I’ve been there. Burned out, used up, ready to throw in the towel. I’ve never been diagnosed with depression, but that’s probably because I didn’t go to the doctor. In my 35 years of full-time ministry, I’ve been through at least two periods of severe discouragement in which a doctor might have wanted to attach that “D” label to me. I don’t really know. I’m not a doctor – I don’t even have a degree from one of those diploma mills. But during those times all I wanted was out. Out of my life. Out of ministry. Out my church. No, I’ve never seriously considered suicide but I’ve had moments where heaven was sounding pretty good.
Christian ministry is a hotbed of burnout. There’s a great article by Karl Vaters in Christianity Today, called “Epidemic: Another Pastor Burned Out and Quit Last Sunday.” It got me thinking about my own experiences and what I’ve seen in my own ministry and those of my friends and fellow-laborers in the pastorate. It’s hard work if you are faithful (let’s face it, if you want to be lazy, you can get away with it for awhile), and there are some realities that make burnout a constant struggle.
- Not one single day in your entire ministry will you ever get all your work done. There will always be more you could have done. You could have prayed more, studied more, visited more, administrated more, promoted more.
- You will never satisfy everyone in your ministry. Someone will always think you aren’t doing your job, no matter how busy you are. You will never get everything done and someone will always point it out.
- You will have ministry failures to deal with. You will make mistakes. You will lead people to Christ and watch them wander back into lives of sin. You will counsel couples, pour your heart into their lives, and they will choose divorce – and possibly blame you.
- You will be lied about, talked about, slandered against. If you are thin-skinned and can’t take it if someone says something negative about you, don’t become a pastor. I did marital counseling for a couple in distress and she got mad at me. I was trying to help them save the marriage and she wanted me simply to assign blame to her (now ex-)husband. Once things blew up she went around town telling people absolute lies about what I said. People came to me and asked, “Did you really say ………?” But because what I said was in counseling, I couldn’t defend myself. I couldn’t tell them what I actually said. If I had a nickel for every lie that has been told about me over the last 35 years, I’d have a very large nickel collection.
- You will not always get your way. Can you believe it? Sometimes, you will share your wisdom with your church and they might actually say, “No, pastor, we think another path is better.’ So, what do you do? If you are like many of us, you get angry, or you pout, or you seek a new form of polity that doesn’t allow the members to question your brilliance. It’s annoying as a pastor to study, pray, think through something, come up with a solution, share it, and have someone, off the top of their head, without even thinking or praying about it, just dump on your idea.
Welcome to the ministry, Pastor!
We preachers create our own burnout – it is a result of choices we make. No one burns us out. Jesus was under great stress but he never burned out. Your enemies don’t burn you out. Your church doesn’t burn you out. Your family doesn’t burn you out. Your bad choices burn you out. Your responses to the hardships of ministry burn you out. Ministry with sinful people BY a sinful person (you) is supposed to be hard. You are meant to live on the front lines of spiritual battle, but you are not supposed to burn out. You should burn bright but not burn out. If ministry isn’t hard you aren’t doing it right. If it’s easy, repent and ask God to help you get back on the front lines.
Many of us, through poor choices, find a way to burn out. I’d like to suggest ten choices you can make that will help you achieve burnout if that is what you are looking for. You want to burn yourself out? Here’s what you should do.
How to Achieve Ministry Burnout in Ten Easy Steps
1. Always fly solo.
If I had one “do-over” in my ministry, I’d be less of a loner. Paul never went anywhere by himself. He always had Barnabas or Silas or Timothy or Titus or…you get the picture…with him. Not only was he doing the ministry but he was mentoring those who would follow him. He was never lonely. I realized something a while back that may be sad – you be the judge. My best friends in the world are guys that I have met online – blogging friends. I used to build deep relationships in my churches but so often those came back to bite me. I have some good friends in my church but if I needed to talk, to really talk, it would be guys I met here that I’d call.
I’m a loner by nature – a lot of us are. We like to sit in our offices and read and study and write and think. There’s a place for that. It’s an important factor in ministry. But we also need to be out there in the world ministering and that should almost never be a solo act. By flying solo as much as I have, I opened the door to burnout.
2. Live through your church’s success or failure.
Ever stood in a group of preachers and listened to the bragging? Pastors are terrible about it – of course, it’s all “praise reports” in which God gets all the glory, but men go around and talk about how great their churches are doing. If your church is struggling, you either make something up or you put a cork in it. We are like stage moms living vicariously through our churches. If my church is “going and growing” I must be a good pastor. If my church is struggling, my identity is at stake. If your identity is wrapped up in your church’s success (or failure), you are on a Carnival cruise to the luxurious port called Burnoutville.
3. Forget life’s two most important rules.
Someone once told me that life has two rules: “There is a God. You aren’t him.” I tend to forget that. This ties into item 2. My job is to be faithful and obedient to God in all things, but sometimes I start thinking my job is to “grow the church” or “make things happen.” I forget what is my job and what is God’s. Then I start taking responsibility for God’s work and that never ends well. Don’t try to do God’s job. You will never be very good at it.
4. Run on empty.
Why? I don’t know. I guess I’m stupid. But when I’m burned out, stressed out, discouraged, and down, the most important thing I can do is seek Christ through his word and in prayer. And yet, in those times I find a deep a resistance in my spirit to doing exactly that. I guess that’s just the power of the flesh. A car can’t run on empty. My spirit needs fuel. I need the word. I need communion with God. I need the fellowship of the saints. I need spiritual sustenance.
Ministry is giving, giving, giving. Unless I am receiving from God, unless I am deeply rooted in the word and in the heart of God, I’m gonna dry up, brown out, and die away quickly.
5. Never unplug.
I was waiting for a phone call recently, an important one. I waited and waited and waited. I kept my phone with me. I jumped into the shower for a few minutes and came out and noticed that the phone had rung while I was in. NNNNOOOOOOOOO! What if someone needs me while I’m unplugged? I must be accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Right? Please see #3. You aren’t God. People can live without you. Get some deacons (or elders or whatever). Take a day off. Unplug. Get away. Guess what. The world spun before you. It will spin after you. It can spin for a day without you. Or a week. Take some time. I wish there was something in the Bible about taking some time to rest. They could call it a sabbath or something.
I wish there was something in the Bible about taking some time to rest. They could call it a sabbath or something.
6. Hocus Pocus OUTWARD Focus.
As you dry up, as your spirit grows cold, do a magic act. Work harder. Pump up the volume of your work. Push more paper. Preach louder. Do more STUFF, even if it is meaningless stuff. Remember how the magician tries to divert the attention of the crowd so they don’t see what he is really doing? Keep so busy doing good stuff no one can see how dry you are. Baffle them with your busyness. Remember the guy who kept all the plates spinning on top of the rods? You can keep all your plates spinning until you finally lose it. Then it will all crash down, but see how long you can baffle the crowds with your ministerial magic. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone EVER peek behind the Great and Powerful OZ’s curtain.
7. Ignore your family to magnify your ministry.
You are a man of God, after all. Your wife and kids should be honored that they can make the sacrifice! If you want to really add to the stress, make sure you turn domestic bliss into a hornet’s nest. When you’ve had a hard day at the office and you come home to a hostile wife who feels neglected and ignored because you are pouring every ounce of your heart and soul into your ministry, because you’ve missed four family dinners this week, because you never want to talk, because all you want to do is read, watch TV, or close yourself off in your study, or worse (let’s not even talk about the number of preachers who have internet issues!), it makes burnout all the more likely. You deserve a little down time. Why can’t they understand?
Besides, the church will appreciate these sacrifices, won’t they?
8. Paint a red S on your chest.
Again, you are a man of God, you don’t need to eat right or get a decent night’s sleep. You can laugh about being morbidly obese because it’s about potlucks and fellowship and all that good Baptist stuff. In times of discouragement and burnout for me, one of the things I had to do was physical. Get some rest. Yes, if you have to go without sleep, God will sustain you. But if you are just making bad choices, if you are just being a fool – overeating, underexercising, staying up too late, abusing your body in multitudes of ways – you are going to feel the effects. You are NOT a superhero. Your body is a tool and if you don’t keep it sharp it’s going to affect everything you do.
9. Overspend: Debt is your friend.
Hey, again, you are a servant of God. Sure, you’ve preached about responsible money management but you are an overworked, underpaid pastor, so a little debt is okay. God will provide. You don’t have to live by the rules you preach to everyone else. But if you really want to burn yourself out, just compound your ministry stress, with some marital stress, then add in the mixture of some money stress (see how I alliterated that?) and you have a trifecta of terror, a bonanza of burnout (I’m on a roll)! Even if everything else is great, financial pressure can burn you out and burn you up. when the ministry is tough, this can put you over the edge.
LISTEN: Young pastors, please hear an old codger who did not always follow this advice. Stay out of debt. Spend a little less than you make. Save a little bit. Live within your means. The stress-relief will be worth anything you have to give up.
10. Never repent, never surrender.
(Sideline question – why was there never a sequel to Galaxy Quest?)
Never admit you are struggling, that you have weaknesses. Your church expects near-sinless perfection of you. You are a REVEREND! Never admit a failure. Never admit your family is less than perfect. Always put a good face on things. If you use yourself as an illustration, make sure you are the hero! Never apologize – Gibbs says that is a sign of weakness. You are the pastor and you have to be up on the pedestal at all times. Never let anything knock you off.
Of course, it is tiring to live on the pedestal and eventually you will slip. Your people probably will not be fooled. They know you are imperfect.
Ministry is a roller coaster ride – ups and downs. Good times and tough times. But none of us has to burn out. I think you can glean this from my post, but let me just name a few burn-out prevention techniques.
1. Recognize reality – ministry is hard. People are dysfunctional. This is a fallen world. I’ve talked to young preachers who actually think that if they preach a sermon explaining that something is wrong, everyone will stop. Let me introduce you to disappointment and his grandson burnout. You are ministering to sinful, dysfunctional, messed-up, redeemed people.
2. Get your identity from who you are in Christ, not from your success or failure as a pastor. Numbers up? Numbers down? Jesus loves you.
3. Do your best to stay healthy. Eat right. Exercise. Oh, young pastors, please, please, please. Don’t be fitness idolaters, but don’t let yourselves get fat and out of shape like me and so many in my generation.
4. Keep the home fires burning. Love your wife. Love your children. Don’t neglect them for ministry – too often. Sometimes you will have to – but make that the exception.
5. Stay out of debt. Spend within your means. You can drive old rust-buckets, wear hand-me-downs and have a happy life. Don’t buy the world’s lies.
6. Admit your weaknesses when you are weak. I went to my deacons when I was burned out and I told them. They gave me some time out and I got things together. That was 5 years ago. It’s good now. Accept your own imperfections.
7. It’s not a cliche – stay close to Jesus. Read the word. Pray. Fellowship.
8. Make friends. Don’t be a loner. Share your ministry.
9. REPENT. If you are burned out, there is likely some sin in your life you need to deal with. Deal with it.
10. Serve, but keep your schedule reasonable. You don’t have to work 120 hours a week to serve Jesus. Realize you will never get all your work done – and it’s the same whether you work 50 hours or 80 hours. Be a servant of God but don’t try to BE God. Just serve.
Walk with Jesus and serve God’s people. Ministry is a wearying but wonderful adventure.