Twenty-five years ago, I knew I was burned out when I carelessly walked in front of a city bus and stupidly tried to defensively block it with a karate move. I had been working in a large Philadelphia law firm, and the relentless pressure and demands of practicing law had gradually depleted my energy and judgment (who walks in front of a bus and tries to block it?). The near miss with the bus, whose driver’s quick reflexes saved me from tragedy, convinced me that I was beyond burned out, needed a break, and had to make wiser choices in my life.
Burnout is a real problem, and for pastors, it is a real threat to you, your family, your ministry, and your church. According to one study on why pastors leave the ministry, moral failure is only the second most common reason pastors leave the ministry. The first is burnout.
When burnout runs its course, pastors often report that they have no initiative or drive, little energy, don’t want to visit with people, and just want to be left alone. Other symptoms include depression, anxiety, irritability, and disillusionment with people, loss of confidence, a feeling of being mistreated, and feelings of detachment. Of course, with the intense and unrelenting demands of ministry, there is a spiral effect: Burnout causes inefficiency, inefficiency creates increasing demands, demands create pressure and concomitant guilt for not achieving desired goals, added pressure and guilt causes stress, stress causes a depletion of energy and drive, which in turn causes inefficiency.
Sound familiar? Want to get off that vicious merry-go-round? Here are 10 life-saving suggestions:
1. “Take heed to yourself” in accordance with Paul’s exhortation to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:16). Paul was first concerned with Timothy the person before he was concerned for Timothy the pastor. Many pastors are reluctant to take an honest look at their own lives. Paul understood the wounds, discouragement, and fears that besieged Timothy and afflicts many pastors. Accordingly, pastors should heed Paul’s wise command to pay careful attention to yourself. This includes remembering your calling and the redemptive story of God’s hand in your life, taking an honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, and wisely providing care for yourself and your family.
2. Cultivate dependence on God for the strength and power needed in your ministry. Remember, your ministry is not yours – it is God’s. He has called you, and He must accomplish His work in you. Therefore, stop trying to control what you can’t control and manage what you have no business managing. This includes managing other’s opinions of you and their reactions to you.
3. Lower your expectations (and those of your congregation). Learn to say no and to delegate by asking others to employ their gifts. Biblically speaking, being a pastor is not a one-man show. Have you turned it into one?
4. Learn to balance your life and pace yourself. Ministry is not a sprint; it is a marathon. Take the long view and realize that sometimes slowing down will make you more effective. Create margins of time so that you are not always rushed. Take frequent breaks. Give yourself permission to take a nap and to rest.
5. Create time away to get refreshed. When I coach pastors, they often look at me incredulously when I tell them to include time spent in solitude, recreation, and refreshment as part of their working hours. Why? Because your “job” requires you to be spiritually fit, and you can’t be in good spiritual condition by always being on the go. Jesus often “withdrew to a quiet place” and effectively said “no” to ministry opportunities. You should do no less. A practical way to actually implement this suggestion is to regularly schedule your times of refreshment on your calendar and treat them as “real” appointments. If you are asked for a meeting at that time, your honest response will be, “I have an appointment.” Protecting these “appointments” is not being selfish, it is exercising good stewardship, will increase your effectiveness, and will protect you from burnout.
6. Cultivate interests that are not directly related to your work as a pastor. It is refreshing to engage in activities where you are not the one in charge, the one in the know, and the one who must make it happen! Sports, gardening, fishing, carpentry, reading, biking, camping, hang gliding, kayaking, bird watching, and stamp collecting are just some activities that offer healthy distractions from ministry that will refresh you. An added bonus will be the metaphors and illustrations that will later aid you in sermon prep and counseling.
7. Develop a sense of humor so that you can laugh at yourself and difficult situations. Laughter is an antidote to cynicism and sarcasm.
8. Pay careful attention to your diet, exercise, and sleep patterns. Don’t underestimate the importance of staying physically healthy and daily exercise. Endorphins are God’s natural high achieved by sweat and hard work!
9. Seek intimate fellowship with pastors and others with whom you can share your burdens. A common theme I see in counseling pastors is their sense of isolation and loneliness. There are likely many other pastors in your city or town who endure similar struggles. Seek them out and cultivate deep relationships with them. Share your successes, challenges, and struggles. Don’t buy into the lie that you “have to keep up appearances” and “protect your turf.” Protecting your reputation is often used as an excuse to stay entrenched in isolation. By developing peer relationships, you give God an opportunity to create friendships, alliances, and ministry opportunities that may surprise you.
10. Get help if you need it. I know that you are used to being the one in control, doing the counseling, being there for those who are hurting, and keeping everyone else all together. I also know that some pastors don’t believe in being too “introspective” and see counseling as something that “other people” need. Those who are in the helping profession are most at risk for burnout. Recognizing that you’re getting burned out shouldn’t require anything as dramatic as almost getting hit by a bus. In his provocative article “Death by Ministry,” Pastor Mark Driscoll stated that it might be wise and appropriate to “meet with a Biblical counselor to get insight on your own life and tendencies.” One of the best things you can do for your ministry, yourself, and your family may be to visit with a trusted counselor who can be there for you, provide insight and feedback, and help you along the way.