Common Causes of Burnout in Ministry
By John Martin
Ministry is one of those jobs that when things are going well, then they can be great; but on the other hand, when things are going bad, they are really bad! Ministry can be, and often is, all-consuming. If we are not careful, ministry can consume all of our time, energy, and resources; when that happens, we can find ourselves burning out.
The Oxford Dictionary defines burnout as “the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives this definition for medical burnout: “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” For a person in ministry this means they have literally exhausted all their time, energy, and resources trying to be effective in their role. As a result, their fuel – their motivation – is gone, their fire dies out and they are spent. Those in ministry who lose their fire can experience depression, some experience moral failure, and many leave vocational ministry never to return.
What causes burnout? What is it that brings a man or woman of faith to a point where they want to leave their life’s work? What issues contribute to ministers experiencing a moral failure or falling into a dark depression so deep they feel there is no way out and no way for them to continue in ministry?
This article is the first of two in a series on the topic of burnout in ministry. We will seek to identify some of the most common causes of burnout in ministry. The limited format of this blog article will not allow us to delve too deeply nor will we be able to identify every contributing factor. But let’s explore together some of the most common causes of burnout in ministry.
The minister neglects his/her faith.
No matter what role you may serve in, you must make your personal walk with God a daily priority![/fusion_highlight] It is a sad reality to see many ministers – some polls suggest the number is higher than 70% – only study the Bible in connection with sermon preparation or as they prepare to lead a class. Another survey discovered many pastors spend less than 10 minutes per day in prayer! You may ask, “How can this be?” The reality is many times we get so wrapped up and focused on serving God we forget about spending time with the God we serve!
In 1986, Larnelle Harris released a song he wrote entitled, “I Miss My Time with You.” The chorus was written from the perspective of the Lord: I miss my time with you, those moments together. I need to be with you each day and it hurts Me when you say you’re too busy, busy trying to serve Me. But how can you serve Me when your spirit’s empty? There’s a longing in My heart, wanting more than just a part of you. It’s true, I miss My time with you.
Failing to focus on our personal spiritual walk can and will result in our burning out!
The minister neglects his/her family.
If ministers are not careful, they can fall into the trap of always placing their ministry before their family. When this happens, the minister could be sacrificing the success of his or her family for the success of his or her ministry. This is not right, and it is not what God has required of us!
I am grateful that God called me into his ministry, to pastor his people and to preach his word. But the highest calling of God upon my life is not to be a pastor. The highest calling of God on my life is to be the husband of my wife and the dad to our three children. My personality disposes me to become almost obsessed with whatever project I am working on. I struggle with the “all or nothing” mentality and I have had to work to balance ministry and family. But where is the profit in building a huge and seemingly successful ministry if we lose our family in the process?
We try to ease our guilt by telling ourselves we are doing the Lord’s work and we are right to do so. Unfortunately, many times we are doing the lord’s work, not the Lord’s work. The Lord’s work is done at home with the family before it is done in a staff meeting or on a hospital visit. It is easy for us to be so busy and allow our “lord” to be success or the approval of our congregations and teams.
Paul does not spend a lot of time writing about how ministers need to be constantly available to their congregations, but he does have something to say about the pastor’s availability to their family (1 Tim. 3:4-5). It is the pastor, not the pastor’s spouse, who is charged with managing the household and raising children to be godly. Yet we are often led to believe it is somehow a mark of holiness for us to leave family responsibilities to our spouse while we focus 90 hours of our week doing our lord’s (not the Lord’s) work. If we neglect our family for our church, there is the very real possibility that our family will grow to hate the church we gave our life for and perhaps even the Lord we claim to serve. The devil is perfectly fine with us growing our ministry through our hard work if we shrink our family through our neglect.
Neglect can cause strife within the family which will add to the burden the minister carries and can contribute to burnout.
The minister neglects his/her fitness.
I am perhaps the most qualified and at the same time, most unqualified to write on this subject. I am qualified because I have been guilty of neglecting my health. I am unqualified because I am still often guilty of neglecting my health.
As ministers we often work long hours without a break. We do not get enough rest, we do not take time off, we do not relax, and we do not allow our minds and bodies to be reenergized and refreshed. Often we find ourselves grabbing something convenient for lunch or dinner; we hit the drive-thru at our local fast food establishment or we grab a candy bar for some “quick energy” instead of eating a healthy, well-balanced meal. We do not exercise; we spend too much time at our desk in study or in our car as we go to make visits. As a result, health issues with ministers have been on the rise.
According to the book Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis, by Rae Proeschold-Bell and Jason Byassee, the physical health of ministers is dire these days. Starting as far back as the 1960’s, clergy health has gone downhill. Ministers started gaining weight, adding stress, and suffering from diabetes, arthritis, asthma, heart disease, and other chronic conditions. Based on more than a decade of studies involving pastors in North Carolina and other Southern states, Faithful and Fractured lays out the precarious state of clergy health in the 21st century. There seems to be a health crisis as more and more ministers neglect their fitness.
We are failing to take proper care of the bodies God has entrusted to us and that hinders us from being able to do our job; or we “push through” ignoring our issues which can cause more problems later on. Ministry is grueling work and while it may not require a lot of manual labor, it is often physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually tasking!
The lack of good health adds to the stress the minister deals with and this is a key factor in burnout among ministers.[
The minister neglects his/her friends.
Isolation is common among ministers. Sometimes the isolation is a result of people thinking that because we are ministers, we cannot be their friend (those of us who have spent much time in ministry understands that this can be and often is a true statement). Some may not consider us to be “regular people” as in their minds we “walk some higher plane” and, except in our role as their minister, we are unapproachable. Other times – and I fear this is more common – we, as ministers, choose to self-isolate. We fear being hurt. We fear if people discover that we are indeed “real” and that we struggle just like they do, we will lose our status. Sadly, sometimes ministers will self-isolate because they do not want to be “discovered.” But as ministers we need friends.
The author of Hebrews reminds us loneliness and isolation impact our spiritual health as well: “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:1). We were not meant to live in isolation; we — ministers included — need daily, meaningful interactions with others. We need accountability, we need love, and we need encouragement. But often times as ministers we are too focused on everyone else’s need for companionship we neglect our own need to have friends we confide in, seek counsel from, and simply spend time with. We cannot and should not neglect seeking out and cultivating healthy, same-sex friendships.
When we neglect having those friends in our lives that can applaud us, advise us, and hold us accountable we run the risk of staying grounded and guarded. Failing to be intentional in seeking out and cultivating healthy friendships increases our risk for burnout.
The minister neglects his/her finances.
A harsh truth is many ministers do not have sufficient income from the churches they serve. We struggle to make ends meet and that, coupled with having to often say “no” to requests from our families, can add to the stress we are facing. When ministry is viewed as more of a vocation than a profession, many items that are usually part of a secular employee’s compensation package (regular pay increases, bonuses, profit sharing, retirement and other incentives) are deemed as not applicable for ministry compensation. In many churches a minister’s salary – already low when compared to secular counterparts – remain unchanged during tenure at a church. Because we are ministers, we almost always refrain from asking for a raise. We do not ask because we think our church believes that since we are the “servant of God,” we should be concerned with spiritual matters rather than trivial, earthly issues like money. We fear that people will think we lack faith for God to provide. Sometimes it is because we know many of the members we care for are also struggling financially and we do not want to burden them further. This sad fact adds to the stress of the minister and can be a key component of burnout.
When we see our families suffer because we are not able to adequately provide for them due to our compensation being lower than what we could earn in a secular role it compounds the stress, frustration, and depression we are already battling. By the minister’s finances being neglected, either by the minister or the church, it is just one more item on the list of items contributing to burnout in ministry.
The minister neglects his/her failures.
Before going any further, please allow me to take a moment and be completely transparent. I did not want to write this section. I put it off and made several attempts to convince God this section was not needed. His answer was, “Yes, son, it IS needed.”
The truth is for so many of us, burnout is a taboo subject. We are ministers, men and women of God who walk by faith! We are not ruled by fear and we cannot be found weak or lacking. We are unwilling to look for and guard against the causes of burnout because we are unwilling to acknowledge that we are in danger of burning out or worse, we have already burned out. But the fact remains many of us struggle with fear and depression daily. We meet hurting people in the depths of their despair and we see the ugliness of life in this world. We experience the entire gambit of human emotion as we come alongside those God has called us to serve; we weep with them and do all we can to ease their burden. Often times we do this without thanks or acknowledgement. I think this could be why some pastors make it a point to mention in their sermons something like, “This past week I was called out at 2:00 am…” or “I am not as prepared as I’d like to be this morning because I was at the hospital all night with…” We work in a calling where people jokingly say, “Man it must be great to be a minister because you guys only work on Sundays and Wednesday!” This causes us to work even harder because we feel we must justify our salaries. All these things, and so much more, cause us to be at risk for burnout and we need to acknowledge that. We cannot neglect to address our failures; or what we perceive as failure.
For many years, almost 13 of my 16 years in full-time vocational ministry as a pastor of the local church, I was golden. The churches I served grew and were blessed by God. I loved the people and the people loved me and our times together – though trying and difficult at times as we walked with families through their struggles – were, and still are, some of the best years of my life. Then God led me to a church where we faced testing and challenges like we had never experienced before. I will not go into all the details, but the short story is I felt unappreciated, I was frustrated, and I felt suffocated in my ministry like never before! I felt my every move was under scrutiny; instead of support and encouragement, I received criticism and faced conflict at every turn. Ultimately, I resigned when it became apparent a large part of the congregation refused to follow my leadership as pastor.
For the first time in my life I battled depression and felt like an utter failure. I kept asking “Why?” But because it was not all their fault, I refused to the answers. I lost my desire to pastor and my motivation for ministry. I still loved God and wanted to serve Him, I just wanted to serve Him in another capacity and not in full-time vocational ministry. This led to my taking a step away from ministry and moving to secular work for over seven years!
Now, I do believe God allowed me to step away from vocational ministry because He knew I needed to heal; something I was not willing to acknowledge for quite a while. And there were things He wanted to teach me; lessons I am still learning today. But before I could heal and learn, I had to stop neglecting the fact that I had burned out. As I began to look back, I recognized some of the issues we have discussed, neglecting faith, family, fitness, friends, and finances, had a large impact on why I had burned out. But for me, one of the biggest factors was my being fearful to admit that I was struggling and heading toward burnout. Please do not make that same mistake!If you are hurting, ask for help. If you are struggling in your faith, press into God’s Word and talk to God![/fusion_highlight] If you feel overworked and are losing touch with your spouse and/or children, take some time away and focus on your family. If your health is suffering, focus on fitness. If you are isolated and feeling lonely, seek out a friend (email me and I will gladly listen). If you are struggling with your finances, pray and ask God to open the eyes to those in your congregation that make those financial decisions. But whatever you do, do not neglect to acknowledge your failures – both real and imagined – and ask for help!
We have identified some general areas of life that can lead ministers to lose their fire and for some, to even abandon their faith. We must be on guard and ensure we are not neglecting these areas. These items must become a priority for each one of us if we hope to not only survive but thrive in ministry. It will not be easy. We will not be able to tackle them all at once. There will be days when we will not address them at all. But it is of vital importance we recognize the impact these areas have on our everyday lives and on our ability to carry out our calling. Whatever your role, no matter your focus in ministry, stay sharp and do not neglect your faith, your family, your fitness, your friends, your finances, nor your failures. Take care of the flock God has called you to serve but remember you must take care of yourself!
Be sure to watch for our next article in this series, Proactively Preventing Burnout in Ministry.