Burnout among pastors and ministry leaders is a very real and perhaps escalating problem. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines burnout as “the condition of someone who has become very physically and emotionally tired after doing a difficult job for a long time.” Anyone in any profession can experience burnout, but those who serve churches in leadership positions are particularly susceptible.
“For pastors the pace is relentless, the needs are unending and the expectation that [they] should have the right answer for every question is ever-present,” reports Vanderbloemen, a Christian executive search and advisory firm. Ministry can be draining, and many pastors I’ve visited with recently indicate that they are feeling some or a lot of burnout, especially due to COVID-19 related demands.
You might be asking: “Isn’t it a privilege to be a pastor? Isn’t it fulfilling?” Absolutely! As a person who has been involved in full-time ministry for 30 years, I can easily say that being in ministry is very rewarding. It is a privilege to be in these positions of kingdom work. But that’s also why, when I felt drained from the demands placed on me, I fought off that feeling. I didn’t think I had the right to feel drained or exhausted. Surely Jesus would just give me more energy or perseverance. I found out a little too far into ministry life that this attitude was totally wrong. About that time, a mentor said to me, “If you won’t take care of yourself, who will?”
Pastors and ministry leaders need to take care of themselves by making sure that they pursue time with spouses and family, extended vacations (not just a day or two), hobbies, exercise, reading (not for sermon preparation), healthy eating, counseling, meaningful friendships and a lot of alone time with God. Spouses often experience the weight of ministry as well and should likewise take this to heart. It’s vital that spouses talk to one another about feeling tired and sapped. It’s much too easy to get caught in the trap of just continuing on and on without processing what’s really happening to our bodies, souls and closest relationships.
To those in the church: please take care of your pastors and ministry leaders. Provide them with down time and paid vacations. I’ve heard of pastors who are required to preach 50-51 weeks out of the year. That’s just asking for trouble. I’ve pleaded with churches to provide sabbaticals for their pastoral staff. These times of disconnect and refreshment can mean the difference between a pastor who burns completely out and one who feels renewed and strong for the task.
Please don’t use the argument I hear too often: “Why should our pastor have a sabbatical? I don’t get one.” If that’s you, I invite you to study how pastors and their churches both greatly benefit from sabbaticals. The two sabbaticals I’ve had over these 30 years have been amazingly restorative for my heart and soul.
If your pastor has been serving for a time, surprise them with a fully paid personal retreat—and include the spouse. If they are the main teaching pastor, give them regular breaks, freeing them from the taxing cycle of research, preparation and presentation. If they’re involved in other kinds of work in the church, provide substitutes from time to time. They will be grateful and healthier in the long run.
I once heard a trustee, not one I served under, say, “We go by the principle of squeezing the most out of him (the pastor) while paying the least he can survive on. After all, he’s in ministry.” The man was dead serious. I hope none of our churches think this way, even a little bit. Honor the men and women in our churches who serve in ministry positions. Encourage them in small and big ways to take care of themselves and do your part to help make that a reality.
Don Morris is the USMB national director. He and his wife, Janna, live in Edmond, Oklahoma, where they attend Cross Timbers Church.