Church leaders are some of the busiest people on the planet. They work long hours and carry loads of responsibility. So it’s no wonder the risk of pastor burnout is high.
Many of us were alarmed to read the October 2021 report from Barna that found that 38% of pastors were considering quitting the full-time ministry. And the number jumped 9% in just one year (only 29% were ready to quit in January 2021).
Although there are multiple reasons for wanting to leave a pastoral role, burnout is undoubtedly a key contributor. So what can we do to create a healthier environment and pace for our leaders?
This blog post will discuss the definition of burnout, unique challenges pastors face, and five safeguards that can eliminate pastor burnout. If you are a church leader, or if you know someone who is, please read on!
Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
Table of contents
- What is the Definition of Burnout?
- Are Pastors More Prone to Burnout?
- 5 Safeguards for Preventing Pastor Burnout
- Summing it Up
What is the Definition of Burnout?
Most of us have heard of burnout, but what exactly is it? According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout is “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”
In other words, when we experience burnout, we feel like we can’t continue at our current pace. We may feel like we’re not achieving anything, hitting a wall, or are out of control.
Burnout is different from simply feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Those are normal (and temporary) reactions to difficult situations. Burnout is more severe, pervasive, and long-lasting. It can have a significant impact on our health, our relationships, and our work.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” Although it’s yet to be considered an official medical diagnosis, it’s a real problem that many workers experience.
The WHO ICD-11 defines burnout as follows:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Signs and Symptoms of Burnout
The symptoms of burnout can vary from person to person, but there are some common signs, which include:
- Change in sleep patterns
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope or feel better
- Experiencing unexpected physical problems such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, or compromised immune systems
- Increased and persistent feelings of cynicism and disillusionment with work
- Loss of motivation
- Changes in mood, such as irritability, impatience, anger, or sadness
Causes of Burnout
There is no single cause of burnout. It’s usually the result of several combined factors and both internal and external factors play a role. In addition, underlying conditions such as depression may surface as burnout.
Burnout can also be more common among certain individuals based on their personalities or the type of work they do. For example, people with the traits of “perfectionists” or “workaholics” may be more susceptible to burnout.
In addition, people in “helping” professions such as healthcare, social work, teaching, or ministry may be more susceptible to burnout. These professionals are charged with helping people who are experiencing difficult life circumstances.
Working in a high-stress environment can lead to burnout. This is especially true if you feel you have little control over your work or are not given the resources you need to do your job effectively.
Burnout can also occur when there’s a mismatch between your values and the organization’s values. For example, if you value creativity but work in a very rigid and structured environment.
Risk factors and common causes of burnout:
- Unrealistic expectations – from yourself or others
- Lack of control over your work situation
- Unclear job expectations
- Excessive workload
- Lack of support from family, friends, or your community
- Dysfunctional workplace dynamics
- Struggle with work-life balance
Are Pastors More Prone to Burnout?
Being a pastor is not an easy job! In addition to the common causes of burnout that we just discussed, some unique elements of ministry leave pastors susceptible to burnout.
According to a paper published in Pastoral Psychology, pastor burnout advances across the three dimensions of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced accomplishment. This survey of 270 pastors found that spiritual dryness was the primary predictor of emotional exhaustion.
Furthermore, the 2021 Barna study on pastors’ well-being found that less than 30% rated themselves as excellent in any of the following categories:
- Relational well-being (27% excellent)
- Spiritual well-being (28% excellent)
- Physical well-being (18% excellent)
- Emotional well-being (19% excellent)
- Vocational well-being (29% excellent)
- Financial well-being (25% excellent)
Challenges in any of these dimensions of well-being can ultimately lead to prolonged stress and its ill effects, and eventually burnout.
You can also see some of the unique requirements of modern pastoring that lead to burnout. Here are seven unique challenges that pastors face.
A demanding schedule is a primary challenge for pastors. They are often expected to be available 24/7 for emergencies or special prayer requests.
Pastors have to prepare for services 52 weeks a year. Unlike other jobs that may have seasonal ebbs and flows, the demands of ministry are consistent and constant. In addition, pastors have to prepare and deliver a weekly message. Public speaking is incredibly taxing, both physically and emotionally, and opens you up to constant feedback.
And today’s expectations for ministry go well beyond Sunday service. Many pastors are expected to lead an organization in a CEO-type role, attend weekly events, and be available for their congregation at all times.
In addition to the demands of their schedule, pastors also carry a lot of emotional weight. As the shepherd of their flock, pastors feel responsible for the well-being of their congregation. This can be an immense amount of pressure!
Pastors often counsel people through difficult life circumstances such as job loss, divorce, or death. It can be emotionally taxing to hear tragic stories and help people work through their pain.
In addition, pastors are often the ones that have to deliver difficult news to their congregation, whether that’s announcing a death in the church family or asking for financial support for ministry projects.
Lack of Control and Unpredictability
One of the primary risk factors for occupational is lack of control in the workplace, which is undoubtedly the case for pastors. A pastor never knows when the next personal crisis, unexpected death, or other trauma might surface among church members.
Pastors must also deal with largescale issues such as church conflict, financial difficulties, or declining attendance. Other unpredictable challenges include national strife, natural disasters, political division, and scandalous stories about ministry leaders surfacing. Senior church leaders are often required to respond to these delicate and volatile issues.
Isolation and Loneliness
Another challenge that pastors face is isolation. Because they are often the only pastor in their church, they can feel alone in their role and lifestyle. Often, pastors think they cannot confide in anyone about the challenges they’re facing without fear of judgment, exposure, or repercussions.
If pastors feel like they have no one to turn to when they’re struggling, this can lead to loneliness and unhealthy coping mechanisms. As we all know, social support is vital for mental and emotional health.
Competition and Comparison
Pastors can easily fall into the trap of competition and comparison. These days, the standards are higher than ever and every one’s life is broadcast across the internet.
In addition to pastoring, many pastors feel pressured to write books, improve their video and communication skills, and have a successful social media presence. Social media can be a particularly difficult area for pastors. There’s a trap of constant comparison – for both individuals and churches.
If other churches have a homeless ministry, small groups with childcare for single moms, and mission trips to Africa, pastors may feel pressured to pioneer those same ministries at their church. However, this can overstretch resources, time, and capacity.
Conflict in Leadership
Being in ministry means being in the “people business.” And where there are people, there will inevitably be conflict. Pastors often find themselves in the middle of church conflict, whether it’s between two staff members, lay leaders, or church members.
Conflict resolution is a delicate and time-consuming process. In addition to the emotional toll that it takes on pastors, dealing with conflict also consumes a lot of time and energy.
To sum it up, we could say that pastors in the modern church are beset by unrealistic expectations. Although we have more technology and resources at our fingertips than ever before, we still can’t say yes to everything.
Pastors are expected to be all-around superhuman leaders, communicators, social media stars, authors, missionaries, visionaries, spouses, parents, and people…but that’s unrealistic. Although pastors are called to be holy, they are still only human.
5 Safeguards for Preventing Pastor Burnout
Perhaps you recognize the risks listed above and have experienced them as a pastor or ministry leader. We encourage you to look beyond the burnout statistics and recognize that many pastors are called to ministry and serve vibrantly for 50-plus years. And you can be in this category!
Here are five safeguards for pastors to avoid burnout and ensure they finish their race well.
1. Spiritual Renewal
A pastor’s personal spiritual disciplines are vital for long-term health and longevity. It’s tempting for pastors to constantly think of others’ needs or study the Bible through the lens of sermon preparation. Instead, however, leaders must take time to commune with the Lord to build their personal relationship and intimacy with Him.
2. Rhythm of Rest
The pastor’s role is unique in that it never really ends. This makes it difficult to establish personal boundaries.
Spiritual leaders frequently ignore their body’s needs for rest and care. It can be tempting to think you can override physical warning signs and issues with prayer and a strong enough spiritual resolve. But sometimes, our bodies desperately need rest, attention to nutrition and exercise, and maybe even a trip to the doctor.
God has called us to Sabbath rest for a reason, and it’s essential for our physical, mental, and emotional health. Pastors should develop a rhythm of rest that includes weekly Sabbath, regular vacations, and personal days off. In addition, extended breaks and periodic sabbaticals can provide significant refreshment.
3. Supportive Community and Accountability
As mentioned before, pastors need to have a supportive community, both inside and outside the church. These people can provide a listening ear, prayer support, and helpful advice.
It’s also essential to have people in your life who will hold you accountable. We all need friends and mentors who know us well enough to confront us when we’re out of line. These individuals help us to stay sharp and maintain perspective. They also care enough to notice when something is off and help you through it.
We also need to talk about family.
Your family is your inner circle and highest priority when it comes to relationships and quality time. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring the needs of those closest to you so you can minister to others or attend every event. In turn, keep open communication and accept feedback and support from your family when they offer it.
4. Build a Team
In Exodus 18, Moses’ father-in-law Jethro comes for a visit and observes Moses judging the people from morning to evening. Then he told Moses, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18)
This passage is the quintessential teaching on leadership and delegation (and getting an outside perspective – Jethro may have been the first unofficial ministry consultant).
You can’t do it all as a leader! You need to build trustworthy teams and sound systems in order to have a healthy church body. Assess your current workload and figure out where you can
5. Clear Priorities and Boundaries
Pastors need to be clear on their priorities. Too often, they become so enmeshed in the church that they sacrifice their families, health, and personal life on the altar of ministry.
When God calls you to be a pastor, it’s easy for your identity to become wrapped up in the role. Remember that your pastor title doesn’t define you – it’s what you do, not who you are. You are first and foremost a child of God, saved by His grace.
Be clear about your priorities and make time for the things that matter most: your relationship with God, your family, and your health. Set boundaries as needed to protect these areas of your life.
Summing it Up
Pastor burnout is a real problem that can have serious consequences. But you don’t need to walk in fear. If God has called you to be a pastor, rest assured He has a good plan to prosper you (Jeremiah 29:11). It’s vital that you don’t get caught up in performance, working excessively, and comparing yourself to others.
Instead, put the five safeguards mentioned in this article into place and check in with yourself regularly. By doing so, you can prevent pastor burnout and live a healthy, balanced life.
Do you have any other suggestions for preventing pastor burnout? Share in the comments below!