I burned out. I couldn’t have used those words as it was happening, but I have gained clarity with time. It has been eight years since I’ve served on a pastoral staff though I’ve continued to use my pastoral gifts regularly as pulpit supply and in other ways.
What is burnout? For some, it is hitting the proverbial wall and failing to find a way to the other side. For me, it was the loss of the physical, emotional, and spiritual energy necessary for my calling. I felt like I couldn’t do what the job needed and the congregation deserved. Once that became clear, I resigned. Understandably, many church leaders burnout and stay in the job.
I struggled with my departure from vocational ministry for years. I was disappointed in myself, feeling like I had fallen short of finishing the race. I was ashamed, knowing people must suspect something more sinister in my personal life forced me to leave. I was confused trying to figure out who I was apart from my pulpit ministry.
Before I talk about my experience, I want to publish two disclaimers:
1) I’m not writing for sympathy. God has been extremely gracious and good to me through this experience. No one did anything to me. This is not a tell-all account about a man who gave up on the church. I grew weary but, by God’s grace, I did not lose heart (Hebrews 12:3).
2) The church I pastored is not at fault in my experience. I remain deeply fond of the church where I served. Of everything that follows, nothing should be interpreted as an indictment upon them.
As I look back, three factors contributed to my burnout from which I hope others may benefit.
I made decisions and established patterns that were not healthy. I was twenty-nine when I became senior pastor of a healthy-sized congregation. Here’s what happens: you work harder and longer hours. You see positive results from it. The negative results are less visible. In order to maintain the momentum created by hard work, you keep putting in longer hours. Finally, the negative results appear and prove undeniable when you hit the proverbial wall. The negative results come in many forms from a loss of internal sense of call to your wife’s growing concerns about your work-life balance.
I am driven and extroverted. I love people and problem solving. I’m not a plodder. I’m a person who likes building planes while in mid-air. As a result, I looked for and delighted in mid-air scenarios in ministry rather than delighting in just keeping a steady hand on the plow.
Looking back, I wish I had valued systems and structure more. Instead, I believed the man in the mirror was more equipped and gifted than he actually was. I gave it all I could until I had no more to give.
My advice to pastors and ministry leaders: you can’t scale yourself, but you can delegate to other people Christ has gifted. You have to surrender control in the process and trust he’s actually at work through people other than yourself.
Also, take advantage of counseling. I visited a counselor once in my ministry but should have made more use of it. Counseling services are now more widely available. PCA Retirement & Benefits offers two counseling ministries – ServantCare, which is confidential and affordable counseling available to pastors and ministry employees, and Cherish, a counseling program specifically designed to reach pastors’ wives. Make good use of these!
A pastor and a church can go through situations outside their control. God ordains it and works it for good. But, some situations leave you more aware of your status as a jar of clay (2 Cor. 4:7). During my time as a pastor, our church endured a series of providences many churches will never have to face like a highly publicized arrest of a staff member and the murder of a church member, to only name two.
Halfway through my tenure as senior pastor, people assumed I would soon leave the church because of the hardships we faced. They didn’t want me to leave but thought I might wise up and leave town. I never entertained the idea in those moments. However, it wasn’t until years later I realized the toll those crises had taken on me.
Paul compares the pastor to an athlete, among other things (2 Timothy 2:1:-7). If you keep tearing your ACL, it might be a providential prompting of the need to rest and heal before taking the field again. There’s no shame in doing so, though there is certainly frustration. For everything there is a season. There’s a time to work and a time to rest.
I don’t have a formula to offer you, only reflections. I wish I had been more aware of my own limitations, aware of the unique demands of ministry, and aware of the resources available to me through Christ and his church. Christ alone possesses the plentitude of gifts necessary for ministry. We shouldn’t be ashamed we don’t. He’s scattered his gifts all around the church, including denominational agencies. We should make use of these gifts and graces in their many forms.
I have a new appreciation for life outside the pulpit as well as for those who labor as ministers. I don’t think most church members can appreciate the vocational dynamics of being a minister. The reverse is also true. However, I do think Christ understands and can sympathize with our weaknesses. Thankfully, in him, we will always have a Shepherd who never grows weary in doing good.
Geneva Benefits Group serves those who serve others, providing practical support for the financial, physical, and mental wellbeing of people who work in full-time ministry.