Whose heart has not been thrilled by Elijah's exploits, his proclamation to King Ahab of the three-and-a-half-year drought, his ministry to the widow of Zarephath, and his victorious battle with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel? Elijah was greatly used of God. Yet this is the same man whom we find later under a juniper tree in the wilderness—suffering from burnout. 

Burnout can occur in the physical, emotional, and spiritual areas of life. Sometimes it affects only one or two of these areas, but it often takes its toll in all three, as it did with Elijah. He was physically exhausted from running before King Ahab’s chariot some 25 miles from Mount Carmel to the entrance of Jezreel (I Kings 18:46). He was emotionally drained as evidenced by his wish to die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life” (I Kings 19:4). He was spiritually distraught, which was shown by his words, “I, even I only, am left” (I Kings 19:10).

Many things cause burnout. While it is impossible to mention them all, here are the primary causes.

Physical Burnout

Lack of proper sleep and rest. Pastors may have to get by with less sleep and rest than most people. Calls to be with the sick, the dying, or the troubled can come at any hour of the day or night. Sermon preparation may also demand early mornings in the study as well as late evenings.

Little or no exercise. Unless a pastor has a church far out in a rural area or high in the mountains, he is probably only minutes away from a health club or fitness center. Of course, one of the most effective means of exercise is walking, which a man can do regardless of where he lives.

Obesity. Keeping off the pounds is an ongoing battle for many pastors. Delicious foods at members’ homes, banquets, fellowships, drop-ins, receptions, and other events can expand a man’s waistline.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. A Christian psychologist speaking at a pastors conference told about a man who had such deep depression that he would sit for hours in a dark closet with a paper bag over his head. Test after test failed to shed any light on his condition. Then the psychologist put the patient on a regimen of vitamins, and his problem completely disappeared.

Illness. Regardless of his age, a man is wise to undergo annual physical examinations. While annual physicals cannot insure that a person will not become ill, the examinations often enable doctors to spot diseases in the early stages. In many cases the early detection of disease can make possible the cure or diminishment of even a life-threatening disease.

Emotional Burnout

Excessive worry. Pastors should worry much less than others do, but in reality they don’t. Too many pastors seem to follow the old adage: Why pray when you can worry? Some ministers who have appeared to be of tall spiritual stature have been constant worriers. Excessive worry, whether it is connected with ministry, family, health, finances, or a host of other things, can produce emotional burnout.

Disappointment. Some young men who enter the pastoral ministry quit after just a few years because things did not turn out as they expected. Unfulfilled expectations provide fertile soil for seeds of bitterness to spring up and cause a man to suffer extreme depression. If one is going to continue in the uphill race, he cannot allow his emotional state to be dictated by the extent to which his expectations are fulfilled.

Self-pity. The pastor who sits in his study and pours out his tears to himself, lamenting that his people simply do not follow him as he tries to lead them forward for the furtherance of the Gospel, indulges in self-pity. What’s worse, his frustration may have resulted from his own ineffective leadership.