Pastors and priests have a hard job. They pour themselves out and care for others until it hurts. They are held to (impossibly?) high moral standards. They carry the heavy burden of spiritual leadership. They’re often underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated. Rarely do people think about their pastor during the week unless they need something. And, after all that, pastors and priests are still expected to have a showroom-worthy home life. It’s tough work.
Not surprisingly, church leaders often struggle with burnout. Pastoral burnout isn’t a mystery either. Sometime’s called “compassion fatigue,” it’s a kind of work-induced depression marked by overextending oneself. It’s often very treatable with some Christian love, rest, and healthy boundaries. Before pastoral burnout explodes in a community shaking, church-splitting disaster story like an ugly divorce, moral collapse, or a suicide attempt, we do well to look for advanced working signs.
Seven signs of Burnout
1. If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself
(Lone Wolf Syndrome)
Church leadership is a male-dominated profession even though most church congregations are predominately female. And one common quality of alpha males and male leaders is the “lone wolf” approach. From the proud little boy who wants to pour his own cereal before he’s big enough to hold the box, all the way to grown men trying to assemble a backyard swingset without looking at the instructions. Male “independence” isn’t all bad. But when taken to extremes it’s a crushing burden. I myself am terrible at asking for help, but my wife is slowly breaking me of this habit. It is a very bad habit though. When church leaders are burning out, they often have too tight a grip on everything they touch – leading too many projects, micromanaging committees, not delegating, not asking for help, and basically trying to do everything themselves. It takes humility and self-awareness to ask for help, but without help, anyone can burnout.
2. No time for sharpening, there’s too much wood to chop.
It takes time and energy to learn things. But, when church leaders are burning out, they typically don’t have the time and energy to be learning anything new. They can call upon their past lessons for a while, from seminary days perhaps, but eventually, they run dry. Without a crop of fresh insights into Scripture, life, and the Lord, they have diminishing fuel for their teaching ministry. Their lessons get boring and repetitive. Or they may lean heavier on opinion, distractions, and fluff to compensate for a lack of substance. To avoid the long hours of original research, many pastors have even resorted to plagiarism (presenting other people’s sermons as one’s own).
3. Forget the Sabbath and keep it busy.
It has been said that “there is no music without the pause between the notes.” In Scripture, the Sabbath is the regular, weekly pause, between out labors. It’s not just a day of rest, it’s a sacred pause – a holiday/Holy-day. There’s a reason the Sabbath mandate is one of the most repeated laws in Scripture. We need weekly sabbath and vacations just as our life song needs space between the notes of our busy schedule. I’m not recommending a legalistic adherence to the Sabbath laws, but rather a deliberate investment in the Sabbath principle. When church leaders are facing burnout, they have often abandoned the practice of sabbath a long time ago. Likewise, their vacations, and irregular breaks, have thinned out too.
4. I’ll rest when I’m dead.
Compared to the regular Sabbath rhythms in the music of our lives, a Sabbatical, it’s more like a break between the songs or a pause between changing out records (vintage vinyl of course!). A sabbatical is a different level of rest and a vitally important spiritual discipline for healthy church leaders. A sabbatical isn’t just a 1-2 week vacation. A sabbatical is a sabbath season devoted to rest, recuperation, and revitalization. A short sabbatical would be maybe 3 weeks, but 1-6 months is more suitable, especially for leaders of a large congregation (say, 750 people or more). Some spiritual leaders and educators will have a year or more, to focus on things like writing and research projects, or life-transformation (like clinical inpatient, recovery, and counseling programs).
Most pastors barely get a full week-long vacation during the year. Or they have to split up their rest periods into a few 3 day weekends and a 4-day family trip. But, without an extended break time, it’s hard to really unwind in that time, much less find the space and leisure for serious inner growth. This is odd because academia has been operating on the Sabbatical system for ages. Teachers get 2-3 months off from teaching where they are able to go on trips, take classes, read books, research and write all to keep their skills sharp. Great teachers are the best students. Church leaders have just as much need, if not more since they aren’t just trying to convey information and study skills. Pastors are trying to impart life-change, inner healing, repentance, worldview training, character development, spiritual wisdom, and all sorts of sublime lessons in life. These needs require the leader to have a great deal of emotional maturity, life-experience, depth of character, etc. If the pastor hopes to be an effective discipler, he needs to have enough time and opportunity to be a disciple himself. In other words, pastors and priests need to have “off” seasons where they can focus on things like solitude, study, (Christian) meditation, prayer, and a whole array of spiritual disciplines and experiences that cannot be rushed.
5. I’m not scared, I’m just “concerned.”
Everyone has some degree of anxiety. But when we have rest, healthy relationships, and a balanced lifestyle we can handle anxiety-triggers more effectively. Besides supernatural help – “Peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4:7) – we can also say little prayers, seek Christian counsel, breath-deeply, pace ourselves, avoid unnecessary triggers, and so forth. When church leaders are approaching burnout, however, they are spread too thin for all that. They don’t have the extra energy for emotional maturity, foresight, and caution to temper their nerves. Their anxiety may show up in high blood pressure, fitful sleep, nervous behavior (nail-biting, facial ticks, pacing, etc.). The sufferer can also succumb to clinical anxiety, irrational fears, and paranoia.
6. Miles to go before I sleep.
(Lack of Sleep/Restlessness)
It’s one thing to be a little busy, or have a late-night or two during the week. But pastors bordering on burnout are running on fumes. They don’t get enough rest and downtime between activities to recharge. They don’t have enough alone-time. And, of course, they struggle to get enough sleep. When they do get a lot of time for sleep, they are too fitful and anxious to have restful sleep. They may be experiencing insomnia, a common sign of anxiety and depression. Or they may just be so busy (often by their own choosing) that they push themselves past their limits. That means their healthy social boundaries can break down as they try to be everyone’s hero. And their natural rhythms careen out of control as pastoral work overruns their sleep schedule. Sometimes the solution is as simple as a pastor finally accepting the fact that he cannot operate on 5 hours of sleep a night like he did back in college. He’ll probably also need to set some boundaries to “keep work at work,” like leaving screens and phones out of the bedroom, and not answering emails or calls between 8pm and 8am. Whatever else he may need for recovery, there is no long-term solution without reclaiming the sanctity of blessed rest.
7. I get so angry sometimes!
Another sign of burnout is growing anger and frustration. Sometimes anger shows up in loud blusterous outbursts. But often pastors are so well-trained at sublimating their anger that it only surfaces in passive aggression, slight tonal changes, and things like that. People differ in the ways they express anger. But however that anger shows up, burnout is a frustrating place to be, and so it’s entirely normal for that felt-sense of frustration to spill out. Concerned loved ones do well to notice the anger and frustration, but they may have to be strategic in addressing it. Before reacting with an escalating snide comeback, or chiding them for their anger, maybe a loved one can ask “Is something bothering you?” Remember, “a soft answer turns away wrath.” And some grace and patience may create enough safe space for them to discuss what’s really bothering them. When sinful angry outbursts are symptoms of a deeper problem, we should simply prune those angry outbursts. We need to find ways to create a healthy and safe place to explore and express deeper sources of frustration.
These seven signs are just a sample. We could also highlight (8) drastic changes in appetite, (9) emotional regression, (10) learned helplessness, (11) preoccupation/obsession with death, (12) increasingly dark humor, (13) alcoholism, (14) porn addiction, and (15) growing immorality/sin. Pastoral burnout can have some common signs, but ultimately there is no single playbook for identifying and addressing it. People are different, Any given pastor will need personalized grace, and specialized support, as they learn how to walk in health and wholeness. The threat of burnout is too serious to ignore. It is long past the time for Churches to “raise their game” in the field of mental health.
I’ve said it before but the most popular and flagrant discrimination in the church is around mental health. Perhaps the Christian church needs a collective reevaluation of our theology of mental health? I would love to offer a neat, clean, list of resources that can solve any burnout cases you have in mind. But this isn’t my field of specialty, and frankly, most pastors on the brink of burnout probably need a personal encounter with friends and loved ones more than they need a book or website about depression. To any pastor or priest reading this, if you think you might be burning out please know there is hope, there are solutions. Please be patient. Be honest with yourself and your loved ones. And ask for help. Keep asking till you find the help you need.