I recently posted two articles on Facebook about the difficulties of pastoral ministry. The first article was titled Statistics On Pastors. The second was titled, Clergy at Higher Risk of Depression and Anxiety. I meet weekly with a group of pastors and these articles were part of our discussions recently. All of this got me thinking about a chapter I wrote in a book a few years ago. The title of the book was, Nelson’s Church Leader’s Manual. My chapter title was “Dealing with Burnout.” Please take the time to read this and pass it on to all of your pastor friends (and enemies).
One Sunday morning a pastor friend of mine stepped behind the pulpit to delivery his weekly homily. Up to that point it had been a normal Sunday. The choir sang, announcements were made, and an offering was taken. My friend stood poised and opened his Bible to begin his sermon when something happened that shocked the entire congregation. He paused, as if searching for his prepared remarks, and then said, “I have had enough. I can’t take it anymore. I quit.” He then walked down the center aisle and out the building, never to pastor again.
When I first heard about my friend, I felt sad and a little sorry. However, I must admit, there was a part of me that also felt admiration. I small part of me thought, “Wow. I wish I had the courage to do that!” I dare say I am not alone. I bet a lot of church leaders have fantasized about telling the congregation how they really feel and then exiting the building.
I have no doubt that what caused my friend to do what he did, and what caused me to think what I thought, was burnout. Burnout is when you are emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausted as a result of prolonged stress from feeling overwhelmed, under-capable, and unappreciated. Burnout is the job hazard of pastoral ministry. Burnout reduces your productivity, saps your energy, and robs you of the joy and motivation that led you into ministry in the first place. Everyone has a bad day now and then; and everyone periodically feels overwhelmed and under-appreciated. But burnout is when you feel that way for a prolonged period of time.
The medical description of burnout is called adrenal fatigue, or adrenal hypofunction. The adrenals are major body glands used to respond to stress. These adrenal hormones produce adrenalin, giving the body more energy. Prolonged stress depletes the adrenals, making the body incapable of handling stress and unable to produce extra energy. Thus, it is your adrenal glands that burnout when you burnout.
- Set margins: Boundaries do not keep a person from enjoying life. Quite the contrary! Boundaries, or margins, give you freedom to enjoy and explore. Setting margins means you know your limitations. You cannot do everything, and God hasn’t asked you to do everything. Setting margins means you learn what your strengths and weaknesses are, you learn to prioritize tasks, you learn to delegate, and you learn that the hidden word in the middle of burnout is “no.”
- Exercise: One of the best ways to avoid burnout is to exercise on a regular basis. Exercise improves blood flow to your brain. Much of what pastors do is mental. Intense thinking builds up toxic waste products which can result in foggy thinking. (I call it “sermon block.”) Something as simple as a brisk walk can get the blood flowing again, removing the toxic waste buildup in your brain. Exercise also releases chemicals (endorphins) into your blood stream. These chemicals give you a sense of happiness that positively affect your overall attitude and sense of well-being.
- Diet: A balanced diet is the key. Avoid extreme diet programs. Talk to your doctor about a healthy diet and drink plenty of good water. Inadequate amounts of water, or poor quality water, can affect oxygenation of the tissues.
- Rest: One trait many pastors share is their continual violation of the commandment to remember the Sabbath. The busiest day of the week for ministers is Sunday, and so if you don’t find time during the other days to rest you will burnout. The commandment to remember the Sabbath is just as important as the commandment to not commit adultery!
- Quiet Time: As pastors it is easy to be so busy doing ministry that we don’t take time to refresh and renew our own spirit. Developing and maintaining a regular and consistent time where you read the Bible without thinking about sermons and lessons, pray, and journal cannot be overstated.
- Hobbies: Do something different and unrelated to your job. A change of pace gets your mind off your present circumstance onto something else. Your hobby could be golf, riding a bike, woodworking, gardening, or a host of other activities. A good hobby refreshes the spirit and gives you a new outlook on things. (My hobby is scuba diving, and the best thing about scuba diving is I can’t take my cell phone with me.)
- Relationships: An irony of ministry is that while most ministers are people persons few ministers actually have close friends. But one of the greatest weapons to fight off burnout is good friends. Friends who love you for who you are, and friends who are not afraid to tell you when you need to slow down and take a break. You were not created to walk through life alone. Take the time to build a few close friendships.
Signs of Burnout (physical, emotional, spiritual)
Since burnout affects every area of life, the signs of burnout are seen in every area of life. Specifically, there are a host of physical, emotional, and spiritual signs of burnout. Here are just a few of them. As you read, don’t get hung-up on the list. Some of the things listed could fall into more than one category, and your list could be different from mine.
- Physical Signs: Because prolonged stress depletes adrenal hormones in the body, you should expect burnout to affect a person physically. Prolonged fatigue may be the most common physical sign. The difference between burnout fatigue and simple exhaustion is that a good night’s sleep usually makes the exhausted person feel better. But the body doesn’t recover as quickly from fatigue when the fatigue is caused by prolonged stress. Other physical signs include a weakened immune system causing increased sickness, and body aches, including, but not limited to, headaches, back aches and muscle spasms.
- Emotional Signs: I think the main emotional sign of burnout is isolation. Oddly enough, when ministers need people the most they avoid contact with others as much as possible. Isolation then leads to a lack of motivation, no emotional energy to get anything accomplished. Another emotional sign of burnout is a sense of a lack of hope that things will every change; a feeling that you will be forever stuck in your present circumstance. Two outward signs of emotional burnout are a change in sleeping patterns—either sleeping a lot of suffering through insomnia; and changes in appetite—either not eating at all (or very little) or eating all the time.
- Spiritual Signs: Lacking motivation and feeling tired all the time leads to neglecting your quiet time with God. Going days and weeks without reading the Bible, praying, and journaling opens the door for the enemy to attack pastors suffering with burnout in all areas. Satan really likes to kick you while you are down. Once your spiritual guard is down, feelings of being trapped in a situation with no hope creep in to your thought life. As a result, a burned out minister starts to have self-doubt and feelings of failure. All of which ultimately leads to depression.
Recovering from Burnout
The good news is that burnout doesn’t have to be terminal. Burnout can be overcome. How does a person recover from burnout? Here are a few suggestions:
- Confession: Nothing cures the soul like confession of sins. Burnout, itself, may not be a sin, but the things that lead to burnout are. For example, pride causes a person not to ask for help. Pride convinces us, pastors, that we have all the answers and can work through any crisis. Confess this pride to God. Confess your tendency to be a people pleaser to Him. Confess these sins (and other sins), not only to God, but to someone you trust and someone who will pray for you.
- Slow down: Remember God made the Sabbath for you, not for Him (Mark 2:27). Learn to say “no” and to take a regular day off. Go on vacation, without making it a working vacation, and take regular, spiritual retreats.
- Humbleness: Burnout could be God’s way of reminding you that you are not God. You can’t do it all, you were not created to do it all, and God hasn’t called you to do it all. Recognize where your strength comes from, and “walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). God may have called you to be a pastor, but He has not called you to be Superman or Wonder Woman.
- Accountability: If you don’t share your struggles with someone, you will never really get beyond those struggles. Give someone in your life permission to ask you the tough questions and to let you know when you have over-committed yourself and under-delivered to other people.
- Goals & Priorities: Are your goals and priorities lined up with Scripture and with what you believe? Where does your family really fit in your goals and priorities? Are you serving, to fulfill God’s calling in your life or to be recognized by others? Only you can answer these questions.
Jesus told us His mission statement when He said that He came to “seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). The Greek word for “saved” (sozo) means to be made whole again. To be lost, then, means to not be whole, or to be broken. Thus, Jesus came to put broken people back together again, making them whole. People, even pastors, are broken physically, emotionally, and spiritually. All of Jesus’ miracles had to do with healing people physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
Right now, as a minister, are you broken? Do you feel lost? Do you need to be made whole again? Jesus desires to make you physically, emotionally, and spiritually whole. Will you allow the Great Physician to put you back together again?