Wagner Augusto V. Aragão, master of history, is a church pastor residing in Brasília, Brazil.
Rubenita de Oliveira Xavier Aragão, master of clinical psychology, is a psychologist specializing in cognitive and behavioral therapy, residing in Brasília, Brazil.

From his youth, Roberto felt called to pastoral ministry. That was all he ever wanted to do. And he did it, and he was good at it too. But after a number of years, he was depressed, sick, exhausted, and ready to quit. If something did not change, this burnout would end his ministry.

Roberto is not alone. Though incredibly rewarding, pastoral ministry can also be deeply challenging—and exhausting. Ministers, as well as other workers, struggle with burnout. “Microsoft polled 20,000 people in 11 countries around the globe. The research, which was conducted in July and August, found that almost 50% of employees and 53% of managers said they were burned out at work.” The survey was conducted among 20,006 full-time employed or self-employed knowledge workers in 11 countries.1 Daily stress affects around 90 percent of the world’s population, and in the long term, recurring stress can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout.2

We have no reason to believe it is any different with our own clergy. The symptoms of work-related burnout that pastors face include a sense of deep isolation; frequent emotional fluctuations; fear; anxiety; overwork; lack of self-reflection; and not taking care of their own physical, mental, and physical health.

Burnout syndrome manifested itself among the Old Testament prophets, although it is not usually identified this way. The ancient prophets’ ministry was often exhausting work, and some reached a high level of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Take Elijah, for example.

Elijah

Elijah was a great man of God (1 Kings 17:24), courageous
(1 Kings 18:8, 18), consecrated (vv. 42–46), and a man of prayer (James 5:17, 18). One of his most extraordinary victories was against the prophets of Baal and Ashtaroth on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20–40). Even so, the apostle James revealed that he was a man like us, subject to the same feelings (James 5:17). And if he was like us, like pastors, then his story can, and should, instruct and warn us. Here, we highlight four truths from Elijah’s experiences recorded in 1 Kings 18; 19:

1. The pastor cannot take care of his spiritual life and ignore the care of his body and mind. However close his relationship with God, Elijah certainly needed a diet with nutrients that helped reduce levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Or perhaps he needed to sleep better to acquire the emotional consistency capable of dealing with major challenges without becoming shaken.

Pastors tend to be zealous about spirituality but negligent about physical and emotional health. Pastoral exhaustion is often due to poor health caused by intemperance and the neglect of health principles, not due to spiritual activities in the ministry. A lack of proper sleep, physical exercise, and a good diet can weaken your mind and emotions. “The ignorance of physiology, and a neglect to observe the laws of health, have brought many to the grave who might have lived to labor and study intelligently.”3

Therefore, pastors should include breaks in their ministry routine (which they often do not get on Sabbath). Sleep helps recharge your physical energy and condition your brain to better process everyday experiences and make the right decisions. Good sleep helps prevent depression.4

You are a pastor, not a superhuman being without emotions, struggles, and stresses. It is important to always remember that.

2. Acting alone can lead to burnout syndrome. Elijah fought the battle at Carmel all but alone: the eloquent speech, the rebuilding of the altar of the Lord, carrying the wood, sacrificing and dividing the bull into pieces—he did it by himself. At another point, Elijah made two mistakes that contributed to his downward spiral. First, he left his servant behind. During the prophet’s dark hours in the cave, no person was with him to cheer him up. But even worse was his alienation from the God-fearing Israelites, the “ ‘seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal’ ” (1 Kings 19:18, NIV), who could have helped him.

Acting alone on a challenging mission is risky. Pastors who do this develop a selfish view that everything depends on them. When they carry out all tasks alone, because they imagine that no one can do them better than they can, pastors can become exhausted and depressed. To break free from this mindset, they need to slow down, cast their burdens upon the Lord, and recognize the need to join with others who have different gifts to complete the work.

3. Self-care is necessary for the pastor to prevent burnout syndrome. At Mount Carmel, Elijah was so involved in his work that he did not take time to eat.5 This resulted in physical weakness, and as a consequence, he was emotionally shaken when faced with stressful situations, such as Jezebel’s threats.

Human bodies were not designed to remain in fight-or-flight mode for long periods, so when acute levels of stress become chronic, it hurts the body and mind. When people are under severe stress, the hormones produced (adrenaline, cortisol, and noradrenaline) wear down the body, compromising the immune system, raising blood pressure, and causing everything from headaches, indigestion, and fatigue to heart disease. Chronic stress is linked to increased anxiety, panic attacks, and burnout—a complex phenomenon in which the ability to think rationally is limited, emotions become strangely fragile and volatile, and the smallest events seem overwhelming.6

Contrary to what many think, stress cannot be easily eliminated or reduced. People who suffer from chronic stress need to take appropriate measures. Pastors must learn to take care of themselves: before they can meet the needs of their flocks, their own needs must be met.

We have developed a five-step plan that can help the pastor prevent burnout syndrome:

a. Schedule self-care. Make a personal plan and set aside time (daily or weekly) to do things that will contribute to physical and mental health.

b. Practice preventive health. Take better care of your health by taking preventive health measures. The eight natural remedies7 should be part of your lifestyle. If you suspect you have burnout-syndrome needs, first of all, seek help from a doctor who can provide an accurate diagnosis. Second, if necessary, you must accept appropriate treatment because the sooner symptoms are treated, the less risk there will be of reaching the peak of burnout syndrome.

c. Maintain healthy relationships. Look at the people around you. Do they encourage you? Support you? Care about you? The people we spend time with affect us, so we must choose our friendships wisely. Nurturing family relationships is also very important.

d. Reduce screen time. Take a break from electronic devices. Put away your smartphone, tablet, and laptop. Go outside and look at the sky. Listen to the birds. Walk amid nature. Read a book. Take care of the garden. Too much time in front of screens does not do you a lot of good and wastes precious time.

e. Practice healthy habits. Habits are formed by repetition. Choose beneficial actions and persist in them. If you accept and embrace the fact that self-care is not negotiable, it will naturally become part of your daily life, and you will have taken the most important steps toward preventing burnout syndrome.

4. Burnout syndrome is not the end of the line for the pastor. The NIV Study Bible commentary says that “Elijah concluded that his work was fruitless and, consequently, that life was not worth living. He had lost confidence in the triumph of God’s kingdom and was retreating from the arena of conflict.”8 What a dramatic picture: the man of God who had been lifted to the top of the mountain was now suffering in his deepest valley of frustration, fear, and disappointment. But all this drama did not mean the end of Elijah’s ministry.

Elijah’s conclusions are a typical aspect of burnout syndrome: you do not see a way out; you cannot see how things could be different because the part of your brain that is good at solving problems and imagining new scenarios is negatively affected. When exhausted, you cannot find creative ways to overcome challenges.

Here are three more strategies to help pastors respond to ministerial burnout:

First, take some time off. At the height of Elijah’s crisis, God gave him a vacation where he could recover physically and emotionally (1 Kings 19:6–8). “You should labor with care and observe periods of rest. By so doing you will retain your physical and mental vigor, and render your labor much more efficient.”9

Second, share your feelings honestly. When Elijah was in the cave, God asked what he was doing there, and the prophet was sincere in his answer. You must go to God in prayer with your struggles. Also, find someone (even a mental health professional, if needed) to talk to, counsel with, and openly express yourself to. Sometimes, just talking things out can greatly help. You are a pastor, not a superhuman being without emotions, struggles, and stresses. It is important to always remember that.

Third, have the right perspective on ministry. Elijah believed that he had failed, God had abandoned him, and there was no hope. Because of burnout, your view of God, yourself, and your ministry may be distorted. You need the right perspective. “Hope and courage are essential to perfect service for God. These are the fruit of faith. Despondency is sinful and unreasonable. God is able and willing ‘more abundantly’ (Hebrews 6:17) to bestow upon His servants the strength they need for test and trial.”10

Make conscious choices

Roberto and others like him do not need to stay in the “dark cave” of burnout or the valley of ministerial exhaustion. Pastors who guide others to God’s promises need to claim those promises for themselves as well. At the same time, make conscious choices that help bring you healing, rest, and restoration. It is necessary to first admit the problem and then humbly, in faith, act accordingly.

  1. Edward Segal, “New Surveys Show Burnout Is an International Crisis,” Forbes, Oct. 15, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/edwardsegal/2022/10/15/surveys-show-burnout-is-an-international-crisis/?sh=495fb8387cf7.
  2. “Quatro sinais sutis de que você está prestes a ter um burnout,” Metrópoles, last updated June 5, 2023, https://www.metropoles.com/saude/4-sinais-sutis-de-que-voce-esta-prestes-a-ter-um-burnout.
  3. Ellen G. White, Pastoral Ministry (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1995), 72.
  4. James Gangwisch, “More Sleep May Reduce Depression in Teenagers,” Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Jan. 6, 2010, https://www.cuimc.columbia.edu/news/more-sleep-may-reduce-depression-teenagers.
  5. Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1917), 160.
  6. “Understanding the Stress Response,” Harvard Health Publishing, July 6, 2020, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response.
  7. See the eight natural remedies at New Start, Leaves of Life, https://leavesoflife.org/new-start-eight-natural-remedies/.
  8. Kenneth L. Barker, Bíblia de Estudo NVI (São Paulo, SP, Brazil: Editora Vida, 2015), 278.
  9. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 622.
  10. White, Prophets and Kings, 164.

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Wagner Augusto V. Aragão, master of history, is a church pastor residing in Brasília, Brazil.
Rubenita de Oliveira Xavier Aragão, master of clinical psychology, is a psychologist specializing in cognitive and behavioral therapy, residing in Brasília, Brazil.

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