For many years I did not recognize it. When my wife suggested that I had experienced it, I refused to talk about it because I saw it as a failure in ministry. After four years of serving three churches and being chaplain at our small church school, I could no longer deny it: I was burned out. There, I have admitted it publicly.
It was my tenth year in ministry. Did I understand what was happening to me as I came to see the church members as the enemy? No. Did I understand why sometimes I could not stop crying? No. Did I understand where I got the idea from that the best thing to do is just push on and try and break through the other side? No!
It should be clear that burnout happens when pastors do not or cannot cope with the accumulated pressures of ministry when added to all other pressures of daily living. Early in my ministry, I asked more experienced pastors whether they ever took a Sabbath off. Some said, “Never”; others said, “Yes, once a quarter.” I tried this once-a-quarter Sabbath off, but I still burned out. I came up with what I call a biblical model of time off: I preach for six Sabbaths and then take a Sabbath off. I call it my Sabbath Sabbath. On these Sabbaths I do not attend my church or churches; these are family Sabbaths.
Do the churches crumble to pieces that day? No. Gifted members gladly fulfill their calling to minister. Does the congregation hate me or lose confidence in me because I am periodically not there on Sabbath? No. Many times I have been affirmed, even congratulated, for taking the initiative to spend a special Sabbath with my family in rest and relaxation.
After I crashed, I had to admit that I was a workaholic who tended to make churches dependent on me. My better way of doing ministry now is to involve people in the congregation who can do things just as well, if not better, than I. Yes, I am the conference-appointed leader, but I am also part of a local team that God has gifted in more ways than one person ever could be. For me, releasing members into God-given ministries is a major strategy in avoiding pastoral burnout. This is easier to do when we realize that God has not called pastors to be all things to all people all the time. Pastors need to understand the difference between always being available and always being on duty.
Every week I designate a day as “home office day.” This is a time when I try not to schedule meetings or visits, although emergencies are always attended to. On this day I can do some in-depth study, but I can also catch up on little jobs around the house or yard without the stress of preparing for a meeting or visit.
Another thing that drove me early in ministry was my desire to let the conference know that they had made a good investment in me. Unreal expectations, whether verbalized or assumed, will drive pastors to overburden themselves. Pastors feel stress when they do not know how conference leaders view their ministry.
One time, while serving in an isolated rural parish, I called the conference president because I had not heard from anyone in leadership for nearly three years. The president said that if I do not hear from the office, I am doing OK. I am not suggesting that every pastor desires or needs a daily email of affirmation from leader-ship, but when leadership talks with the local pastor, perhaps some more intentional questioning may be helpful. Rather than just asking, “What’s happening in your church?” or “How did the evangelism program go?” the questions could also be, “When was the last time you had a special family Sabbath away from your church?” Or “What plans do you have in place to avoid pastoral burnout?”
Having once crashed, I can recognize some personal signs that warn me to slow down, take a day off, choose not to volunteer for a Sabbath, and refer people with particular issues on to those with the appropriate professional training. Be acutely aware of your personal signs, and ask the Lord to show you how to avoid burnout.