Burnout. Pastors burn out a lot. Many of us leave ministry altogether and many more have at least thought about it. I certainly have. I’ve been a pastor for 35 years and on at least two occasions have seriously considered resigning my commission. Don’t misunderstand, I actually love gospel ministry, but that doesn’t mean I see it through rose-colored glasses. It is hard work and anybody who says otherwise either hasn’t really done it or is selling something.
Statistics on this subject vary, but all of them are alarming. In H.B. London’s book, Pastors at Greater Risk (Regal, 2003) he quotes a study done at Fuller Seminary which found, among other things, that some 80 percent of pastors believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively and 33 percent said it was an outright hazard to family life. 90 percent said they felt inadequately trained for ministry demands and 50 percent felt unable to keep up with their current workload. And get this: 60 percent said that church work negatively affected their passion for serving the Lord (!). Other research found that in our nation some 1,500 pastors per month leave their churches because of burnout, church conflict, or moral failure. Just under 50 percent of pastors say they have experienced depression and burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry.
I have no surprising new stats, no direct revelation from on high, and absolutely no desire to add one more thing to the to-do list. What I can offer is a brief look at two ways the Lord has helped me through times of burnout and depression. I have found spiritual refreshment when the following thoughts were flowing in my mind.
The gospel is more important and powerful than the church. Most of my stress is about the church, the relationships in the church, the effectiveness of the church, the health of the church, the mission of the church, and so on. It’s not that those topics are unimportant, they do have a place, but they are not center place. I started in pastoral work thinking more about the Lord and what He has done than about us and what we do. I started by begging the Lord to just anoint the teaching of His Word and the proclamation of the gospel so that one heart at a time would be transformed. But somehow I lost that first love (more than once actually) and began thinking about the church as if she were my bride instead of the Lord’s, outside the context of the power of the gospel and the Lordship of Jesus Himself. Then I fell into the trap of reading too many sociological books about the “church in America” (Funny how they write books about how goofy the American church is, never the African or European or South American church. Is that because Americans are the only ones who make mistakes, I wonder?). I found peace when I refocused on the fact that the gospel itself is transformative, not the church (Rom.1:16-17). And the church only maintains Spirit vibrancy when it lives out the gospel at the center. The gospel produces spiritual life on its own, and the church is the result – not the other way around (See Mark 4:26-29). By taking the gospel more seriously than the church I found a way to view the church in all its foolish glory with more “wobble room” in my heart, and with a sense of humor. This helped my stress level.
The Spirit was at work in the lives of these people before I got here, and in fact my input is secondary to what He is already doing. Eugene Peterson talks about this very principle in his writings. It has helped me to get the internal permission to say “no”, even to some good things, which, as every pastor knows, is the only way to reign in the galloping schedule. Some of our emotional exhaustion finds its source in our own sense of high calling, the crucial nature of what we do. But this inner voice of spiritual responsibility can get out of hand. For instance, pastors often work far past the “full time” quota of hours because it is hard to control their schedule when every demand has “eternal significance.” In a practical theology course I attended, the instructor, a well-known career pastor in his sixties, mentioned that he sought to keep his schedule down to about 50 hours a week, but that it regularly bounced at least ten hours higher than that. By my experience, he’s right on target. Pastoral hours creep upward stealthily, like blood pressure. How? By committing to good ministry plans, and then forgetting to count the time on the phone at night in crisis intervention, the emergency counseling on our days off or in the parking lot at Wal-Mart, and the fact that many pastors are at least “unofficially” on duty at virtually every social engagement they attend. This is because their social life consists of meetings, banquets, dinners, presentations, fund-raisers, and “fellowship times” sponsored by every committee, department, board, local church, parachurch ministry, mission, outreach, and initiative in the county. The problem here is not the goodness of it all but the sense that builds up in the compulsively responsible pastor (me), that to let any of these worthy ministries down by not showing up will be a sort of breach of contract. But if the Spirit is actually at work invisibly in every one of these organizations (like they all claim He is), then they really don’t need this pastor as much as they (or he) think they do. In fact, it might be a greater step of faith on the pastor’s part to stay home and watch TV with his kids than to attend yet one more gathering.
There are other more down-to-earth steps I have taken to manage my stress, such as ways of evaluating where my time goes. But without these two deeper convictions in place, nothing else will help.
Just a Thought,