How to Avoid Pastoral Burnout (Before It’s Too Late)

by Brandon D. Smith September 15, 2016

I heard the news with sadness that another pastor had to step down from the pastorate of the church he'd planted. The church grew wildly, and all looked well. But it wasn't. He didn't have to step down because of moral failure or because of congregational mutiny. It's just that . . . he needs a break. He isn’t leading and loving well because he’s driving a car whose needle is firmly planted on E. In the end, he made the difficult decision to resign for his own good and for everyone else’s.

I think he did the right thing. Why? Because I did the same thing once, and it was water for my parched soul.

Out of the Spotlight

Nearly ten years ago, I became a youth pastor and knew I was “called” to the pastorate.  In my mind, God had set me aside before the foundation of the world to be a pastor. I was living my lifelong destiny.

In some ways, I was right. But in some ways, I was dead wrong.

God had called me to the pastorate, yes. It was no surprise that I was pastoring when I was. But I locked that “calling” in my brain-vault and never looked back in to see what God was doing in my life. I became a pastor instead of a child of God, and it began destroying me. Ministry became my idol, and I worshiped at the altar every Sunday.

Flash-forward to five years ago, I stepped down from pastoring a church I loved. I was tired. I was broken. I needed time to get out of the spotlight (literally) and be cared for.

Soon after I left, I began a pastoral internship at a larger church. I joined a community group (instead of leading one); I filled communion cups and plates on Sundays; and I helped with the church’s social media. As one of the pastors put it to me, “This is an opportunity for you to serve and be served, but also an opportunity to hide out for awhile and get some rest.” Medicine meet soul.

I was blessed to avoid being crushed by pastoral ministry, but others crumble under the weight of it before they have a chance to step aside for a moment.

Finding Rest

Pastoral ministry was one of the great joys of my life. In fact, I pray often that God would return me to pastoring a local church. This isn’t an article about how awful pastoral ministry is — it's about how beautiful rest can be.

Not every pastor should step away when they're tired or worn out. In fact, I don’t think most should. But every pastor should take inventory of their own lives to ensure that they don’t get to that point.

Every situation is different, but I know pastors get burned out more than they realize or admit. So, here are a few diagnostic questions to prevent against ever needing to step away like I did.

1. How do I spend my days?

My life was built around sermon prep, Bible study prep, or find-the-answer-for-Wednesday’s-counseling-session prep. I spent time in prayer or reading Scripture only to benefit my ministry. I never spent time there to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). If you’re praying and reading only for yourself, you’re not really praying or reading. More importantly, you’re re-enacting Genesis 3 instead of Genesis 1-2.

2. Am I in community?

Pastors are, in a real sense, natural-born leaders. They (we) get used to being up front, making decisions, and rallying troops. It’s easy to get wrapped up in leading and forget to be led. But even pastors need community, because all believers are called to serve one another with whatever gifts they’ve been given (1 Cor. 12:25-27; 1 Pet. 4:8-11). Pastors need other pastors and church members as much as they need their pastor.

3. Who is my God?

This was a question I answered too quickly because I’d forgotten points 1 and 2. Individually, I wasn’t praying and reading Scripture, so I wasn’t worshiping God in the ways he’d most directly given me. On the other end, I wasn’t in community and therefore I had no one consistently pointing me to Christ. I was resting in my work and in my weekly performances, but not in the One who offered me eternal rest (Heb. 4).

Pastor, turn your eyes away from yourself and even your church, and lift your eyes to the throne of grace. He will give you mercy. He will give you rest that no Sunday afternoon nap can compare with. Seek first his kingdom, and let everything else come with it.