Tom (not his real name) is reciting a typical litany of “pastoral struggles”—the staff member who probably shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, the disgruntled deacon with an agenda, church growth pains, the humbling adventure of raising PKs.
For the record, Tom has faithfully shepherded his church for more than a quarter of a century. He’s normally an animated, upbeat, high-energy guy.
Not today. Tom is unusally subdued. He looks, as they say out in west Texas, like he’s been “rode hard and put away wet.” Thankfully, he’s embarking on a week of much-needed R & R. (Too bad it can’t be a three-month sabbatical!)
Tom’s plight raises an urgent question:
How many thousands of ministers are like Tom, barely hanging on by a thread?
We all know the stats and stories about burnout are shocking. Burnout is a real deal. So maybe the better question is how can a ministry leader tell when he/she is on a dangerous course?
From conversations with lots of leaders, we present ten signs you’re on the fast track to burnout. (Maybe it will help to put a checkmark by the ones that describe your current experience?):
Spiritually weary? Check. Physically spent? Check. Emotionally exhausted? Creatively void? Relationally bereft? Check, check, check. Sadly, the metaphor that resonates with a lot of weary pastors is the image of a gas gauge, with the needle hovering just above “E.”
Maybe you can relate? Maybe you feel like you’ve got nothing left in your tank?
Your sermons fall short of the congregation’s expectations. Reliable volunteers are in short supply. Also, you notice you’re running short of mercy. In better times, you’d label struggling parishioners as “discouraged and confused.” Now, you see them as “whiny and annoying.” Worst of all, you’ve developed a short fuse. Little irritations are sparking big reactions. It used to be that you saw your calling as a blessing, now you see it as getting “the short end of the stick.”
Remember the ending of the movie Gone With the Wind…when that most Southern of belles says, “I’ll think about it tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day”? That’s oftentimes the mindset of the ministry leader who’s tottering on the cliffs of burnout. He/she keeps procrastinating and kicking the can down the road.
What about you? Have you been postponing decisions? Saying for at least a month that you really need to confront that passive-aggressive board member? Instead of picking up the phone and requesting a meeting, are you finding it easier to pick up the remote?
You used to laugh and be silly with your kids and do spontaneous things. Now you’re just grim all the time. When upbeat people start reciting positive Zig Ziglar or John Maxwell quotes, all you can mutter is “bah, humbug!”
My friend, if each morning brings only another day to be survived (instead of a wild, once-in-a-lifetime day to be lived to the full), you’re on a dangerous path.
No preacher sets out to be an “actor” (the Greek word, every pastor knows, is hypocrite). But some end up subscribing to the old “fake it till you make it” rule.
A pastor down in Louisiana admits “I thought that if I kept doing caring things, my caring pastoral heart would eventually catch-up. Then, one day it was like I had an out-of-body experience. I saw my external self: the cordial minister, smiling, patting folks on the back, acting like I was more interested than I really was, pretending I cared more than I actually did. I was playing the role of pastor, and it was an Oscar-worthy performance. Truth be told, I was preaching not because I had something to say, but because I had to say something—because it was Sunday again.”
That may be true for you today…your role and your soul are way out of alignment. Your public face and private face are out of sync. If so, that’s another warning sign of burnout.
One pastor confessed, “In my lowest moments, every time I got on the interstate to go west one exit, I’d think, “What if I just kept driving? What if I didn’t stop until I got to Colorado?”
Maybe you can relate. One minute you’re online looking for sermon illustrations. The next you’re staring at a website for beach vacation rentals or gawking at a picture of the Grand Tetons, or daydreaming about winning the Powerball.
To exhausted pastors, the old joke, “The ministry would be great—if it weren’t for all these pesky people!” isn’t so funny anymore. You really would like to withdraw from people, maybe join the Desert Fathers, even go off the grid.
One preacher said, “I’m not proud to admit this, but on grocery store runs, I caught myself pulling my cap down over my eyes and praying I wouldn’t see anyone I knew. I wanted two things: to be anonymous and invisible.”
What about you? Do you find yourself pulling back socially?
You know how when you’re sleep-deprived, you can’t focus or think straight? Well, when you’re spiritually and emotionally spent, your mind also plays funny tricks.
Here’s what one pastor said, “My experience was this: One moment my thoughts were like a sugared-up pack of 1st graders inside one of those birthday party inflatable bouncy houses—running and screaming and colliding into each other. An hour later, I’d find myself in the mental equivalent of a sugar coma—lethargic, lifeless, crashed, unable to summon a simple thought.”
Is that your experience? If so, it’s a sure sign that all is not well.
Every minister knows that “control” is an illusion. We’re always “in over our heads.” That’s why we smile when Paul asks in 2 Corinthians 3:5 who is adequate for such things? It’s why we nod when we sing the popular worship song that says “You call me out upon the waters. The great unknown where feet may fail.”
The burnout we’re talking about here is a different beast. Some feel it for months on end like they’re being swept down a rampaging river—just trying to avoid drowning, trying in vain not to splat against a boulder. If you’re there, you know how scary that feels.
One pastor admitted, “I remember one particular staff meeting in mid-May. Our children’s minister eagerly shared her summer plans for helping kids grow in the faith. Our student pastor spoke next, one-upping her with glowing details about mission trips and youth camps. In that vortex of enthusiasm, my honest thought? ‘I don’t care about any of this stuff.’
“Understand, it wasn’t that I didn’t believe my colleagues were pursuing eternally important ventures. They were planning good, God-honoring things. Personally, I just couldn’t muster up any kind of excitement. I couldn’t even summon the will to fake like I cared. That’s when I knew I was in big trouble.”
As you look back over these 10 warning signs, maybe you’re saying, “Me too, me too!” Maybe you have a few too many checked boxes?
If so, will do you two things?
The Scottish preacher George MacDonald said that “all things” are to lead us home to God. Even burnout can be a blessing, if we recognize it in time, address it, and learn from it.