Preventing Pastoral Burnout

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What is that noise?

The repetitious blast had me baffled and weary. After slapping at everything on my bedside table aimlessly. Fan. iPhone. Book. Repeat. I finally figured it out—it was my alarm. Ever do that?

It was dark out. Early a.m. and I was exhausted. I needed to go back to sleep. Then a Scripture verse rang through my head:

How long will you lie there, O sluggard?

When will you arise from your sleep? (Pro. 6:9)

I was getting up at my usual Monday morning time, around 2:30 am. Yes, you read that correctly. I’m a very early riser. I always loved the verse:

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35)

If Jesus woke up early before the sun had risen and prayed with the Father then I saw fit to do the same. I still carve out time every morning for my prayer and Bible time with God. However, I’m also a fitness junkie—so, going to the gym, or off on a run, at 3:00 am is not unusual for me—but this morning was different—I was struggling to exercise, struggling to read, and even struggling in prayer!

Relief in Sight

Thankfully, that day I was gathering with a man I highly respected—we’ll call him, “Dave.” I couldn’t wait to see Dave! He’s a very well known ex-pastor, someone I had listened to for years via podcast. I had waited for this day for over a month.

But, I’ll be honest. I was feeling so drained that I didn’t feel like going.

Once I arrived, circumstances occurred where I was able to spend some brief time alone with Dave. I could have asked him anything—but for some reason, God knew what I needed to hear the most from him. So, I asked him about personal accountability. I’ll get to his advice in a moment.

Some Crazy Facts

According to a NY Times editorial, pastoral leadership is increasingly suffering from a lack of spiritual, emotional, and physical health. The report stated, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans.”[1] George Barna reports:

  • 33% of pastors felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.
  • 40% of pastors are struggling with burnout and frantic schedules
  • 52% of pastors say they and their spouses believe that being in pastoral ministry is hazardous to their family’s health.
  • 75% report severe stress, panic, anger, depression, fear, and alienation.
  • 80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with their spouse.
  • 90% work more than 50 hours a week and have given up a scheduled vacation for a ministry emergency.
  • 1,500 pastors leave vocational ministry each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure.

Wisdom from Dave…

And so, here I was—feeling burned out. I knew the numbers. I’ve studied them. I’ve taught them. But, now I was the student.

“How do you hold yourself accountable?” I asked Dave. It was an ambiguous query. But as if God were responding to my groggy morning ritual—Dave fully understood what I needed.

He suggested that I break up my day into three modules: morning, afternoon, and evening. There should be 21 modules per week. Each week there must be 7–10 modules of down time (no ministry—fully unplugged, no phone, no laptop, no email).

Of these 7–10 modules, 3 of them should be consecutive—establishing a Sabbath principle. As Joe spoke, I felt the conviction of God—I was only getting 2–4 modules per week—that’s not good.

Effective leadership cannot justify itself with sacrificial burnout. Moses did this. His father-in-law chided him for expecting to do everything (Exodus 18:13–23).

Leaders must have the proper rest—and the proper delegation. Assuredly, diet and exercise can be factors of burnout—but that wasn’t my dilemma. My problem was/is in saying “no.”

Pastors are allowed to say no.

Pastoral ministry is truly a blessing (something in which I do not feel worthy). But as leaders, we must be intentional about taking time off.

Dave admitted that there would be weeks when only 4 modules of rest are possible. When that happens, I should compensate the following week. The main point: I must be more intentional with my rest and family time.

Question for you…

  • How many modules are you getting per week?

Looking for more? Bethlehem Baptist Church created a great resource and made it available through Desiring God Ministries, click here. http://cdn.desiringgod.org/pdf/pastors_accountability_form.pdf

[1] Paul Vitello, Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work, New York Times, August 1, 2010, accessed October 20, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html?_r=0.

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