Into the fire, many-a-pastor will go, and it’s often unknowingly. The burden of holding the congregation in your mind, and up on your shoulders, all while casting your vision is taxing. Yes, pastors rely on Christ for rest. But yes, God made rest necessary. Unfortunately, it’s often too late by the time a pastor realizes what has happened. By then there have already been grave consequences from pastoral burnout. Before gravitating toward recovering from and avoiding burnout, let’s discuss the trouble of it.
THE TROUBLE OF BURNOUT
Now trouble comes in many ways. But it stems from the one person and outward it grows. What begins as an attitude souring in a person (the pastor), quickly turns to depression. From that point it infects the congregation. A church will experience loss. Loss of opportunities. Loss of morale. And churches have failed because of that. To lay it out, failure of mind dulls vision. When vision begins to dull, so does passion for the people around.
Passion and Vision
Upfront it may not seem all that bad, right? But when passion for the gospel dulls, it’s dangerous for both the pastor and the people he preaches to every week. The words become empty. That’s not true nourishment. Not for him, and not for the congregation. But let’s pull back a few steps.
You’ll notice burnout because it brings weariness. Even before the congregation feels it, the pastor’s family will. He’ll have less energy for his kids, going to their games, teaching them, or even just talking. His relationship with his wife might become strained. She might feel like he’s checked out. Like he’s not giving all of himself to her anymore.
From his side, it might also no longer be refreshing to serve in ministry. The love a pastor pours into building a church community might even feel like a chore. When that happens, then comes bitterness. Bitterness toward the role and people.
If left unattended to, bitterness transforms into resentment. Suddenly that fatigue a pastor ignores, you ignore, becomes something else. It becomes a suffocated feeling. Why would a person choose to be where they feel suffocated? They wouldn’t. So you can see how that kills desire to be at church. Or means no longer enjoying the people there. Even difficulty cherishing the very passion which drove a pastor to ministry in the first place. Now that… is felt by everyone. There’s a saying for it.
Where Sheep are Lead, They Will Go
If there is no passion in a pastor, no love for the people he used to love sharing that passion with, the congregation will also falter. There will be less unity, more contention. Less direction and less warmth. But what does that really mean?
It means, as burnout infects the congregation, the congregation is being led the wrong way.
Yikes. It’s harsh, but true. If the pastor is burned out, the body is being led toward sin, not away from it. A pastor sets the spiritual tone for the group. If that tone is set when callous, even angry… Well, that’s not a recipe for holiness. Gentleness, compassion, the qualities spoken of God and His people in His word. Those are a recipe for holiness. But burnout pushes everyone past opportunities to pursue holiness. And toward some other severe consequences.
Leadership Lost in Sin
If people are callous, they aren’t quite as alert. They may not notice the hurting refugee seeking love. They might miss the addict hunting for help before a relapse. Thus comes another broken life and more broken families. But it doesn’t end there.
In our spiritual walk, we’ve all felt what some have called a “dry season” right? That’s the same as saying I’ve become unmotivated toward spiritual discipline. And we all know how much more susceptible we are to sin and temptation during those times. I’ve sinned most noticeably in my “driest” days. Why wouldn’t a pastor? Why wouldn’t a critical leader of a spiritual body experience some of the harshest spiritual warfare? They would. They do. I’ve seen it. Here’s an example.
I’ve watched my best friend, pastor of a church we started in his basement, falter. I watched as he began to no longer care to have people around him. That includes close friends and congregation. He was tired of them. He was even tired of laughter. Which wasn’t good for our friendship, nor his marriage. But…
I’ve also watched him flourish since. Yes! I’ve seen him recover from pastor burnout. I have watched as he regained love for people, reclaimed joy in Christ, and truly be refreshed. So let’s talk about how to avoiding and recovering from burnout.
AVOIDING PASTOR BURNOUT
With large responsibility on the shoulders of a pastor, come large consequences. We get that. The pastor takes care of a congregation’s spiritual, emotional, and sometimes even physical (unfortunately some of us understand that too well) well-being. But who takes care of the pastor? It’s simple actually.
First, yes, the pastor’s family. But what about within the church? More elders. Your head pastor shouldn't be the only elder in the church. It is too much a burden for one person to shoulder alone. Have some other elders help out. Specifically through just a few key roles.
One is through teaching cycles. It’s that simple. If the pastor doesn’t have to teach every single week, the rest he gets may save him from burnout. On top of that, the messages he does deliver will mean more both to him and to the congregation.
Think of it like an athlete. If an athlete competes every week without any breaks, the athlete’s mind and body will suffer. They will be more susceptible to injury. They will even hate the sport, eventually. But take breaks from competitions, and the mind and body have some time to repair. And vigor for the sport revitalizes.
It’s the same with a pastor. Breaks through teaching cycles help more than anyone realizes. When it comes down to it, we are just flesh. We need rest.
Rest is primarily through reliance on Christ. He is our living hope, meaning that our hope will never die. Just soaking in that fact, meditating on it through prayer, is incredible. But there are some nice strategies we can employ for rest in other ways too.
Don't spread the pastor too thin. Building a team of trusted elders, deacons, and friends can lessen some of the stress. Have them take over some of the financial responsibilities. Like budgeting. Then others should lead the outreach groups. The point of discipleship is to have the church body get involved anyway. And then, with a good team, there’s also opportunity to take leave. Even John Piper does it.
Believe it or not, a long absence from the role could save both the ministry and the pastor who serves it. Some call it sabbatical, some call it leave, and others call it other things. The point is, don’t be afraid if that break is needed. It is a good thing!
But sometimes a pastor denies himself that leave. It’s tough to walk away (even for just a break). So it’s important to have someone there who can give him the right perspective. A mentor who can convince the pastor of the wise choices that stress can sometimes blind him to.
It’s good to have wise council. That outside perspective from hard earned experience blesses with protection from catastrophe. Having a retired elder, a respected friend or someone the pastor can trust is crucial. Nobody can lead alone. Yes, a pastor relies on Christ first, but also His people to help build the community we’re all called to be a part of. But honestly, that’s harder said than done. Because for the mentor relationship to work, there must be real vulnerability.
Vulnerability and It’s Saving Pains
We tend to keep our stress secret. Especially leaders. We try to attain the I can handle this mentality we saw in our childhood heroes. That’s just not how real life works, though. We need each other, we’re designed to. Hiding stress just builds a false layer over ourselves. That’s dangerous. The more perfect we must appear, the more likely to crack on the inside we are.
However, if a leader admits hardships, then rallies with their people and overcomes, it's incredibly inspiring. Christ, even when perfect, let himself struggle, then overcame the struggle and saved us. He stayed on the cross until He beat death itself. There is no greater struggle than that.
Christ promises we will struggle for His sake too, by the way. (Look at how Paul handles it.)
In that, we’re designed to need Him, and each other. The honesty to say so is tough to admit sometimes. But I’m not saying go up to some stranger in Walmart asking for life advice. I’m talking about closely knit followers of Christ. People who will be consistent and non-condemning, so that we can continue to build together.
Having consistent people builds up the mind of the pastor. It’s a sense of assurance when stress creeps in. Reliable deacons and friends who help week in and week out keep a church healthy. But even then, once in a while, a pastor can still get burned out. The question then is…
How in the world do we recover? Recover lost love, passion, relationships, energy. Recover before the marriage fails or the relationship with the kids falls apart.
It can be done. Recovery can happen. Redemption is just around the corner (though, admittedly, that corner is sometimes miles away).
Whether the process is long or short, we’re already set up to understand recovery. You’ll notice some things here are nearly the same as with avoiding burnout, just with a twist.
We need to restate how important it is to be vulnerable. To recognize and confess burnout. But also, and here is a difference that might be hard to swallow, to understand when to say no before returning from leave. Grit is a good quality, but if you’re not sure if you’re ready to return, better to not hurt the church because you think you can tough it out. It’s vital to be truly restored. For now, be brutally honest about where you are mentally, spiritually, and physically.
Maybe it’s not so much you need to be physically away from church. Maybe you can stick around, but just need a long, long break from teaching. Let others do a few series this year. Come back next year, or lead in other ways. There are plenty of other things to do to cultivate a great church community when you’re not preaching. Do those! But if you do need to be away, go away. That’s not a bad thing to need to leave, don’t feel guilty for it.
Having another place to be to recharge away from home is a blessing everyone can relate to. A cabin in the mountains. A house built on the coast. Family in your or your wife’s hometown. Go to those places, or even travel somewhere new. Get new perspective. Maybe that travel even fits inside of your bigger break.
Long-Term Sabbatical (Months Away).
Earlier I mentioned having months away. Here is where I explain. It may tough to accept, but could mean the survival of your church. If the pastor takes one year off (yes a full year) every seven, but can minister to that church for three times as long, isn’t it worth it? Instead of burning him out, the pastor should take a very long time off. See the earlier link to John Piper taking eight months. Burnout is severe. A pastor needs long and total rest. And during that rest, there are a few things he can and should do.
Build something else.
First, to the pastor, don’t worry about the church. Just pray for it and keep in touch with your friends (not about the church, but about them). In the meantime find hobbies. Build things. Learn art. Find a sports team or some other goal which distracts you. Exercise your mind and body in new ways. One day you’ll feel better for it.
(Here’s an article for that. Pay close attention to the last two sections.)
Recovery is a saving grace. Don’t deny that to the pastor. Cherish his role, thank God for it, and wish him well in his recovery. It just might save the church and his family, which you all are.
After knowing the trouble of pastoral burnout, learning how to avoid it, and learning how to recover from it, there’s just one more all-important thing. Everything is to be done to the glory of God. Rely on His wisdom in dealing with burnout. And then use the strategies we talked about under that motivation.
That said, if you want to relieve some more financial stress, you might want to check out the simple software offered by NewFire Giving. Can’t beat it.
Otherwise, rest in Christ and love your pastor enough to let him rest too.