Pastoral ministry can be dangerous to a pastor’s mental health. More than one-third of pastors are at a moderate to high risk of burnout. The stress load that many pastors carry negatively affects their health, their family, their relationships, and their ministry. What causes this high rate of stress and burnout? Two interrelated sources feed the pastor burnout monster: personal issues in the pastor’s life and negative church cultures.
Most books on pastor burnout focus on the pastor’s self-care and walk with God. These areas have the greatest impact on a pastor’s relationship to stress. When an unhealthy pastor learns how to care for himself better, often the whole church is positively affected. This is especially true when the pastor dedicates himself to walking more closely with God. Below are a few areas that pastors can explore to see whether they are at risk of burnout. If you are not a pastor, use these to learn how you can support your pastor’s health, but pay special attention to the section on church culture as that’s where you can have the most impact.
A pastor’s prayer life is the foundation of all that he does. In Acts 6:4 the apostles prioritized prayer ahead of everything else; they even mention it before the ministry of the Word. Pastor, does your prayer life look like that of Jesus? Are you spending time speaking and listening to God – seeking his face, expressing love to him as his child, and worshiping him as God? Prayer isn’t just about asking God for things; it’s first an expression of relationship with God. If your prayer life is all about asking God for what you want or need, then you are missing the greatest blessing of prayer – being in the presence of God and experiencing his love. Daniel Henderson, in his book Transforming Prayer, says:
“Worship-based prayer seeks the face of God before the hand of God. God’s face is the essence of who He is. God’s hand is the blessing of what He does. God’s face represents His person and presence. God’s hand expresses His provision for needs in our lives. I have learned that if all we ever do is seek God’s hand, we may miss His face; but if we seek His face, He will be glad to open His hand and satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts.”Daniel Henderson, Transforming Prayer
Reading the Word
Pastor, what is your primary reason for reading the Word of God? Are you reading it to get material to preach and teach, or are you reading it to nourish your own soul first? Too often we can fall into a trap created by the weekly preaching deadline. We know that people depend on us to bring a message from God’s Word, so we put that ahead of our personal time with God. This results in a slow spiritual drain that leaves us weak and at serious risk of burnout. It also drains our preaching of spiritual power because we are no longer preaching from a transformed heart. When we put preaching ahead of relationship with God, we begin to feel the pressure of guilt and shame because we have made an idol out of the church. If you find yourself in this trap, take some time off. Step out of the pulpit for a few weeks and spend time reading the Word to enjoy God.
The spiritual health and physical well-being of the pastor’s family is one of the primary qualifications for his ministry (see 1 Timothy 3:4-5). If a pastor’s marriage is falling apart or if his children are rebelling, ministry will become a source of stress—or worse, a place to escape from family problems. Pastors need to take care that their ministry doesn’t become a wedge that drives them apart from their family. Pastor, your first ministry is to your family. If you don’t love them well or if they aren’t supportive of your ministry, you are likely headed for burnout or moral failure.
Health and Fitness
One of the best ways to eliminate large amounts of stress is to exercise regularly and eat well. Unfortunately, most pastors (myself included) struggle in this area. It can be difficult to make time for exercise when you are so tired from ministry. However, if you make time, you will have more energy for both. Likewise, it can be hard to eat healthy meals. It’s so much easier to grab a quick bite, and it can be expensive to purchase whole foods instead of processed foods. However, with some planning and preparation, you may find it is actually less expensive to prep your own meals. This is one area in which you and I may need some help in order to improve. Fitness and healthy diet are much easier when we have a good support network of people with similar goals.
Family of Origin
Your family patterns of conflict, handling complex emotions, and history of physical or emotional abuse may be adding stress to your ministry. It’s amazing how much we carry from our early family years. Patterns of codependence and shame can be hard to break, but with the help of a qualified counselor you can find freedom. It will take a lot of hard work. You will have to face things you would rather avoid. However, if you are willing to face those problems, you will begin to see patterns that are hurting your ministry and leading you toward burnout. Your counselor will help you establish new, healthy patterns that will bless you, your family, and your church.
Often burnout is a result of unconfessed sin. The persistent weight of guilt and shame grows with time and will eventually drag anyone down. Are there habitual sins that need to be confessed and rejected? What will repentance look like in these areas? Pray through Psalm 51 regularly and see what the Holy Spirit reveals.
The second, and often hidden, face of pastor burnout is church culture. Churches function as an emotional system, where each person is connected to the others. Therefore, the emotional state of one person can affect the whole group. This is why when a pastor becomes healthier, it often positively affects the church. However, some churches have such a dysfunctional culture that even a healthy pastor is threatened by the church’s negative patterns. In such cases, a pastor becoming healthier will actually be perceived as a threat to the church because health is a threat to dysfunctional systems. Many of these churches have a codependent relationship to their pastor. Breaking this cycle of codependence is not always possible, and sometimes the safest thing to do is get out of the environment. However, in some cases, identifying the dysfunction can lead toward health. Here are some elements of church culture that contribute to pastor burnout.
Problems with Authority
Some churches treat their pastor as an employee hired to do their bidding rather than as a spiritual leader called by God. When a church treats the pastor as a hired hand, they tend to view him as the one who does the ministry while the congregation receives his ministry. Instead of seeing the pastor as one who equips the church for ministry (Ephesians 4:11), he becomes little more than a tool of the church. This can lead to conflicts on the church board or among the elders.
A pastor’s ministry should be shaped by his calling from God. He should have freedom to lead as he himself is led by God. Together with the elders, they should be a ministry team encouraging and supporting one another. When the pastor is treated as a hired hand, it severely limits his ability to lead. The church handcuffs him and then expects him to act as if he isn’t limited. This leads to frustration and is often the source of ministry burnout. Churches that aren’t willing to obey their leaders drive away the best leaders (Hebrews 13:17). Pastors don’t want to stay where their leadership isn’t wanted.
In many congregations, individuals treat the church as a place to consume religious goods and services rather than as a people on a mission with God. These churches act more like a cruise ship than a battleship. Those in ministry run around serving others, but the church doesn’t accomplish it’s mission. Imagine an aircraft carrier in the middle of a war zone where 80 percent of the people just lounged on the flight deck. That’s the way many churches operate. The 20 percent who do most the work end up burned out – especially the pastor.
Churches that operate by majority rule usually end up doing all the wrong things. In Scripture, decisions that are made by the majority usually go very wrong (e.g., the tower of Babel, the golden calf, Israel’s refusal to enter the promised land, etc.). The examples in Scripture of majority decisions that actually worked were usually preceded by spiritual leaders making a decision and then presenting it to the group for their approval (see Acts 6:1-7; 15:1-29). When the majority of the church are not spiritually minded people, or when most of the decisions are not made with reference to the commands of God, the church will continually make the wrong decisions and those who teach the Word will begin to see their work as futile. Pastors burn out because they are ignored in favor of unbiblical majority opinion.
Unhealthy Power Structures
Some churches have power structures that favor a small group or particular family. Usually, this happens when the same people stay in power for an extended period of time. With no breaks in their tenure, these people begin to take more and more power to themselves. Soon, the leadership of the church starts protecting power instead of serving others in love. Sometimes it’s the pastor who becomes the power broker. Quite often it’s a group that doesn’t include the pastor but instead tries to control him. A healthy pastor will resist being controlled by others because he is submitting to God. This will inevitably lead to conflict as those who are in power have put themselves in God’s place.
Critical or Judgmental Culture
Some churches are nitpicky or mean. They will stand in judgment over the pastor whenever he doesn’t match their culture. Usually these churches have unrealistic expectations of their pastor. The pastor’s job description is often a clue that the church is asking him to do too much. If the pastor is a member of every board and committee – that’s a warning sign! Instead, the pastor’s job description should be framed around biblical responsibilities of elders, with his major focus being on prayer and the ministry of the Word. It should also be shaped by his gifts and calling from God. When the pastor has to fit into everyone else’s mold, those with unrealistic expectations will be disappointed. The ensuing criticism and judgment will create an environment of distrust and could even traumatize the pastor if it persists. Not even a healthy pastor can survive for long in such an environment.
Biblical illiteracy, especially when driven by anti-intellectualism, creates real problems for church leadership. Anti-intellectualism is a resistance to growth through learning; it values ignorance over instruction. God’s wisdom is foolishness to the world, but when the church is operating on common sense or worldly wisdom, they will reject true spiritual leadership as foolish. While most churches will eventually grow to know the Bible through patient instruction, a pastor working in a church that is dominated by anti-intellectualism will find that the church resists his teaching. They will resist growth through learning and their minds will not be transformed by Scripture. In such cases, the pastor is likely to burn out before the church learns to have a basic understanding the Word of God.
Some churches have long-standing divisions. These fights may be over important doctrines or unimportant issues (such as the color of the carpet). The key to these divisions is the emotional baggage attached to the conflict. When a pastor gets caught in this emotional crossfire, there is no way to win. People who refuse to repent of their grudges will attack anyone who gets in their way. Most pastors don’t last long in such churches, but occasionally a pastor will stay and fight for unity. This is usually a long and hard fight. While it’s worth the effort, it often exacts a high price on the pastor. When the conflict is over, the church should give their pastor a rest so he can recover from the trauma of emotional battle. If they don’t, the pastor will probably struggle with burnout for years to come.
Some churches just don’t love one another or their pastor. Pastors need the loving support of a church in order to minister at their best. Without this support, they will likely burn out or move on.
Churches and church leaders need to ask themselves, “Are we creating a work environment where our pastor can thrive?” Many churches have no idea what kind of support their pastor needs from them, and many pastors are reluctant to ask. It can be helpful for a church to call in an outside consultant to help them evaluate their ministry culture.
Toxic church cultures can destroy healthy pastors. We can’t ignore this side of the equation any longer.
Pastor, are you at risk of burnout? Here is the metric the Barna Group used to determine that more than one-third of pastors are at medium to high risk of burnout. You can find more in their research report The State of Pastors.