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Pastoral Burnout and Biblical Truths

I was burned out

It was 2007, year 14 of my tenure at Living Faith Community Church, and I was burned out. Always tired, frustrated, lonely.

  • In the office, I couldn’t concentrate. I was good for nothing but scanning headlines and reading news articles online.

  • In the pulpit, discerning people could tell I had lost my zing. They’d sit in my office and awkwardly share how I didn’t seem to have real conviction in what I was saying.

  • And then there was the hot tub. Three mornings a week, I would work out at the YMCA and if I had time, unwind in the hot tub. I found myself spending more and more time in that hot tub. I’d rather be a walking prune than drag myself into the office.

I was burned out. I didn’t want to keep going, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go. 1 Peter 5 haunted me: “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;[b] not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

I was looking for an exit, a quick out to do something else.

I was looking for an escape–binge-watching, spending too much time on hobbies, too much time driving the kids around.

I was flirting with disaster–letting temptations have free range in my imagination instead of shutting them down quickly.

Burned out. How about you? What can you do?

In this piece, we look at the symptoms of burnout and unpack some of the root causes. We will look at a biblical example of crash and recovery. And we’ll close with some things that worked for me and work for my coaching clients who are facing similar challenges.

Burnout is Big, but is it Real?

Everyone is talking about burnout these days. It was the #2 biggest challenge that workers reported in VOCA’s proprietary work-dilemma project. Surveys find that 35% to 60% or more of workers report being burned out, at least some of the time. Barna found that 38% of pastors are seriously considering leaving ministry. They assume this is because of burnout.

Here’s what’s clear: everyone, including pastors, is a bit tapped out after the last several years, with the pandemic amplifying it over the last two. Pastors have been under extreme pressure as the divisions in our country and the decrease of in-person gatherings have deeply impacted their church. But pastors have been reporting the desire for an exit for years–long before the pandemic.

Here’s what’s also clear: Many people feel that they cannot go on–talk to nurses and elementary school teachers. For those of us in high-demand jobs, like healthcare, delivery, or retail, these last few years have been insane. For those of us in changing industries, like church, it’s been a steep climb. You get up one slope and think you’ll find some level ground to rest and catch your breath only to find your rounding a corner to another challenge.

So how do you know if it's real burnout and not common stress and fatigue?

Here’s a list of burnout symptoms from Steve Benna, Business Insider:

  • Anger

  • Ambivalence

  • Aggression

  • Gastrointestinal problems

  • Lack of motivation

  • Repetitive headaches

  • Feelings of detachment

  • Back pain

  • Anxiety

  • Insomnia or chronic exhaustion

  • Depression

  • Unusual weight fluctuation

These are all very similar symptoms to compassion fatigue and chronic stress. Here’s a simple diagnostic test for burnout:

  1. You’ve lost all motivation for what you’re doing

  2. Old rechargers don’t work

  3. You find no joy in your accomplishments

If you have this chronic loss of energy and drive for what you do, if it’s lasting a while and there are no other medical or emotional reasons–thyroids or grief–then you’re probably burned out. So what causes burnout?

Causes of Burnout

Overwork is the typical scapegoat for burnout. This is not helpful. Most of us have had times of intense work that were energizing. The hours flew by. We didn’t even stop to eat. We were so excited about what we were doing that we couldn’t wait to get out of bed in the morning. We were overworked but not overextended. So what sets us up for burnout:

  1. Crossing a finish line: When you cross a finish line, whether a season or an accomplishment, it can be a setup for burnout. In my case, we moved into a new building at the end of 2005. In 2006, we grew and grew, just like we planned. And then, boom, nothing new and big on the horizon. The adrenaline rush was over.

  2. Chronic stress and conflict: These were wrapped together for me. For that first decade or so of pastoring, I always had an enemy as my wife pointed out. One of my early mentors said to me after our first session, “Well, you’re a leader AND you’re a creator of conflict.” I created conflict by not failing to articulate expectations. This was followed by venting my disappointment to third parties. I created conflict by never being satisfied and letting that be known through passive-aggressive means. Sometimes I created conflict by letting toxic people stay too involved. Adding to these dynamics, we always had some measure of financial stress in our church too–always living right at the max of our means. Stress and conflict.

  3. The nature of ministry: Ministry is an odd kind of work. Everyone in your church, even the occasional attendee, thinks they have the right and expertise to tell you how to do your job. In speaking of the intense expectation management nature of church work, one of my mentors said “Being a pastor is like being nibbled to death by ducks.” Sometimes those ducks have teeth.

  4. Isolation: Being a pastor can be a lonely place. It can often feel like everything is on you–you must carry to burdens of your members and you may not think you have anyone to help carry your burdens. Your closest circle needs to be a place you can share your struggles, your secrets, your stressors. If you’re keeping secrets, you are in trouble. Among your closest friends and confidants, there should be nothing left unsaid.

  5. Poor management: I was not a good manager by temperament. Innovative, hard-working, driven, somewhat a visionary, but I lacked at delegating. I’d cycle between neglect and micromanagement, leaving everyone miserable. Poor hiring decisions can be added to this category. I started with a mindset that whoever was ready and available was God’s provision. Occasionally this was true. But more often than not these hires represented God’s provision of a learning opportunity rather than a long-term solution for our staff.

  6. Poor governance: In 20 years at my church, we worked through at least four board frameworks. Elder/deacon boards tend to pat you on the head when everything is going well and take over when it is not. I had issues with our children’s ministry director. The board took over. Sent us to counseling and had her report to them. It was a mess. During my final six years, we finally got this right, all of it., which made a big difference.

  7. Too important: Why did you become a pastor? When Jesus became real to me, it changed my life. I sensed that I should give my life to help others experience the same thing. I decided becoming a pastor was the most valuable thing I could do with my life. That netted out to an idolizing of my calling and my role. If the local church is the hope of the world, I am doing the most important thing in the world. This feeds into a messiah complex–“I must make this work at all costs.”

  8. Failing: I was formed as a pastor at a time when the image of the successful pastor could be summarized by two “L’s:” long tenure, large church. Everyone writing books or speaking at conferences had the two L’s. I assumed that, since I was called, hard-working, and smart, I’d nail the two L’s as well. Our church was never large–we capped out at 400. I stayed 20 years in total (seven beyond the burnout), but I didn’t stay and I thought I was failing in my profession.

As I coach working with pastors and other leaders dealing with burnout, there’s almost always some combination of the above weighing on them. I also see these in a famous biblical example of burnout. The story of Elijah.

Biblical Burnout, the Experience of Elijah

The Setup: Elijah was a prophet during the dark days of the northern kingdom of Israel. Back and forth, Ahab and his maniacal wife Jezebel were the king and queen. Elijah was the center of an amazing divine victory on Mount Carmel. God was powerfully present and showed the religion of the king and queen to be fraud. And now Elijah was running for his life. We join the drama in 1 Kings chapter 19.

1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. 2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” 3Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.

4But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” 5And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” 6And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. 7And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” 8And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.

The LORD Speaks to Elijah

9There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 11And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.a 13And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 15And the LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. 17And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. 18Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

19So he departed from there and found Elisha.

The Elijah Prescription for Burnout

Coming off a victory (see the causes above), Elijah wants to quit–quit in the extreme. But God walks him through a process of restoration. Consider the flow:

  1. Sleep and food: Food and sleep, sleep and food. That’s where the journey begins. He’s tapped out and needs to just rest and nourish himself.

  2. Solitude: Elijah gets away, 40 days journey, alone. Jacob, too, had seminal encounters with God alone. You may not need 40 days, but some time alone–really alone, with no distractions–is often required for a reset to move you beyond burnout.

  3. Fresh encounter with God’s power and intimacy: We love to camp out on the tender whisper of God in the cave. But remember the setup: wind, earthquake, fire. The majesty of God prepared Elijah for the intimacy of God. We need both a God who is frighteningly bigger than us and gently close to us if we want to restore our equilibrium. I’m not sure you can orchestrate this, but expect both.

  4. Truth: Elijah thinks the whole game is over. His work has been futile: “I have been faithful and what do I get in return, a death wish?” God doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t even entertain Elijah’s tale of woe. He just gives him more work to do. Elijah got a dose of divine truth. God wasn’t done working in the world. God wasn’t done working through Elijah.

  5. Recommissioning: Elijah is given a fresh assignment. He anoints some kings, including Ahab’s successor. He also is told who his successor will be. Elijah is commissioned to continue his work through a mentee, Elisha. Burnout can lead us to fresh clarity of calling.

  6. Action: The way we complete our recovery from burnout is through action. God listened, God commissioned, and Elijah left the mountain and the wilderness and got on with it. He sought out and found Elisha. He fulfilled his orders.

This general flow is something I went through as I worked through my burnout. Here’s what happened:

  1. Getting a real break: I took all my vacation at once that summer of 2007, and with the board’s blessing added two weeks for a total of six weeks. Not a full sabbatical but a mini one–a break that got me out of town three times and into places of rest and adventure. Recreation for me needs to be all-encompassing. We took our family to a dude ranch in Wyoming for 10 days. Horseback riding daily, whitewater rafting, and wildlife spotting made for an enthralling experience. I was also able to get aboard a one-week tall ship sail out of Boston. It was the real deal–working the ship day and night. I loved it. I got rest. I made memories for myself and with my family. I did things I had always wanted to do.

  2. Validation: I did some coaching on my break and had some candid conversations with our board upon my return. My absence helped our leadership see that our problems weren’t all rooted in me. My coach helped me understand why certain aspects of my work were a real challenge and energy drain. I felt validated.

  3. Contribution profiling: As part of my work with a coach, I did contribution profiling. I identified my hardwired talents, my working and problem-solving style, and my learning aptitudes. I learned that I’m good at complex logical problem solving, creative communicating, and making things. On the other hand, I’m not naturally inclined to relax, maintain, or empathize. The season of our church’s life that required heavy lifting–reorganizing the board, staff, or worship team, building new locations, the merger–was all fun to me. The seasons that required handholding, waiting, maintaining, letting others fail and learn were like death to me. Contribution profiling didn’t mean I only did the things I liked. It meant I understood what was draining and why which was the first step in managing it.

  4. Action: Recovering from burnout always involves acting. We have to take what we’ve learned in the darkness and put it to play in the light of normal days. I did several things differently after that low point. When I came back from my break, the elders and I had a heart-to-heart. They wanted leadership from me, I wanted to lead. We agreed that all staff had to report to me. I thrive on challenge, not micromanagement. A realignment of my work was needed. We all agreed that mission trips brought life to our church AND that I pastored people well as the trip leader. So I leaned into that and would take 2-3 teams away a year. We exited several staff members. I hired an admin who didn’t go to our church, which became a huge help. We began a search for a family minister who would share preaching responsibilities. And I continued to learn about my leadership weaknesses, the patterns I came to naturally but created energy-sucking dynamics. There was a lot of action from ‘07 to ‘14 when I eventually transitioned out of the church.

  5. Eventually leaving (seven years later): My coach had a philosophical bent: if you can reengineer your job so you can preserve what you’ve got, do it. Less trauma for everyone. I was able to do that for seven years. But for me and that church, there had to come an end. I had done as much as I could and God clearly opened a door for my family to move on through a merger.

Every leadership assignment is temporary. Every leadership journey will have low points. If you can recover in the saddle, do so. If you can’t recover, get out of the saddle. And even after recovery, the story isn’t over. Part of leading well is leaving well. I poured myself into that my last 12 months on staff and found the process energizing.

How Burned Out Are You?

Burnout in ministry, work, and life is common. The more quickly we recognize the symptoms and take countermeasures, the more quickly we heal and move on to God’s next step in his plan for our lives. Let’s remember that God dealt with Elijah kindly in his place of despair and exhaustion. Echoing the words of Jesus:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

(Matthew 11:28-30, Message Bible)


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