Recently I read an article about a senior pastor, Pete Wilson, of Cross Point Church, who resigned from the multisite mega church he founded 14 years ago in Nashville, Tennessee. The reason he gave was that he was, “tired, broken and had been leading on empty.” What he was describing was what we refer to as burnout.
Now you may be wondering how can a pastor be burned out? All he has to do is preach a sermon on Sunday morning.
The reality is there are a lot of stressful jobs and pastoring is right at the top. Depression and burnout are a major hazard in this occupation according to a number of studies.
There is a lot more to being a pastor than most people think. There are a lot of administrative functions like in any business. There is a diverse congregation to care for, teach, counsel, marry, bury and help through life and family crises. There are the biblical duties of evangelism, discipleship, worship services, small groups, community outreach, assimilating people into the church family and equipping folks for the work of the ministry. Along with all this, a pastor is expected to meet with God and seek his direction for the church, study and come up with a fresh, relevant and inspirational message weekly. He needs to be praying regularly for each member of the congregation.
The church is a unique spiritual organism placed in the world by God to carry out God’s redemptive plan and build his kingdom on earth. I am sure I have left out something else a pastor does. But this is enough to understand why burnout is a problem.
Pastoring may sound like an impossible job because it is. For some strange reason God loves to do this give us the impossible to do. This is to remind us that we will need to depend upon him and his power to accomplish the mission.
Also, it clarifies who the credit goes to when the mission succeeds. For example, Acts 1:8 reminds us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere…” and “God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful….As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1.27 & 29, NLT).
A pastor must constantly check his motivations. Wrong motives will inevitably lead to burnout in any profession. Here are a few common ones to watch for.
Driven by others expectations
There are many cultural, and traditional expectations that people put on a pastor. Burnout comes from trying to meet all these expectations. It will also cause a violation of God’s priorities. This will elevate stress levels and lead to all sorts of problems. Focus instead on one priority: meeting personally with God each day to hear his priorities for you for that day.
Driven by past wounds
Someone has said we can not be spiritually healthy if we are not emotionally healthy. Solomon in Ecclesiastes asked the question, “Why am I doing all this work?” He realized he would leave everything behind for someone else. Many are using work and even ministry to heal old attachment wounds and find their identity or significance. The real motivations are fear, guilt and shame. These improper motivations will lead to idolatry, violated priorities and a life out of balance.
Driven by pride and comparison
Jeremiah tells us we can’t be trusted to discern our motives because our hearts are deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). We need God and the accountability of those who love us to help us in this. Why am I doing this is a constant question to ask. There is an adrenaline rush in doing your passion especially if what you’re doing is looking successful. The tendency to compare comes to every pastor. Paul tells us it is not wise to compare (2 Corinthians 10:12). It is not wise because it either leads to discouragement or pride. This causes ministry idolatry and eventually a fall.
Watch for red flags
In checking motivation pay attention to the red flags. These are God’s warning signs and way of trying to get our attention. These signs can pop up in several areas:
Conflicts and unhappiness in the marriage grow. Children start to act out because they are resentful toward the church. They feel it is a higher priority than they are.
Stress lowers our immune system and makes us more vulnerable to infection and disease. It increases our body’s inflammation because of the constant release of stress hormones, which puts us at greater risk of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, autoimmune disease and depression.
Emotional and spiritual issues
With the wearing down of our body comes fatigue, fear, anxiety and depression. Everything is a major issue. Creativity is gone. Motivation is nonexistent. You could cry at anything. You become cynical and don’t want to get out of bed and face the day. There is no real prayer or meaningful Bible reading in your life. You become spiritually dry with no intimacy with God. This is a dangerous place to be.
The cure for this burnout is rest. The length of the rest period depends upon when you caught the burnout. This is when the church can minister to its pastor. He needs time off from the many responsibilities. He needs time to rebuild physically, emotionally and spiritually. Church leadership needs to be there for him. This might include counseling with the time off.
Allow God to restore your soul as you rest beside the still waters. As the energy and creativity return, don’t start back to work without a new plan. Look at a new way of doing ministry. This will include a new outlook on ministry, restructured priorities, accepting your human limitations and realizing you are replaceable. Look to Jesus and learn to live on the Father’s agenda like he did. Jesus finished the Father’s will without burnout and so can you.
Dr. John Hawkins, Sr. runs Gateway Counseling Center in Boynton Beach along with his son John Jr. He can be reached by visiting gatewaycounseling.com.