Posts Tagged ‘pastoral burnout’

As some of my friends know, I’ve been rummaging through our old family photographs recently and posting some of the more interesting pictures on Facebook.

I’ve been startled by how happy I look in photos from forty and fifty years ago.  I had a wide, joyful smile that I exhibited freely and often.

But over time, that smile dimmed … at least, at church … largely because of certain individuals.

Kim and HBF Women Mid-1980s 001

This is a group of eight men from my second church ministry.  Six have gone home to be with the Lord.  George – the gentleman on the far right – is still living.

George and Wendell supported me for years, and when I think of them, I definitely smile.

But three of these men turned against me … and one is my all-time worst antagonist.  (Can you pick him out?)

Then I found this photo of some women:

Kim and HBF Women Mid-1980s 1 001

Two of these women were loyal, faithful supporters, including Bonnie on the right side, but three also turned on their pastor.  My wife Kim (third from the left) was smiling in this photo, but several years later, she wasn’t.

And neither was I.

This article isn’t about church antagonists … I’ve written plenty of blog posts about them … but about a question I’ve often wrestled with:

Should pastors be happy?

During my seven-year tenure at this church in Silicon Valley, I was not only unhappy most of the time … I was downright miserable.

Our church was the product of a merger.  I had read that merger math is 1+1 = 1.  In other words, if you put a church of 80 with a church of 50, you’ll eventually end up with a church of 80 … or 50 … but not 130.

There are many reasons for this: a clash of church cultures … differing ministry philosophies … a duplication of leaders (what do you do with two head ushers?) … varied shared histories … and a pastor who suddenly needs to become acquainted with 80 new people … which makes the group he came over with feel ignored.

My first pastorate was in the Silicon Valley city of Sunnyvale.  We met in a school, but after two years, the city planned to bulldoze it down for new home construction.  We needed a place to go or our ministry would be over.

A sister church (with 80 people) five miles away invited our church (with 50 people) to merge with them … provided that I became the pastor.

I didn’t want to do it, and looked everywhere for another ministry, but at age 29, I had few options, so on the day set as a deadline … October 2, 1983 … I reluctantly signed an agreement.

Our district minister predicted that our church … which averaged 105 people … would have 300 people within two years.

But two years later, most people who came with me from the Sunnyvale church left in anger, and our attendance … and finances … were in free fall.

And as attendance and giving dwindled, I sank into depression.

Every other Monday, I wanted to quit.  Most of the time, it’s because the Sunday before didn’t go well.

The smaller churches get, the more people just want to be cared for.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but carrying out the Great Commission is not on the frontal lobes of most people.

As the church shrank in size, so did my self-esteem and self-confidence.

By the summer of 1986, I was barely functioning.  I was constantly depressed around the house, and my wife finally said, “Jim, you need counseling.  I”m going to find someone who can help you.”  I told her, “Then find the best counselor you can.  I want someone with a string of degrees.”

My wife finally found a Christian counselor with two doctoral degrees.  I visited him twice a week for four months.  If there was something inside me that was keeping our church from moving forward, I wanted to know what it was so I could make corrections while I was young.

After taking all kinds of tests and discussing matters for hours, the counselor told me:

“You have your problems and idiosyncrasies like everybody else, but you’re basically normal.  Your problem is your church.  Get out of it.”

I ended up staying, but I wasn’t any happier.


During my time in that second pastorate, I found a book that helped me survive those difficult days.

The book is called Coping With Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions by Dr. Archibald Hart.  The book was published in 1984, but its lessons are equally relevant today.

Listen to Dr. Hart’s wisdom:

“Contrary to what many laypersons believe, depression is a major occupational hazard for ministers.  For many ministers, surviving the ministry is a matter of surviving depression.  Mostly the depression is not a positive experience.  It robs the minister of power and effectiveness and destroys the joy of service.”

Dr. Hart continues:

“It is impossible for anyone who has never been a minister to understand the loneliness, despair, and emotional pain that a large number of ministers must bear.  Not a few leave the ministry altogether because of the debilitation of depression.  Others exist in their pastorates in an unhappy, dissatisfied, and disillusioned state rather than leave their churches or change vocations.”

I read various parts of Dr. Hart’s book most Sunday nights before bedtime.  The book kept me going for years.

Why are pastors so susceptible to unhappiness?

Let me briefly offer five reasons:

First, ministry is often both slow and invisible.

Ministry is slow because people change at a snail’s pace, if at all.  The pastor-congregational dynamic usually entails less than an hour on Sundays and is confined to the pastor’s sermon.  The people have limited exposure to their pastor and he has limited exposure to their lives.  The pastor isn’t like Super Nanny who would stay in a family’s home and advise them on how to raise their children.

In fact, most people don’t want their pastor anywhere near their home!

I can recount many people I ministered to who never seemed to change at all.  Maybe God’s Spirit was working in them, but I never saw any visible progress.

Ministry is also slow because like most organizations, congregations change slowly, if at all.  Pastors usually know the direction they’d like the church to go, but they can’t wave a wand and make things happen.  Pastors first need permission from the board … staff … key leaders … and often, the entire congregation.

Pastors become absorbed with attendance and offerings because those are visible emblems of success.  But changed lives are much harder to measure.

Dr. Hart writes:

“People coming into the ministry from other areas of endeavor often say that it is far more difficult to set standards for evaluating their accomplishments in the ministry than it was in their previous employment.  I understand this problem because I experienced a similar one when I moved from engineering into psychology many years ago.  My engineering accomplishments still stand – bridges, reservoirs, buildings, and freeways.  They are easily recognizable, enduring, and satisfying.  But where are my psychological accomplishments?  Sure, there are many – healed hearts, homes and bodies.  But they are not as tangible and easy to pinpoint as those of engineering.  And pastors may find it even harder to identify their accomplishments once they get their eyes off money, buildings, and church attendance.”

When I preached or counseled someone, I knew the Holy Spirit was working … but He didn’t usually make His work evident to me.

Second, I rarely felt like I was done working.

I never finished my to-do list.  There was always one more call to make … one more email to answer … one more hospital patient to visit … one more sermon to research.

And if I didn’t do that “one more thing,” I often heard about it.

Many professions involve similar challenges.  But for me, as for many pastors, we never felt we could hit the “off switch” on our bodies, minds, or spirits.  We always had to be “on.”

For example, in my last ministry, I had to be “on” when I went to the grocery store because I’d always see people from church.  I had to be “on” when walking through the neighborhood … when going to the movies (I once sat next to a board member at an Adam Sandler movie) … when going to the mall … or when going to see the Giants or A’s.  I saw people from church in all of those places.

I remember one Christmas Eve.  We’d held two services at our church, and our family finally went home to open presents and relax.  But at 12:10 am on Christmas Day, I received a phone call from security that one of the doors at church had been left wide open after the second service.  Security couldn’t reach anyone else … only I answered the phone … so I had the privilege of going over to church to walk through the entire facility and then locking the door … something I did many times.

And that stuff happened all the time.

Third, I carried people’s problems around with me.

My counselor told me my greatest strength … and my greatest weakness … is my tenderness.  Wisely or unwisely, I feel what others are experiencing.

While my empathy made me a good pastor, I could not shake off people’s problems very easily.

The larger our church grew, the more varied … and difficult … people’s problems usually became.  For example, around the year 2000, three government inspectors were killed by the owner of a factory.  The story made national news.  The supervisor of those inspectors was supposed to be there that day and would have been murdered along with his colleagues.  This supervisor went to our church and had to speak at the funerals of his murdered colleagues.  I did my best to minister to him, but his sorrow sent me into despair.  How could it not?

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:29:

Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?  Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

Like Paul, I usually felt what my people were feeling, and carried those feelings around with me for weeks or months at a time … even when I was with family or doing something fun.

Dr. Hart claims that “compassion fatigue” is another term for burnout.  If a pastor doesn’t demonstrate care for people, he comes off like Dr. Ellingham on the hilarious British TV show Doc Martin: rude, surly, uncaring.  But if he feels people’s problems too deeply, he might end up burning out.

Dr. Hart writes:

“The work of ministry, when it is undertaken with great sincerity and earnestness, is bound to open the way to attacks of despondency.  The weightiness of feeling responsible for the souls of others and of longing to see others experience the fullness of God’s gift; the disappointment of seeing believers turn cold and pull away; the heartbreak of watching a married couple destroy each other, unable to utilize love and the grace of God in repairing their broken relationship – all will take their toll on sensitive and dedicated ministers.”

And in the end, they certainly took a toll on me.

Fourth, I never knew who was going to come after me.

Several weeks ago, I ran across a batch of photos taken when the merger mentioned above took place.  The photos were closeups of everyone in the church at the time.  I forgot I even had them.

Jim and Olive Webber at HBF 1983 001

This photo portrays Jim and his wife Olive.  Jim was the board chairman – and head of the search team – in my first pastorate.  Jim believed in me and lobbied hard for me to become pastor.  I’ll always be grateful for his support.

Jim was the “songleader” at the merged church at both the Sunday morning and Sunday evening services.  He led the hymns.  But as he aged, Jim began to lose it.  He started selecting the same songs constantly and repeating the same stale stories.  (“Can you smoke and be a Christian?  Yes, but you’ll be a stinking Christian!”)

One Sunday morning, I asked Jim if he would lead a specific hymn for the Sunday night service.  He refused, telling me that no pastor had ever told him which hymns to select.  I asked Jim again, and he became angry.

He went to the board with seven complaints about me.  For the good of the church, I probably should have sacked him months before, and now he was going after me.  He left the church the next day and I never saw him again until I conducted his memorial service.

This stuff happens all the time in churches.  Someone draws close to the pastor.  The pastor thinks, “This person likes me.  Maybe we can be friends.”  And a few months or years later, this person suddenly attacks the pastor verbally, or wants the pastor removed from office.

I can tell you story after story of men and women I thought were my friends … people I thought I could trust … who ended up betraying me.  In fact, every pastor can tell similar stories.

And it’s hard for a pastor to be happy when he’s constantly wondering, “Which of the people in our church are going to attack me next … and possibly end my job or career?”


Finally, I was too much of a perfectionist to really be happy.

I wanted everything the church did to go well … especially those ministries that required my leadership.

When I first took Sermon Prep in seminary, my professor would critique our sermons after we preached.  For years after I took that class, I’d get up to preach on Sunday and hear his voice:

“Don’t look to the left and gesture to the right … your looks and gestures need to match.”

“Don’t tell us that Sandy Koufax was a great pitcher because he threw hard.  A lot of pitchers throw hard and get rocked.  Koufax was great because his fastball moved.  Most people don’t know that, but a baseball fan will.”

“Be careful when you use irony.  Most people don’t get it.”

As a pastor, I heard a lot of voices in my head … the voices of professors, and fellow pastors, and critics … especially critics.

And those voices often prevented me from feeling happy.  They reminded me that my church wasn’t big enough … that our offerings weren’t strong enough … that I always fell short in some area.

If we had two or three Sundays of declining attendance … or poor giving … regardless of how well I’d written or delivered a sermon … I’d feel like a failure.

Even when our church was full … as in the photo below … I often didn’t enjoy it.  Instead, I’d wonder how long the good times would last.

BFCC Worship Center

Dr. Hart writes:

“I once asked a surgeon friend who every day made decisions that could affect the life or death of a patient how he handled the responsibility of his work.  His answer was most illuminating…. He replied, ‘You come to terms very early in your career with your fallibility.  It’s okay not to be perfect and to make mistakes!'”

But when pastors make even a small mistake, there are always people willing to magnify it into something horrendous.  It’s as if they’re saying, “Ha ha, pastor, you’re just like the rest of us!”

And, of course, we are.


My wife and I run a preschool in our home.  She runs the preschool downstairs, and I handle business matters from my upstairs office.

The Lord has blessed us significantly, and we’ll do this as long as we’re able.

I’m far happier doing the preschool than I was in church ministry:

*I can see children learn and grow much quicker than I ever did adults.

*My wife and I have our nights and weekends free.

*I only carry a handful of people’s problems around with me … usually those of family members or close friends.

*I no longer worry about people attacking me.

*I’m still a perfectionist about some things, but little bothers me anymore.

But in the end, I’m not sure that the happiness of pastors matters to the Lord.

Moses wasn’t always happy.  Neither was David … just read the Psalms.  Isaiah and Jeremiah weren’t all that happy.  And neither was Jesus.

God isn’t looking for happy pastors.  He’s looking for faithful ones.  But even when pastors are faithful, there’s no guarantee they’ll be happy.  Sometimes being faithful means that you’ll be unhappy.

And that’s not a happy thought to ponder.


By the way, when I took “The Pastor’s Personal Life” class from Dr. Hart for my Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Seminary, I wrote him a note at the end of my final paper, telling him that I believed he was a gift to the body of Christ.

I still feel that way.

If you don’t have a copy of Coping With Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions, I urge you to secure a used copy on Amazon.

It just might save your ministry … and your sanity.
















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