Is the Church Responsible for Pastor Burnout?

Is a local church responsible when their pastor burns out? Most pastors who have recovered from burnout would say no. They know that their recovery depended on personal changes that had little or nothing to do with how their church acted. They are right. If this were an article on how to recover from burnout, I would be telling pastors that they have to take responsibility for their own recovery – no one can do it for them. However, this doesn’t fully address the cause of burnout.

What causes pastors to burn out?

Each incident is different, but burnout is usually due to one or more of the following causes:

The pastor has fallen into people-pleasing behavior.

He is no longer finding his strength in God alone. Remember when Peter walked on water? When he took his eyes off Jesus to look at the waves, he sank. Likewise, criticism and conflict can tempt a pastor to take his eyes off Jesus. The pastor starts to sink when he begins to live according to the expectations of his church members.

The pastor is no longer caring for his own soul first.

The constant demands of ministry, especially the continual deadlines of sermon preparation, can influence a pastor to start using the Bible as a textbook for teaching instead of the source of nourishment for his own spiritual life.

The pastor’s life of prayer has dried up.

Caring for people means that we want what’s best for them. However, a pastor’s prayer life needs to be about spending time in God’s presence. When it breaks down into intercessory prayer lists and public prayers, the life-giving source of prayer is lost.

The pastor is motivated by fear rather than love.

Often pastors are driven by fear of failure or fear of success. These fears are driven by shame-based perfectionism. Most leaders have some form of perfectionism – it’s what drives them to make things better. However, when the culture of the church becomes critical or judgmental, this drive turns into shame-driven fear. In such a culture, self-protection is much easier than sacrificial love.

The pastor’s finances are causing stress.

Many pastors live paycheck to paycheck. This can be because they haven’t learned to manage money well, or they have fallen into using shopping or food to self-medicate their stress, or they sacrifice their own financial well-being to care for others. It can be caused by major life events, like sickness or an auto accident. Sometimes it’s just because they are underpaid.

The pastor has become disconnected from people.

When the culture of a church becomes toxic from the pastor’s perspective, he no longer sees the relationships in the church as safe or life-giving. In self-protection he withdraws and begins to hide from people. Relationships that are supposed to be a significant source of joy have become painful.

The pastor isn’t caring for his body.

Ministry is a constant demand; there is always more to be done. When the pastor lets the tyranny of the urgent dominate his life, it is easy to set aside important disciplines. Exercise, sleep, and Sabbath keeping are some of the best ways to de-stress, but they are easily set aside when time pressures mount. An overworked body will cause depression and burnout.

Can the Church Cause Burnout?

Yes and no. The church cannot cause burnout, but they can either contribute to it (or help to prevent it). If every church were to follow the commands of the Bible about how to treat their pastor, many (but not all) of the causes of burnout would disappear. Compare these 6 Things the Bible Says About Loving Your Pastor with the list above:

  1. Does the church love and honor their pastor (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)?
  2. Is the church freeing their pastor to have a deep life of prayer and devotion in Scripture (Acts 6:1-4)?
  3. Do the church members intentionally make their pastor’s ministry a joy (Hebrews 13:17)?
  4. Is the church understanding of the heavy weight that a pastor carries (2 Corinthians 11:28)?
  5. Are the church members protecting their pastor from unhelpful judgment or criticism (Romans 14:4)?
  6. Is the church showing “double honor” in how they pay their pastor (1 Timothy 5:17-22)?

If the church did each of these well, the incidences of pastor burnout would plummet. Many if not most churches have elements in their culture that make it more likely that their pastor will experience burnout or even moral failure. The church cannot afford to look at this issue as if it is just a personal problem that pastors face. In most cases, it is also a symptom of deep cultural problems in our churches.

What are some ways a church can fight the issues of pastoral burnout and moral failure without putting a greater burden on their pastor?

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