Pastors and Burnout
This is a term that is defined by emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical fatigue that leaves one incapable of handling well the life they are living. Covid has certainly not helped this. Ministry is one of those callings that can drain a person in this way. Having pastored for 43 years, with 33 at one church, I fully understand the difficulty this poses. Let me share some ideas that can assist you in preventing this from occurring.
Realistic expectations can help. We need not romanticize the shepherd metaphor in the New Testament. This is the metaphor we find in I Peter 5:2. Most enter the ministry with the idea of a shepherd coming from Christmas plays, where a cherubic young lad sits in a bathrobe with a crooked stick and seems totally blessed. The work of a shepherd, however, is far from that concept.
Shepherding was a very difficult calling in the first century in particular. If the sheep were wet, cold, or hot then the shepherd was wet, cold, or hot. He lived in the same circumstances as the sheep. This will be true of a pastor as well. God will not put us in a land of Goshen as a pastor where we will not experience what our people experience. Thus, we will see the same trials and difficulties that our people go through, occur in our own lives as well.
As a shepherd, I am responsible, while in the middle of those difficulties, for several things. I must keep the flock fed as a part of their health. This requires deep preparation throughout the week from my own work through the texts of the Bible. I must apply that truth to my people in a manner that is effective and impacting. That, in and of itself, is demanding emotionally and spiritually.
It also means I must be in their lives when they struggle through their difficulties. I cannot be a CEO, even when in a mega-church. I must meet them when they call with their burdens as often as I can. Funerals will be a powerful time of ministry but can be exhausting. They sometimes are centered around a really hard circumstance or while burying someone I deeply love. I still have on my desk at this time a photo of a man I deeply loved from the hardest funeral I ever did. These times are not easy.
I am also responsible for protecting my sheep from the dangers of false teaching around them. They do not always appreciate this. I had a lady come to me one Sunday, after she read The Shack, and told me I must not attack that book as she loved it and did not want me to demean the work. She was not sweet in this request!
Add to this the needs of my family and the calling can be overwhelming. Sounds horrible, but there is great joy in the midst of all this: people saved, marriages healed, disciples made, times of refreshing from the Lord, and great Sundays that are extraordinary. We just need to enter the ministry with a realistic set of expectations. Yet the labor can overwhelm the calling, so here are some suggestions for how to deal with that problem.
As Paul David Tripp points out in his book, Dangerous Calling, the pastor must maintain a sense of awe in his calling. This is exactly why Jesus walked on the water after his feeding of the five thousand in Mark 6. Verses 51-52 state they were amazed at his identity and power after the walk when they did not have that amazement at the feeding of the 5,000. That loss of awe was significant and demanded a correction. We must maintain that view of Jesus and who and what He is in our lives. This is the basis of the ‘closet’ idea in Matthew 6:6. This cannot be ignored.
The Sabbath is a key component of this emotional protection. It was instituted before the fall, so if we needed it prior to our relationship break with God, then surely we need it today. I see too many pastors who feel if they take a day off, they are failing their flock. The opposite of that is true. You fail your flock when you do not exemplify and implement clear biblical teaching. For me, I took two afternoons off a week as that fit the rhythm of my ministry better than one day. It is your decision, but it must be done.
Time must be structured as best one can in the turmoil of pastoring. I stole from Criswell the idea of dividing my days into thirds. My mornings were for time with the Lord, sermon prep time, and personal reading. I went in at 6:00 and came out for lunch. My afternoons were for meeting with people in whatever need they had. I gave Monday and Thursday afternoons to adults and Wednesday to children. The other afternoons were part of my sabbath. My evenings belonged to my family. Obviously, inopportune moments occur, but on the whole, this schedule helped keep me sane. I lead my staff to the same idea.
You need to make sure you are centered around the purpose of your calling and not a wrong motive. Our job is to reach people for the sake of discipleship and not to create crowds to boost our ego. Growth is fine as long as it is because of discipleship and not just for the sake of growth in numbers. One will bless you and the other will cause you grief as you are working for the wrong purpose and will burn out quickly. God does not honor us when we ignore His desire for His calling in our lives.
If we keep a sense of awe in our heart, maintain the Sabbath, watch our time, and live out His purpose and not our own, the burnout factor will significantly diminish in our lives. I pastored for 43 years with one sabbatical of three months in all that time. I look back on my life with great joy as a pastor and am thoroughly enamored with my new calling here at SWBTS. I still watch myself in all the above ways. I do this for my sanity and to end in a way that my Lord is honored. I pray that for those of you in the field as well.
Chris Osborne is Professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.