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7 Lessons from Burnout

Just over five years ago, I resigned from my role as Senior Pastor. After 21 years in ministry here in Australia and overseas as a missionary in Hungary, I simply couldn’t do the job anymore. I was burnt out. For a couple of years I had sensed I was heading towards burnout, but because of my sense of responsibility to God’s family, the church I had poured so much of my life into, I kept going until I had no choice but to stop and pay the price for years of accumulated stress and fatigue.

Burnout amongst pastors is a growing problem all around the world. Since that day I have spoken with many pastors and church leaders here in Australia and abroad who are really struggling to stay in the game. It’s hard to get an accurate picture of the extent of this problem, but what I do know is that far too many pastors are impacted by potential burnout.

One thing I have had in the past few years is plenty of time to think about this topic. As I have sat back on the sidelines and watched the game being played, I have thought long and hard about my own life and the causes of burnout. I would like to share some of these insights and lessons with you in the hope that they may help you to stay healthy and on track as a disciple and leader.

#1 Burnout is worse than you think.

The first thing I learned about burnout was that it was far more devastating and debilitating than I could have ever imagined. It’s difficult to describe in a few words, but it is an ongoing state in which so many emotions, thoughts, and fears overwhelm the person over a long period of time. There is fatigue, depression, anxiety, loss of purpose, loss of hope, anger, disillusionment, confusion, disorientation, spiritual warfare, and just about everything else that we would call unpleasant.

Burnout is not just being tired or stressed. It’s not something that will go away after a 2 week holiday. It is a seriously debilitating condition that can take months or years to emerge from. There is a huge emotional, relational, and financial cost to going through burnout.

#2 Burnout affects more than the pastor.

I also learnt the hard way that burnout effects more than just the pastor. Their families are locked into this journey as well. Being burnt out placed a huge amount of pressure and responsibility on my wife. As I was off in “la la land”, she had to look after me and the family, work, and keep the show on the road. I am thankful to God that she was strong enough to do this, although sadly, as I recovered, she too experienced her own burnout as a result of carrying me through it as well as the stress of being a pastor’s wife for 21 years.

I am thankful as well for our three teenaged kids. They were so understanding and never made me feel like I had let them down. However, my burnout has effected them, their view of the church, and of being involved in ministry. Even though they know that it was not God’s fault, they still wondered why someone who had devoted himself to ministry would end up such a big mess.

Burnout also effects the church family. When a pastor burns out there is a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds for them and their leadership. There can be a loss in momentum for the church during this time and an awkwardness of how to help the pastor. It is a hard road as pastors usually need to distance themselves from the congregation and yet, at the same time, need their encouragement and support.

#3 Pastors need to take responsibility for themselves.

At the end of the day, you are on your own. You are the only person who can take responsibility for yourself and sometimes the only one who will look out for your best interests and health. I have to take responsibility for burning out. I could have walked away from my job at any time, found a mentor, or sought counselling to deal with the issues that I was facing. I could have developed a stronger devotional life and healthier work/life balance. So often pastors take their responsibilities to the congregation far more seriously than their responsibility to themselves. So my advice is…

LOOK AFTER YOURSELF!

This means spiritually, physically, emotionally, and financially. Also, remember to have fun. Fun is one of the first casualties when someone is on the road to burnout.

#4 Church leaders should take this seriously. 

In every church there is a system of leadership. Whatever form it takes there are those who are in a position of leadership alongside the pastor and who share the responsibility for his/her care. In leadership groups, there is often an assumption that someone is looking out for the pastor and their families by calling, visiting, praying with them, and being aware of their needs. Often there isn’t, and pastors can feel alone and isolated. This isolation is magnified if there is conflict between the pastor and the leadership team. I have seen pastors worn down and cast out by the controlling narrow-minded restrictive nature of leaders who sometimes forget that their role is to empower, encourage, and support.

It is a wise move for the leadership team to appoint one or two people who can take special interest in the pastor and their family. These have to be the right people (i.e. ones who the pastor relates to and have the insight, sensitivity, and strength to understand how the pastor is really going and then do something about it).

Leaders of churches and denominations should face this problem fairly. Sometimes difficult and confronting issues are not tackled as leaders wish to keep presenting a positive report about how everything is going. Some level of discomfort in talking about burnout is understandable as it may communicate that, in some ways, those in leadership have not fulfilled their role of caring for the pastor. However, ignoring the problem with a “business as usual” attitude will only compound the long term effects.

#5 Congregations need to accept some responsibility.

Most Christians are deeply saddened when their pastor is struggling. However, they are not aware of how they might have contributed to the stress and struggles in their pastor’s life. There is often no corporate sense of responsibility and/or an openness to talk about the real issues that have contributed to the pastor’s state.

Churches are often unwilling to deal with members who have a track record of causing conflict, hurt, and division. Even if a pastor is ground down by the dysfunctional Christianity of these people, they remain unchallenged and ready and waiting to do the same for the next victim who takes on the role. I would advise that a pastor considering a call to a church does some homework into the track record and health of that church and look at why the previous pastors have left.

Sometimes it is the apathy of Christians that grinds the pastor down. When will congregations step up to take responsibility for their own lack of spirituality and effectiveness? For all of the time, energy, and money spent in churches, there just doesn’t seem to be the fruit that we would expect to see (John 15:5-8). It can also be frustrating to see Christians sidetracked and preoccupied with secondary issues. How many souls have not been reached because we have been too busy arguing about things like worship styles and music?

#6 Our way of “doing church” needs to take some responsibility.

The mandate of the church is clear. Jesus asked us to be involved in the process of making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Somehow, I fear that our whole way of doing church has ended up stifling our ability to fulfil our calling. We have worked to create church cultures that are full of programs, events, and exciting projects. We have kept Christians busy and have judged the health of the congregation often with the markers of attendance and financial contribution. People come and go from worship services and small groups, learning more and more about what it means to be a disciple without actually being accountable for doing it.

As I look back, one of my greatest regrets is not spending more time with Christians in a one to one coaching relationship and in focused groups helping them to grow and fulfil their calling as disciples. We all need coaching and personal accountability to help us to stay effective and healthy. I am encouraged to see more emphasis being given to mentoring and coaching and believe that it will be one of the defining features of churches in the future.

#7 Burnout isn’t the end of the road.

So after all of this doom and gloom, let’s end on a positive note. Although burnout is extremely unpleasant, it doesn’t have to be the end of the road for a disciple of Jesus. With the help of God’s Spirit, family, friends, medication, and plenty of time off, I am now back on the road. It took a longtime to get out of the dark forest, but there is a way out. Although I am no longer a pastor, I feel that I am, in many ways, more effective now as a disciple of Jesus. I am more connected to people who don’t know Him and have plenty of opportunities to put my faith into action as I share His love and the greatest message on earth.

So spare a thought, prayer, and some time to help those in ministry who are finding the journey challenging and don’t forget to look after yourself so you don’t end up going down the burnout road. If you find yourself struggling with burnout, then here are some tips:

  1. See a doctor and share what you are experiencing. I found this a difficult thing to do as I felt that somehow I was letting Jesus down by not being a great example for Him. However, I am very glad that I did as medication can often help to re-balance the system which has been worn down by years of stress and fatigue. Seeing a doctor early will be important if you later make a claim for income protection.
  2. Let your leadership team know that you are struggling and that, without some kind of recovery strategy, things are likely to get worse. Ask them to journey with you through this time through their prayers and guidance.
  3. Consider seeing someone for counselling.
  4. You may need to consider having some extended time off. Time away from pastoral responsibilities is essential in making a recovery. If you are burnt out then look to see whether your income protection policy will cover this if you become incapacitated and unable to work.
  5. Never lose hope. No matter how hard and long the journey through the dark forest is, keep believing that you will emerge and that God will always be with you.

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