout is worse than you think.

The first thing I learned about burnout was it was far more devastating and debilitating than I could have ever imagined. It’s difficult to describe in a few words, but it is an ongoing state in which so many emotions, thoughts and fears overwhelm the person over a long period of time.

There is fatigue, depression, anxiety, loss of purpose, loss of hope, anger, disillusionment, confusion, disorientation, spiritual warfare and just about everything else we would call unpleasant.

Burnout is not just being tired or stressed. It’s not something that will go away after a two-week holiday. It is a seriously debilitating condition from which it can take months or years to emerge. There is a huge emotional, relational and financial cost to going through burnout.

2. Burnout affects more than the pastor.

I also learnt the hard way that burnout affects more than just the pastor. Their families are locked into this journey as well. Being burned out placed a huge amount of pressure and responsibility on my wife. As I was off in “la la land,” she had to look after me and the family, work and keep the show on the road. I am thankful to God that she was strong enough to do this, although sadly, as I recovered, she too experienced her own burnout as a result of carrying me through it as well as the stress of being a pastor’s wife for 21 years.

I am thankful as well for our three teenaged kids. They were so understanding and never made me feel like I had let them down. However, my burnout has affected them, their view of the church and of being involved in ministry. Even though they know it was not God’s fault, they still wondered why someone who had devoted himself to ministry would end up such a big mess.

Burnout also affects the church family. When a pastor burns out, there is a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds for them and their leadership. There can be a loss in momentum for the church during this time and an awkwardness of how to help the pastor. It is a hard road, as pastors usually need to distance themselves from the congregation and yet, at the same time, need their encouragement and support.

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After more than 20 years in pastoral and missionary service, Steve went through burnout. During his recovery he wrote the book “pastorpain” to highlight the causes of burnout in ministry and how churches can better support their leaders. Steve now works as a consulting psychologist based on the Gold Coast, Australia. He specializes in leadership and team development using a strengths-based approach.