Avoiding Pastoral Burnout

The average tenure and salary for pastors is shrinking. The hours are long and the demands are great. Despite the commitment and conviction of godly men who answer God, train for and accept the role of pastor, many push themselves to the limit physically, mentally and spiritually.

A 1998 study by the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development found that 70% of pastors are so stressed out that they regularly consider leaving the ministry. That same study found that 57% of pastors not only considered leaving their ministry, but would do so if they had a better place to go, including non-ministry work. Does anyone doubt these numbers are as alarming today or even more so than they were a decade ago?

We often speak of the pastorate as a calling, because, frankly, few would willingly choose it as a vocation based strictly on its merits. The hours are long, the stress is great, the criticism is constant, the spotlight is always on and the pay is often lousy. But if God has called someone to live in the fishbowl known as “Pastor”, then God will equip him for that role. A pastor will never completely eliminate the difficulties of his role. The question, then, is how to know if and when you are being pressed beyond what you are able to bear, and what to do about it.

Sensing the signs. You would think that outward signs of stress—snapping at people or yelling, or the opposite of withdrawing or avoiding others, would be among the most telltale signs of pastoral burnout. Actually, though, the most important sign of pastoral burnout is a personal lack of spiritual intimacy. In other words, is your time with God suffering as a result of your role? That 1998 study mentioned about found that only 26% of pastors said they felt they were adequately fed spiritually. 

There is a reason Jesus equates Himself to the vine and the Christ-follower as a branch in John 15. In part, He is communicating where our nourishment comes from as believers. If you find yourself in a prolonged dry spell spiritually, this along with other stress reactions may indicate you are approaching burnout.

Managing the critics. Pastors are among the most criticized vocational groups because they are often judged on the words they utter from the pulpit. After all, if you’re going to stand up and preach from God’s Word on how to live, and how not to live, well, you’re going to take bullets along the way. One former pastor wrote of the criticism he regularly received:

We are tired of pretending that we cannot be hurt. People assume ministers are available for their criticism 24-7. People say things to clergy they would not say to their worst enemies. For some reason they feel at liberty to delve into every aspect of clergy life. They have an opinion about everything we do. They believe it is their God-given right to critique your personal life, your professional life, your emotional state, the way you dress, your use of colloquialisms, your kids, your personality, how much you spend on a car, your friendships, how you drive, how much you fart, the list goes on and on.”

Understanding criticism and managing critics, then, is among the ways a pastor can maintain balance in his professional life. You must realize that all criticism within the church and from your Christian brothers and sisters is not necessarily godly criticism. Let the Word of God again guide you in determining how to respond. Is the language of criticism seasoned with the flavor of Ephesians 4, mentioned in love, spoken with grace and designed to be helpful and promote unity? If not, you must put it aside, or confront the speaker for his or her tone or unchristian dissent.

Prioritizing the relationships. Pastors in burnout mode can usually be found to spend most of their time managing relationships that are actually among the least important in their lives. A pastor who continually finds himself prioritizing church meetings and planning sessions, leadership councils and even pastoral counseling above his own family is building up a faulty foundation with his time.

The simplest way to bear the time burden is to put the most important rocks into the jar first. Set aside priority time for your family and closest relationships. Then put aside time for other important priorities like discipleship or accountability partners. Dr. James Merritt recommends that pastors also participate in their church’s Sunday School or small group ministry. A Pastor simply cannot be healthy personally and spiritually without these most vital relationships. If you find yourself unable to attend every meeting or make very appointment, delegate.

When it comes to family, you absolutely must draw lines which cannot be crossed in terms of time. Ministry will consume whatever amount of hours you see fit to feed it. Your time, then, absolutely must be planned.

Sharing the burden. The load of a pastor in terms of bearing the church’s burdens can be immense. Many pastors find themselves not only spiritual leaders, but enter an environment where they are expected to be excellent administrators and financially astute, manage human resources and staffing, and take on the creative and planning roles associated with ministry. No one person can be talented and gifted in all these areas. The example of the early church in appointing deacons and elders was the share the burden of ministry among the leadership of the church.

Do not allow pride in your desire to show “you can do it all” to press you into the position of bearing all of the burdens on your own. Allow others to share the load. Let your finances team feel the weight of budget issues. If your staff is relying on you to settle all their conflicts, for heaven’s sake tell them to act like adults and manage their own relationships, or quit.  Be constantly looking for good lay people who are gifted in a certain area or skill and encourage them to plug-in to ministry.

Replenishing the soul. Finally, a pastor must have time regularly away from his church and responsibilities to recharge. Realize that you simply cannot preach 52 weeks of the year. There are some Sundays in there where you need personally a word from God, versus preaching a word from God. And you need time away from the office and the pulpit to gather your thoughts, reconnect with God and seek long term vision and direction. Often in the Bible we see God’s called leaders having their most profound spiritual moments in isolation. Moses on the mountain, Jonah in the desert and the fish, Jesus in the garden, even Paul in prison.

I know many pastors who take a summer teaching break and instead plan a more extended vacation. I believe taking a true two-week vacation if your church affords you that luxury is wise. It takes a few days on the front end just to decompress. A short weekend here and there just does not have the same effect as an extended time away.

And while you are on vacation, be on vacation. Don’t make it an extended study trip. You can schedule an extended study time separately. Replenishing your soul means feeding yourself healthy doses of rest, family time, time in the Word and prayer, recreation and opportunities for discovery (not going to the same place you always go, but swapping the beach for the mountains, or the city for the beach, for instance). These activities, combined, will help keep the burdens and responsibilities of the pastorate from suffocating the fire of God’s call in your life as you live each and every day.


Eugene Mason serves as Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.