Posts Tagged ‘help your pastor avoid burnout’

Years ago, I attended a spring training game at Municipal Stadium in Phoenix where the Oakland A’s play.  I arrived right when the gates opened, as I often did, and heard U2’s song With or Without You blaring through the loudspeakers.  (And it sounded so good.)  Several times in the song, Bono sang these words:

And you give yourself away

And you give yourself away

And you give, and you give

And you give yourself away

Those lyrics could describe the feelings of a mother with small children, or a caregiver working with a terminally ill patient, or a customer service representative at a department store, or even a public school teacher trying to control a large class.

Or a local church pastor.

For most of my ministry life, I liked being a pastor.  Yes, there were some tough times, but the good that was done usually outweighed the bad.  I was doing what God called me to do, I was surrounded by Christians who acted like Christians, and I could sense the smile of God upon my life and ministry.

But then slowly, things changed.

Eighteen months ago, I felt like I was falling apart, and I had no idea what was happening to me.  I took a few days off work to read a couple of books that seemed related to what I was feeling, and they helped some, but I still wasn’t right.  Eventually, I saw a Christian counselor who gave me some tests to take, and after he scored them, he told me, “You’re suffering from a severe case of burnout and you’re near a breakdown.”  While his diagnosis initially shocked me, the literature confirmed his conclusion.  Burnout had crept up on me without my knowledge or consent.

But I had all the symptoms.  I felt empty inside.  I didn’t want to hang around most people because I couldn’t control my negative emotions.  After always being a self-starter, I could not seem to motivate myself.  And worst of all, it felt like God had abandoned me.  In the past, it always seemed like I could sense God’s presence, but now He seemed to be a million miles away.  Although I wasn’t suicidal, it would have been okay with me if I had just vanished.

How could a veteran pastor experience such symptoms?

When pastors suffer from burnout, they don’t want to tell anybody.  There is still a stigma about the condition in Christian circles because people assume that if a pastor is truly spiritual, he will never experience burnout.  Because it was hard enough to admit it to myself, I only told a handful of people.  I believed that if the word got out, I would be forced to leave the church because burnout victims require prolonged inactivity.

I didn’t fit the usual profile of a burnout victim.  I had a regular quiet time with the Lord.  I exercised 30-45 minutes at least five times a week.  My home life has always been wonderful.  And I didn’t feel driven inside.  The issues that were draining me were not in my private life.  Instead, they were all at church.

Like many pastors, I am a person who needs to see things happen in his life.  Early in my ministry, I liked cutting the grass at my house because I could immediately see the results of my labor.  (This strategy doesn’t work all that well in Phoenix because you have to look hard to find grass.)  I needed to see attendance rising, giving increasing, and lives being changed.

While I tried not to measure my self-worth exclusively by numbers, I was always conscious that some people in the church – especially those who are business-oriented – almost always judge a pastor’s worth “by the numbers.”  I’ve had a lifelong battle with that value system, but in the ministry, whether you like it or not, “You are your stats.”  To keep the stats going up, you need momentum.  And to keep momentum, you need to continually make plans for new growth.

I once was acquainted with a church that had been in existence for nearly thirty years.  Despite the fact that the church lacked a worship center, it had grown.  To accommodate new growth, the leaders proposed putting a new worship center on the front lawn right next to a major street.

When the proposal was brought before the congregation, matters became contentious, and when the vote for the new building was taken, it failed by a slim margin.  At that point, many of the church’s most gifted individuals left the church and the congregation went through a few years of tough times, culminating in an invitation for the church I served as pastor (which was five miles away) to merge with it, which we did.  But we struggled because it’s hard to resurrect momentum.

When a church is growing, it needs to seize those God-given opportunities to “take the land” or it may very well end up wandering in the wilderness for a long, long time.

Without going into details, I spent months in my last church doing research and putting plans together to keep the momentum going only to have those plans blocked.  Although I told very few people at the time, I knew that was the beginning of the end of my ministry in that place.  It was only a few days later that I was diagnosed with burnout.

My story can be replicated thousands of times in the lives of pastors all over this country.

My guess is that most of you reading this blog are not pastors.  Let me share with you several things that you can do to help your pastor avoid burnout.

First, pray for him daily – and let him know you’re praying for him.  (It’s been my experience that those who pray for their pastor rarely attack him, while those who attack him rarely pray for him.)  And when appropriate, pray with him.  Pastors are so used to praying for others that they are usually greatly moved when someone wants to pray for them.

Second, encourage him to stay home most nights.  Years ago, I heard Chuck Swindoll say that a church that expects its pastor to work many nights will eventually lose him.  Andy Stanley, who pastors one of America’s largest churches in the Atlanta area, says that he’s home almost every night of the week.  Toward the end of my ministry, being out three to four nights a week began to take its toll on me – especially as I got older – and I longed to be home more often.

Third, honestly let your pastor know when he’s doing a good job.  Some pastors are able to affirm themselves and don’t need as much external affirmation, while other pastors constantly need to know they’re helping somebody.  It always meant more to me to receive a note of encouragement on Monday or Tuesday than it did on Sunday – although I always appreciated it regardless of the timing.  When the pastor doesn’t hear affirmation from anyone for a week or two, he may very well question his effectiveness, which is one of the symptoms of burnout.

Finally, intervene if you think your pastor is headed toward burnout.  Talk to him.  Talk to his wife.  Talk to the board.  Talk to the staff.  While the pastor needs to care for himself, many could sing with Bono, “And you give yourself away … and you give … and you give … and you give yourself away.”  But if you don’t take in more than you give … you will burn out.

Burnout happens more in the helping professions (doctors, nurses, paramedics, psychologists, missionaries) than in other professions because the work never ends and because the caring mechanisms of the body shut down after prolonged stress.

I will write more about this extremely relevant issue in the days ahead.  If you’d like to read more about this issue, here’s a brief description of the symptoms and cure for pastoral burnout:


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