Six months ago, for the first time in 13 years as a pastor, I seriously contemplated doing something else. I was burnt out.
Many of you reading are probably surprised by this confession. For people in my church, you probably had no idea that I was experiencing burnout. Maybe you’re surprised that anyone ‘called’ to the ministry could be experiencing such debilitating feelings and want to quit. But others, you’re surprised that it took me 13 years to experience it. You’ve been there. You’re already there. And you’ve not even hit year five.
I’m not writing this to share my experiences of burnout, or analyze the reasons why it happens. I also know that ministry burnout can happen to anyone: lay, part-time, or full-time. However, since many pastors and others in vocational full-time ministry find it extremely difficult to share about our struggles until we’re right at the end of our tether, I’d like to share—from the perspective of a pastor to those in our congregations—some suggestions on how you can help your pastors when they’re not doing so well.
Pastoral ministry is not the only job with enormous pressures. Many of my own congregation members have highly stressful and difficult jobs. However, there are some unique challenges in full-time pastoral ministry that combine to make burnout (and other associated mental health struggles such depression and anxiety) more likely.
Acknowledgment is the first step. If pastors know that the people they love and care for, and who equally love and care for them, are trying to understand the pressures they face, they don’t feel so alone. It helps a lot to know in the midst of struggles that you are not alone and that people are trying to understand and care for you.
Paul Tripp’s book, Dangerous Calling, is a must-read in this regard. Anyone doing full-time ministry or preparing for it must read it. Everyone else who loves and cares for those doing full-time ministry should read it as well.
R U OK Day is a helpful social media phenomenon. When someone is struggling, the simple question “Are you okay?” shows that you’re being cared for. It’s a comfort to know there’s at least someone who is interested in what may otherwise be a secret struggle.
Ask your pastors if they’re okay. Ask them if there are things that you can pray for. Be willing to follow-up on those prayer points and those answers. And depending on your relationship with them, be willing to ask, “Are you really okay?”
However, understand that it’s part of a pastor’s role not to overshare. Pastors and senior church leaders constantly need to exercise wisdom in how much information to share and to whom. It’s how we lead our people and care for our sheep. Oversharing can lead to instability, gossip, and loss of confidence in the leadership.
So be sensitive in this regard. Don’t hound your pastor at morning tea until he can look you in the eye and answer the “Are you okay?” question without blinking or turning away. Recognize there’s a time and a place and different relational levels to be able to do this and do this well. Be willing to occasionally get the “yeah, I’m okay”, even if you suspect there’s more to it. But ask. It’s wonderful to know that your congregation care for you and care enough to ask.
I have a special folder on my computer with years of encouraging emails people have sent me. Trust me. It’s much more meaningful to your pastor than you realize.
Pastoral burn-out usually comes with wave-after-exhausting-wave of problems and discouragements and complaints. So when we get a message or email that isn’t an issue, but rather an encouragement or pat on the back, it’s such a breath of fresh air. One of these will keep you going for days, even weeks.
So don’t wait. Let your pastor know whenever they have positively impacted your life. It goes a long way.
Your pastor has a day off. They also have holidays. Find out when those times are, and protect them by waiting to email, call, or message them.
Your pastor has other capable and wonderful leaders who serve with them and under them. Work out who to direct concerns to. Not everything has to be on your pastor’s to-do or to-solve list. And if you’re one of those capable and wonderful leaders, regularly and proactively ask your pastor what you can take off their hands.
Ministry burnout happens not simply because someone’s doing too much. It happens because what they spend their time and energy doing is disproportionate to what is central to their calling and gifts. Most of your pastors are primarily called to preach and teach and lead. Make sure they’re not doing all the stuff that others could do, so that they can do more of what is core to their ministry.
Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t mean that you’re not allowed to have crises or be in need of special pastoral attention and care. Your pastors love you and see it as part of their role as shepherds to come alongside you in your time of trouble. That’s what they and other church family members are there to do. In fact, this whole post works on the assumption that your pastors face crises too. They also have times of instability and require special care.
However, there is a lot to be said for those congregation members who are reliable, dependable, and stable. They’re mature Christians. They’re mature people. They’ve worked out how to ‘grow themselves up’ (Jenny Brown’s book by the same title is a great read for anyone who wants to know how to develop personal and relational maturity).
When there are enough of these people to reach a tipping point in a congregation, it makes the pastor’s job so much easier. It also allows the pastors to delegate and share their responsibilities more widely, and reduce their chances of burning out.
So do your pastor (and yourself) a favour and aim to grow in your character, maturity, and dependability.
If your pastor is struggling, there’s a chance things aren’t great at home. There’s a chicken-and-egg thing that can occur with struggles in church and at home. It could be that home-life is adding pressure to the ministry: a tired and battle-weary husband or father finds it even harder to cope with church problems. Or it could be that ministry pressures are creating more problems at home: tempers are shorter, marriages strained, children distanced. Or it could be that the two cycle endlessly into the other and the problems are compounded.
How can you care for your pastor by caring for their family? Don’t forget that your struggling pastor may have a struggling spouse or children. Don’t forget to ask them the “Are you okay?” and “How can I pray for you?” sort of questions. Offer them practical help.
Be careful though. Don’t use the pastor’s spouse or family members a way to find out information that the pastor is otherwise unwilling to share. It’s called triangulating, and it doesn’t help the pastor and his family members grow in their trust and support of each other.
It’s the last point because it’s the most important.
Satan would love nothing more than to destroy a church by destroying its shepherd. Your pastor’s struggle is not just a physical, mental, or emotional. It’s spiritual (Eph 6:10-20).
So pray for your pastors: regularly, persistently, and specifically.
I’ve learnt a lot from my recent burnout. I’m thankful that it seems have slowly turned a positive corner, though I don’t think I’m completely recovered.
One of the key realizations during this time is that God’s people are more willing to help than I’ve given them credit for—or allowed them to be. I wouldn’t be recovering if it weren’t for these ordinary brothers and sisters in my church and on my leadership teams. That’s why these seven suggestions to you, congregation members, actually matter. I know you love your pastors. I know you hate to see them struggle, depressed and burnt out. And so I hope to see you exercise the same kind of care for your pastors as I’ve received.