And if you don’t like it, there’s the door!” Those words spoken from the pulpit by a ministry colleague introduced me to pastoral burnout. After delivering that doozy of a sermon, he broke down sobbing. After a month away from ministry and a year rebuilding spiritual, emotional, and physical strength, he had decades of effective ministry. But it was almost over before it began.
The most serious burnout I have ever faced happened in my current ministry the summer after we finished our first building, a multi-purpose gym/sanctuary. We celebrated the completion of our new building just in time for the Great Recession of 2008-09. My expectations of a new season of prosperous ministry ran into the reality of tight finances (I had to wait for payroll a time or two) and staff turnover. We had a new building with almost no furniture (we had to rent metal folding chairs to hold services) and a gym with no equipment.
That’s when the call came in from our bank.
For two years we had counted on the release of a construction performance bond related to wetlands. We had tens of thousands of dollars earmarked for furniture, basketball hoops, and volleyball equipment. Now, I learned that the county wanted to hold the money for another year. I hung up the phone, looked around, and took out paper to write my resignation, the only time I’ve ever done that. I was beaten. (I didn’t send the letter.)
Burnout is not new. The Apostle Paul wrote of being “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” He went on to complain of the “daily pressure on me of my anxiety for the churches” (2 Corinthians 1:8, 11:28).
Luther was well known for his melancholy. Charles Spurgeon wrote knowingly of the “minister’s fainting fits.” Recent suicides by prominent pastors point to the reality of emotional pressure for those who serve. And how many seemingly effective pastors have failed out of ministry because they responded to the pressures of ministry in unhealthy, even destructive ways?
I don’t have a silver bullet for ministry burnout. There isn’t one. But here are strategies that have helped me stay positive in ministry for three decades.
Pay attention to your spiritual life. We deal with the things of the Lord so relentlessly that we can neglect our own spiritual care. Paul counseled young pastor Timothy, “keep a close watch on yourself” (1 Timothy 4:16).
Stay active. I go to the gym weekly. A vibrant walk with the Lord and regular exercise may be the two most important elements for longevity in ministry.
Be honest. We must be able to face the messy world of ministry. I warn every new staff member that we will deal in the reality of ministry. I promise to tell them the truth. It’s up to them to deal with it.
Pursue friends. Don’t sit alone and sulk. It doesn’t tend toward growth. Find some other minister you enjoy and spend time with them.
Pace yourself. Take a regular day off every week. Do pastors think we can break the fourth commandment with impunity? This is long-term care. We are not automatons; we are human beings who need rest and re-creation.
Grow. Personal devotion and professional training are vital to our spiritual health.
I don’t have all the answers for burnout. But I am committed to finishing well. And, I’ll pay the price to do that, by God’s grace.
Scott Nichols is pastor of Crossroads Church in Carol Stream. A different version of this column appeared on Ed Stetzer’s Exchange blog at ChristianityToday.com.