Dear Pastor: Beware of Burnout

Dear Pastor,

Every pastor has times where ministry is flowing along seamlessly, where the work of ministry seems effortless, feelings of love fill the church, and ministry systems work like a well-oiled machine. 

Every pastor, also, has times where ministry seems filled with frustrations, criticism is unending, and leadership is attacked from all sides. 

Healthy pastors are able to balance both of these extremes and live in the middle. Unhealthy pastors fail to make adjustments. This failure leads them to blame others, to put up walls, and to see themselves as a victim. 

Some unhealthy pastors lash out and find solace in controlling and abusive ways of handling people.

Other unhealthy pastors burn out.

I’ve been writing these letters to help you. I know what burnout is like. I know what it feels like, and I know some of the ways in which it is caused. I also know how to rebuild yourself after burnout. 

There was a time when I burned out in ministry. I was about 10 years into my ministry career and working with a good, but traditional, church. I mention the part about the church being “traditional” not as a criticism but as a category of church that is faithful to God but unlikely to take risks or try new things. 

I found myself, a city boy, in an isolated, rural area serving an older church that was comfortable with the kind of church it had become. There was a lot of value placed on the Sunday morning service and on Bible teaching. As a result, I found myself in an endless cycle of lesson prep and delivery, often preparing for and delivering three or more messages each week. The monotony was getting to me.

At the same time, my desire to find new ministry initiatives for the church fell on deaf ears. My thoughts about increasing congregational fellowship (and including more members) through a small groups program was struck down. My attempt to build an outreach program was watered down to the point that it wasn't worth starting. And an unhealthy leadership pattern of privileging the opinions of the most long-standing members (even when they were wrong) and ignoring the opinions and thoughts of newer (or younger) members was eating away at me.

These factors mixed together in a way that spiraled me downward into depression and burnout. In hindsight, I was probably in this phase for two years. I was miserable. I later found out that I hadn’t hidden it well. Church leaders shared with me that they knew something was wrong but I appeared to have such a dark cloud hanging over me that they didn’t know how to approach me.

I treated the Bible as an object for me to play with, to master, and to use in my lessons. I neglected it as the source of life, as God’s own words for me and for the church. I prayed as a formality, when I had to in public, and in private, I doubted whether prayer was efficacious or a waste of my time. I stopped visiting church members because I could not stand my own hypocrisy in talking with them about matters of faith and praying with them while I felt my own weight standing over a large chasm. 

I allowed myself to neglect my own soul-care and I fell into burnout.

Help and healing came for me through my wife. She finally confronted me on the problems I was causing at home because of my burnout and depression. Together, we spoke with, and sought help from, the church’s leaders, who were generous and forgiving in return. I was able to come out of that pit, and I resolved to never let it happen again, and to do whatever I can do to help other ministers, pastors, and church leaders live more abundantly through learning and practicing good soul-care habits. 

I do not blame the church, or the church’s leaders, for my burnout. The problem was me: I had neglected to feed my soul, to practice good soul-care that would have kept me from burning out. Instead of reminding myself that my identity was God-given, through Christ, I had become performance-driven and process-focused. 

Today, I have reversed that way of thinking. I prioritize my own soul-care. I remind myself daily that I am God’s beloved. I practice healthy and reflective ways of praying to God that have helped me build a stronger relationship with God.

I have felt God’s leading, through my soul-care practices, to reach out to other pastors with this message. I created this newsletter for you. If it has been simply a refresher for you, then I will thank God for your overall good spiritual health.

But if these letters (and this topic, especially) resonate with you, and you feel as though you may be slipping, or have slipped, into burnout, then please reach out to me to talk. I specialize in helping pastors understand where they are at with their spiritual health, to identify problem areas, to discover appropriate soul-care practices, and to create plans that lead to a healthy way of life. I’d love to talk to you.

Love First,

Jeremy

P.S. Burnout is deadly, and it is no joke. If you are in burnout, or feel yourself approaching, or even feel that "something" isn't right in you or your ministry, please reach out to me immediately. Let's talk, and let's get you back onto the path of good spiritual and emotional health.