Prevent So You Don't Have to Recover
Burnout is a widespread problem not only in our society but in the church. Pastors are not immune to this, with surveys revealing high levels of stress, depression, and burnout leading to broken bodies, broken minds, broken hearts, broken marriages, and broken churches. Burnout is responsible for 20% of all pastoral resignations, which is hardly surprising, given that that pastors relegate physical exercise, nutrition, and sleep to a much lower priority than the average worker.
In Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, I explore a number of ways to help men overcome burnout. In this post, I want to explore three other areas with the purpose of helping pastors in particular not only recover from burnout but also prevent it.
Although Crossway’s burnout research (see the infographic) reveals that the causes of pastoral burnout are similar to those of Christian men in general (work pressure, too little time off, financial need, home pressures, criticism from others, too little sleep, and too little exercise) there was a significant difference in one area: 28% of pastors cited criticism from others as a factor compared with only 18% of laymen making reference to this.
Are pastors more sensitive to criticism, or are they more subject to it? Whatever the answer, a “thicker skin” would appear to be a helpful defensive measure. Twenty-seven percent of pastors admitted that caring less about the opinions of others would have helped prevent burnout.
In making the case for a “thicker skin,” I’m not suggesting that pastors become stubbornly impervious to criticism, but rather that pastors develop skills in discerning when criticism is valid or invalid, in balancing the consideration of criticism with consideration of encouragements, and in keeping the opinion of God in the primary place, with the opinions of others a distant second (Prov. 29:25). This is a mental and spiritual battle that we can become more skilled at with practice, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and perhaps with the help of a trusted elder or pastoral colleague.
Crossway’s research suggests that the effects of burnout upon pastors appear to be less than upon men in general. For example, only 18% of pastors admitted that burnout resulted in sin in their lives, whereas 37% of men, in general, confessed that connection. I wonder if pastors are being honest here because, in my experience of counseling pastors, sin is equally present in their burnouts.
Pastors may be reluctant to admit that their ministry lifestyle is causing sin in their lives because, after all, they are involved in holy work and they are expected to live more holy lives than others. However, unless pastors face up to reality, they will not take the steps required to prevent further damage to their souls and will, therefore, increase the risk of spiritual destruction.
Pastors sometimes seem to think that because they are engaged in the Lord’s work that they can override the basic rules and limitations of ordinary humanity. God may allow and enable a pastor to do great things for a limited season for special spiritual purposes, but when that becomes a long-term pattern or even a lifestyle, then it becomes not just physically but morally and spiritually dangerous. I’ve had broken and burned out pastors admit to me that the warning signs were all there, but they ignored them or “pressed override” thinking that they would be the exceptions to the rule, only to eventually discover they were not.
Only 10% of pastors who suffered burnout reached out for medical help compared to 15% of laymen and 27% of laywomen. Might this indicate a degree of shame or pride in pastors that make them reluctant to reach out for help?
But why not? Yes, there are spiritual dimensions in burnout that need to be addressed, but there are also physical dimensions that need the help of trained physicians. If God has graciously provided medical research, and even medications, that can help address some of the symptoms of burnout, why would we turn down such good gifts from God? We’re not supermen. We are frail, flesh-and-blood humanity.
When I counsel pastors with burnout, stress, anxiety, or depression, I often find a strange reluctance to address the physical side of their suffering and an obsession with the spiritual. The spiritual side of things has to be addressed of course, especially because heart motivations are often the root cause of burnout. But even then, heart sins have consequences in the mind and in the body that may be so bad they require medical assistance of various kinds.
Even on the spiritual side of things, only 20% of pastors admitted that receiving counsel would have prevented their burnout, compared with 27% of laymen and 34% of laywomen (still low figures). Perhaps pastors are so used to giving counsel that they do not like to be on the receiving end of it.
Whether it’s physical, spiritual, emotional, or cognitive help that’s needed, pastors must cultivate the humility to ask for this early, in order to prevent burnout or something even worse.
This is a guest post by David Murray, author of Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture. The statistics cited below come from a survey of over six thousand people Crossway conducted in September 2016. Be sure to take a look at Crossway's burnout infographic for more statistics related to this important (yet neglected) issue. The post first appeared on Crossway.org
 Lisa Cannon-Green, “Why 734 Pastors Quit (and How Their Churches Could Have Kept Them),” Christianity Today, January 12, 2016, http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/january/why-734-pastors-quit-how-churchescould-have-kept-them.html.
 Gary Harbaugh, Pastor as Person: Maintaining Personal Integrity in the Choices and Challenges of Ministry (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1984), 47.