Pastors used to be some of the happiest and healthiest people alive, with better life expectancy than the general population. But in “Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work,” journalist Paul Vitello reports, “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”
High levels of stress, depression, and burnout are leading to broken bodies, broken minds, broken hearts, broken marriages, and broken churches. According to Christianity Today, burnout is responsible for 20 percent of all pastoral resignations. That’s hardly surprising since surveys reveal that pastors relegate physical exercise, nutrition, and sleep to a much lower priority than the average worker.
I’ve been there and done that—and suffered the consequences. But through painful personal experience, and also through counseling many others since, I’ve learned that God has graciously provided a number of ways for us to reset our broken and burned-out lives, and to help us live a grace-paced life in a burnout culture. Before we get to these, let’s consider why so many pastors are joining these statistics.
WHY SO MUCH BURNOUT
First, the work is so enjoyable. Yes, there are discouraging times in pastoral ministry, but it’s often a dream job. We get to study God’s Word, preach the glorious gospel of grace, develop leaders, equip people to serve, and help people to die in faith. We see people growing in grace and gifts. It’s so satisfying and fulfilling that we sometimes want to do it all day and all night.
Second, the work is so endless. We could spend 50 hours on each sermon and still, it would not be “perfect.” There are always more people to visit, more souls to be evangelized, more articles to write, more ministries to launch, more opportunities to serve, more churches to plant. There’s no clock to punch, and there are no starting times or end times to the day. Even if we worked 24/7, there’s still more that could be done.
Third, the work is so momentous. Everyone’s role in life is important. Without garbage collectors, our streets would stink and disease would be rampant. Without glaziers, our homes would be either dark or drafty. But without pastors, souls will not be saved and multitudes would perish forever in hell. The consequences of our work are massive. How can we sleep or take a day off when there are perishing souls that need to be saved?
Fourth, the work is so unseen. So much of our work is invisible and intangible, we can be tempted to go into overdrive in more noticeable tasks in order to prove that we are as busy, strong, and needed as everyone else.
HOW TO RESET OUR LIVES
In Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, I explore a number of ways men in general, and pastors in particular, can learn how to live a grace-paced life in a burnout culture. From counseling a number of pastors through the reset process I’ve found that the quickest and most productive fixes are in the areas of sleep, Sabbath, and the sovereignty of God.
Paul Vitello’s survey into the decline of pastors’ health and happiness identified a number of causes: stress caused by cell phones and social media, a reduction in the availability of volunteers in the era of two-income households, and the misperceptions that taking care of themselves is selfish and that serving God means never saying no. Most of the research, however, showed that the biggest reason is simply that pastors aren’t taking one day off a week.
Pastors seem to think that “Six days you shall labor but the seventh day you shall do no work” (Ex. 20:9–10) has an asterisk: unless you’re a pastor, in which case you must work seven days a week. No, this is a divine command for all, not an optional suggestion for some. God designed this pattern of six days of work and one day of rest for perfect people in a perfect world. How much more do we need it? As Jesus said, he designed the Sabbath for our good (Mark 2:27).
We may think that doing without a weekly Sabbath will increase our productivity but, as Wayne Muller notes in his book on Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives, “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath—our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create Sabbath for us.” Similarly, pastor J. R. Briggs warned in Fail, “I have yet to meet a burned-out pastor who practiced Sabbath religiously.”
According to the Institute of Medicine, just one week of sleeping fewer than six hours a night results in damaging changes to more than seven hundred genes, coronary narrowing, and signs of brain tissue loss. The latter is partly because sleep activates the brain’s garbage disposal system, cleaning out toxins and waste products. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with increased risk of infection, stroke, cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, and infertility. In short, sleeping is not a useless waste of time, but an essential biological need that prevents infection and helps us maintain healthy bodies.
And it’s not just the body that benefits; sleep improves our brains, strengthens our resolve, increases self-discipline, elevates our emotions, improves our finances, and enhances our spiritual lives. As John Piper said, “For me, adequate sleep is not a matter of staying healthy. It is a matter of staying in the ministry.” Sleep is a gift from our gracious God to be received with gratitude and used for his glory and our good (Ps. 3:5; 4:8; 127:2).
The theological root of so much burnout is a failure to believe in the sovereignty of God. We simply don’t trust God to do the work that only he can do. We may subscribe confessionally to the sovereignty of God but practically we are living as if we are sovereign. I don’t think it’s a stretch to measure our functional belief in the sovereignty of God by counting the number of times we take 7-8 hours of sleep a week and the number of weeks in which we observe a weekly Sabbath. If we refuse these divine gifts, we are effectively preaching these two sermons:
I don’t trust God with my work, my church, or my family. Sure, I believe God is sovereign, but he needs all the help I can give him. If I don’t do the work, who will? Although Christ has promised to build his church, who’s doing the night shift?
I don’t respect how my Creator has made me. I am strong enough to cope without God’s gift of sufficient daily sleep and a weekly Sabbath. I refuse to accept my creaturely limitations and bodily needs. I see myself more as a self-sufficient machine than a God-dependent creature.
So, when conscience accuses, “There are souls to be saved, how can you rest?” our answer should be, “Because there are souls to be saved, I must get rest.”
Editor's Note: This originally published at 9Marks.org