Dealing with Personal Burnout in Ministry
- 2007 17 Sep
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.
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.
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.
Many a man drowns in self-pity because he laments that God has not prospered him as He has others—with bigger numbers, bigger buildings, bigger budgets, bigger homes, and bigger cars. Even knowing well that God is more interested in faithfulness than large numbers, a man may still wallow in self-pity because God has him serving in a small place.
Hurt feelings. Quickly taking offense can also wreak havoc on the emotions. Our feelings can be hurt when we learn that someone is not pleased with us or with what we have done. Yet no man has ever pleased everyone. Even the one perfect man, the Lord Jesus Christ, had His detractors. Seek always to please Christ. Fret not what others think. As a pastor seeks to please Christ, that pastor will also please others who seek to please Christ.
Pride. Even success in the ministry can bring a pastor to a state of burnout when he believes that his church’s progress is due more to his efforts than it is to God’s blessing. In the midst of what God has done, it is easy to say with Nebuchadnezzar, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power?” (Daniel 4:30).
Fulfilling the letter and not the spirit. Reading the Bible can become an arduous chore, praying a difficult task, studying a heavy burden, and preaching a shallow routine. Almost everyone is going to experience some “dry” times when spiritual duties and exercises are lacking in fervor; but when this becomes the norm and not the exception, a pastor is moving toward spiritual burnout.
Moral Failure. For every pastor who fails doctrinally, there are probably several who fail morally. The lusts of the flesh replace walking in the Spirit. Present pleasures appeal more than future rewards. Fellowship with God is forsaken. Self is served. The result is spiritual burnout.
If anyone should have been a candidate for burnout, it was the Apostle Paul. In Acts 20 we read about his preaching all night in Troas and then leaving by ship early the next day. There is no mention of his taking any time to sleep or rest. Although we have no record of it, this was probably not the only time that Paul conducted all-night meetings. It seems that he had boundless energy. His harrowing experiences (many listed in II Corinthians 11:23–29) would have been more than sufficient to bring the average man to a nervous breakdown. But Paul also refers to his daily care of all the churches. The care of just one church plunges some men into burnout. How many churches Paul cared for, we do not know. Yet there is no evidence from the Scripture that he ever suffered physical, emotional, or spiritual burnout. How did he avoid it? What was his secret? In the book of Acts and in his epistles, Paul shares with us many striking statements that sustained him in the worst of situations:
“None of these things move me” (Acts 20:24).
“Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ” (II Corinthians 2:14).
“We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen” (II Corinthians 4:18).
“The love of Christ constraineth us” [drives us on] (II Corinthians 5:14).
“I die daily” (I Corinthians 15:31).
“Night and day praying exceedingly” (I Thessalonians 3:10).
“Be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).
“When I am weak, then am I strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).
“This one thing I do” (Philippians 3:13).
“To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
“I have learned… to be content (Philippians 4:11).
“I can do all things through Christ” (Philippians 4:13).
“In every thing give thanks” (I Thessalonians 5:18).
These are just a few of the inspired statements that were used of God to sustain Paul throughout his ministry. These and other verses can also be used of God to keep pastors from the destructive flames of burnout.
David Yearick served for 39 years as pastor of Hampton Park Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C. He is now pastor emeritus.
This article was first published in Today's Christian Preacher magazine and used by permission of Right Ideas, Inc. To subscribe to this quarterly magazine, send your name and mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-588-7744 ext. 6.