In the following article, I use myself as an example of a pastor who had many advantages, yet still suffered burnout. Could this article describe you or someone you know?
While reviewing some computer files recently, I stumbled upon a note I wrote to myself in July 2005 … and I was startled.
Four years later, right before a major conflict broke out in my church, I went to a Christian counselor, who tested me and revealed that I was “severely burned out and headed for a breakdown.”
What startled me about that file from 2005 is that I had all the symptoms of burnout four years before.
At the time I wrote the note to myself, I had many advantages:
I had a great family (still do) … had a regular quiet time … exercised regularly and vigorously … lived in a place some might consider paradise, just off the San Francisco Bay … engaged in several fulfilling hobbies … finished the course work for my D.Min degree … enjoyed time off that past year to Europe, Hawaii, and Washington D.C. … and was coordinating the final stages of the construction of a new worship center.
The board chairman … the person I respected most in that fellowship … always supported me and told me, “You are a home run for this church.”
God had placed me in a church setting that seemed optimal given my training, experience, temperament, and giftedness.
And yet, I wrote to myself in 2005, after 32 years in church work, that I was unsure if I wanted to stay in ministry.
Here are my actual words:
*I am tired of all the “church crap” that I have to endure: people leaving over trivial issues, sniping remarks – without being able to “fight back” at all.
*I am hurt by people I love criticizing me with unkind and unjust statements, either to my face or behind my back.
*I am already overwhelmed with all the pastoral duties I have, which will only get worse when we grow in size – and we aren’t staffed for an outpouring!
*I love Jesus and the church and ministry but no longer love church ministry.
*I have a board that wants me to manage the staff better but won’t give me the power to fire anyone.
*I make less money than my son and far less than a new pastor would cost the church.
*Rather than spending 70% of my time in the area of my giftedness, I spend about 30% in the area of my giftedness and 70% in areas that frustrate me.
Then I wrote out a list of my current symptoms:
“My thinking is slow … my eyes hurt continually … I feel kind of numb … I’m kind of detached … I don’t feel very spiritual … I don’t seem to appreciate anything God does through me … I don’t want to be visible, but invisible … I can’t seem to remember names … I want to be home at night and not work a 50-hour week.”
And four years later, I felt exactly the same way … and it led to my exit from ministry.
Why was I feeling that way?
*Our office manager … the best I’ve ever worked with … had just moved away, leaving me with an interim office manager and thus a fresh pile of work.
*I had been dealing with a family for months where both husband and wife had affairs and the husband had twice tried to commit suicide … thankfully, failing both times.
*I had spent hours preparing a Father’s Day message … one of the best I ever wrote … which was widely criticized by two younger dads.
*The project manager for our new building – along with his wife – were continually sniping at me about our upgraded services.
*I had received a critical note from a long-time, trusted friend whom”I don’t believe I can trust anymore.”
*We’d had three deaths … one right after the other … with more looming ahead.
What was really happening?
I was dealing with the two issues that I struggled with most in ministry: management of my energy and my emotions.
Let me differentiate between them:
Energy management: I wanted to work a regular work week when I could predict when I’d have time for rest and relaxation. It didn’t matter how long my “on” button was operating as long as I knew when I could switch it off.
My wife and I run a preschool in our house, and when 5:30 pm comes around, we’re done for the evening, and even though we both work weekends, we don’t have to.
But in church ministry, you’re never, ever done. For example:
*the pastor has to work every Sunday, so he doesn’t get weekends off.
*he may not go out on Saturday night so he can be fresh for Sunday.
*he has to work several evenings a week because that’s when people are available.
*he may have a designated day off, but that can easily be interrupted, especially when important parishioners end up in the hospital … or die.
It’s not the number of hours that wore me down. I often work 50+ hours a week right now but the work is enjoyable and appreciated.
No, it was the start-stop-start nature of the work that got to me. I’d been doing it for years, but suddenly I couldn’t handle it anymore.
Maybe this is because I’m more introverted than extroverted, and introverts need time by themselves to recharge their energy.
After a long day of work, when I came home for dinner, I wanted to stay home and recharge for the next day, but I often had to go back out for a meeting… and I began to resent it.
I did good work. I was always prepared. God used me in many ways. Our church grew steadily … and was the largest Protestant church in our city for years.
But for me … as with many pastors … the way I managed my energy was a key as to whether I felt like a success or a failure.
Emotional management: As a pastor, whenever I felt anger, pain, frustration, depression, anxiety, despair, or fear, I wasn’t always sure what to do with those feelings … especially if they overwhelmed me.
This is how I usually handled my feelings:
*I told the Lord how I felt.
But most of the time, He listened but didn’t respond. (Wish the Lord gave hugs.)
*I told my wife how I felt … as we drove to and from church (she served on the staff) … when we went out to lunch or dinner … or when we walked or drove around together.
And she was usually very helpful, but sometimes she didn’t know what to do or say anymore. I can be an emotional enigma.
*I told a Christian counselor friend periodically, and his counsel was always beneficial. We’d go out to lunch and talk, and he could quickly name my issue and tell me how to handle things … and he was usually right. But he was more than an hour away, so I could consult with him once or twice annually, but I couldn’t lean on him.
*I told some good friends who lived far away, and they were good listeners, but I always felt like I was bothering them.
Years before, I had received help from:
*A pastor friend. We met for breakfast every week, and our friendship helped both of us cope with ministry pressures. But in my last church, I reached out to several pastors, yet never found one that I clicked with.
*A small group of pastors. I had formed such a group years before, and it lasted several years, but everyone had scattered, and I lacked the energy to start another group.
*Friends within the church, like a staff member, a board member, or a layman with whom I resonated … but most of my emotional issues involved people in that church, and I felt it was unethical to share how I truly felt about those they knew … and possibly liked.
As I’ve said many times, when a pastor is stressed out, he’s having physical issues, but when he’s burned out, he’s experiencing emotional issues.
And the body recovers much faster than the emotions do.
Let me conclude by sharing five lessons for pastors on managing energy and emotions:
First, a pastor can’t work for a church board and then tell them his problems.
By their very nature, boards are designed to maintain and advance the mission and vision of the church. They are far more interested in a pastor’s performance than his dysfunctions.
They will pay attention to the pastor if he’s physically injured or needs an operation, but most of the time, they won’t show much concern about the pastor’s energy level or emotional management.
Years before, at another church, I once shared some deep feelings with the church board, and they just stared at me, as if to say, “We all have our problems, Jim. Work it out yourself.” That single incident … rightly or wrongly … affected me the rest of my ministry life. I wasn’t willing to take the same risk after that.
Second, sometimes events converge that the pastor can’t control, but he has to do them anyway.
When a pastor is leading his church well, it usually takes everything out of him. At the most, he can add one more project … temporarily.
But I added two: a Doctor of Ministry degree, and the construction of a new worship center … and I couldn’t delegate either one.
During the first six months of 2005, I attended my last D.Min class … had to write a paper for the class … started my final project, which ended up being 225 pages … and had to oversee the last few months of the worship center construction.
I had to finish my degree … which was a job requirement … by early 2007, and the worship center was dedicated in October 2005. Both projects had deadlines, and I couldn’t renegotiate either one of them.
I was expected to complete them both, so I pushed ahead … and paid for it later.
Third, try and keep ministry from invading your time off.
When I first came to my last church, I proposed a sabbatical policy to the board, and they accepted it. After six years of ministry, I was supposed to have three to six months off.
My sabbatical was due at the very time the worship center was going to be dedicated. I couldn’t be gone during that period … or for months afterward … so I proposed that my sabbatical be delayed one year, which is what happened.
Then I made a big mistake. I should have taken three months off, but since the church had never given the pastor a sabbatical before, I told the board, “I’ll just take six weeks off now, and more time in another six years.”
Only I never got that far.
I went to Europe with my daughter Sarah for the first leg of my sabbatical, but while I was there, the reader for my project kept emailing me about various corrections. One time, I spent an hour using a computer at a library in Blackpool, England, working on those corrections while my daughter waited and waited for her dad.
I could never fully hit the “off” switch anywhere.
Fourth, every pastor needs a group from within the church that he can trust.
The church board can’t do this, and neither can the staff. (If a conflict erupts, the pastor’s humanity can and will be used against him.)
Maybe the best way to do this is for the pastor to handpick several older, wiser saints … meet with them on a regular basis for prayer, counsel, and emotional support … and ask them to intervene for him with the board should the need arise.
Of all the things that bothered me, the one I wanted to change most was my job description. Administration sapped my energy … leadership took much from me … but studying and teaching pumped me up.
But when I tried to make changes in my job description, they weren’t accepted. Should I have been more forceful?
I once heard Chuck Swindoll say that if a pastor is out too many nights, the church won’t be able to keep him. He’s right.
Finally, if a pastor burns out, the church should bear at least some responsibility for his recovery.
If I’m carrying a 100-pound box, and it falls and breaks my foot, my employer will pay my salary through workman’s comp until I’m well enough to return.
Why? Because my injury happened on the job.
Ministry burnout happens on the job. Yes, pastors are sometimes responsible for pushing too hard and failing to care for themselves, but much of the time, the pastor drops the box because he’s expected to carry too many loads.
When the pastor enters the burnout stage … and that requires a professional diagnosis … the board should work through a plan to help him recover … even if that takes extra time and money … and even if he eventually leaves the church.
But I never told my board about my burnout. I couldn’t. I remain convinced they would have asked for my resignation immediately.
And this is why so many pastors are either stressed out or burned out and don’t feel they can tell their boards … or anybody else in the church.
They’re afraid they will be quickly terminated.
It’s interesting to me, however, that God did not treat Moses that way.
While reading through the Book of Numbers, I’ve been noticing how many times Moses tells the Lord that leading Israel is just too much for him.
For example, in Numbers 11:11-15, Moses tells the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? … I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now … and do not let me face my own ruin.”
The Lord didn’t tell Moses, “Suck it up, Moses. You need to have a longer quiet time.”
No, the Lord told Moses to gather seventy elders who could help him share the load. The Lord recognized that Moses needed help emotionally and quickly moved to assist him.
The question that haunts me is this one:
If I took care of myself … and I did … and if I had a successful ministry … and I did … and if I had many advantages that other pastors don’t have … and I did … and yet I still burned out, why did that happen?
What is it about the nature of church ministry that causes so many pastors to fry emotionally?