Tips for RTS Students: A Checklist for Ministerial Burnout

Burnout cripples ministers and their work. I hope the advice that follows will help you avoid it. Or, if you believe you’re burned out now, I want to offer you a path forward.

Let’s begin with a definition. My definition of burnout is “physical or mental breakdown caused by overwork.” Some of us routinely overwork to the point that our physical and mental health are jeopardized.

Overwork takes a frightening toll, but the way to meet the problem is rather simple:

See a doctor. Work-induced exhaustion is a medical issue. The symptoms need to be treated and a medical cause (for example, sleep apnea) may be a contributing factor.

Seek mature counsel and accountability. Identify someone who can help you establish and maintain a reasonable work schedule. Accountability may mean the difference between staying or leaving the ministry.

Seek from the Lord the grace you need to practice what you believe. While you are frail and mortal and must rest, the Lord “who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Ps. 121:4). He is always working for you in Jesus Christ. Let your theology govern your schedule.

Can we attribute weariness in ministry to burnout when, in fact, some other cause besides work produces our loss of physical energy and mental focus? I think so. After all, some students and pastors claim burnout, but their workload isn’t nearly as heavy as members in their congregations who aren’t burned out. Why do men feel burned out but are not actually overworked?

Intense suffering is one possibility. At times, seemingly intractable problems make even small amounts of ministerial work all but impossible: catastrophic health problems, the breakdown of a marriage, or rebellion of a child. These are terrible circumstances in which any one of us might find ourselves. But the path forward is clear: We we need the support and counsel and encouragement of our brothers. The sooner we seek it the better off we will be and – just as importantly – so will the congregations we serve. I am glad we live in an era where skilled Christian psychiatrists and psychologists are available to assist with theological, medical, and experienced help.

But often (and perhaps most of the time) weariness in ministry is is not caused by overwork or intractable problems. Instead, we’ve crossed boundaries we shouldn’t have. Or, we have torn down boundaries we should have left in place. The result is we’re frustrated, and hurt, and angry. We use the term burnout to describe our situation, but the real problem is not overwork. It’s our own carelessness.

Here’s a checklist that may help you pinpoint the problem.

Check your calling. One reason you may feel overwhelmed is the weight of your ministerial calling. It is special, and we bear a special responsibility before the Lord. I often think of Pastor Paul, who wrote: “For necessity is laid on me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16).” At another place he asks, “Who is sufficient for these things” (2 Corinthians 2:16)? He confesses that “there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).

The responsibilities of ministry become wearying unless we continually remind ourselves that our sufficiency comes from God (2 Corinthians 3:5-6). In times of distress, remember the Lord sees your situation more clearly than you do. He understands (better than you do) the physical weakness you experience, the burdens you carry, and the hardness of your own heart.

He has given you co-workers in the gospel so you don’t go at it alone. It’s okay to say to our elders, ‘I don’t have the strength or wisdom or courage I need. Won’t you talk and pray with me?’

Check your secret prayer. Bishop H.C.G. Moule said “the heart of the minister’s life is the man’s Secret Communion with God.”[1] Seek the grace you need to minister the word. Seek the grace your congregation needs to receive the word. How tiring ministry is if we’ve become slack in our personal communion with the Lord. Guard your time alone with the Lord.

Check your affection for your people. Sinful anger, bitterness, and an unforgiving spirit are barriers between you and your people.

Ask yourself hard questions: Is your ministry marked by gentleness, patience, and forgiveness? Without these virtues avoidable conflict will follow, and conflict always wearies.

Here’s one way to test the level of affection you have for your people: How do you talk about your flock when you are with other ministers or alone with your spouse? Listen to yourself. Habitual complaining saps spiritual strength.  

Are you avoiding your flock? Have you set up barriers that keep them at a distance? Godly affection requires being physically present with people. Traditional shepherding ministry means visiting people in their homes, at the hospital, and wherever else your people need the attention of their shepherd. A visitation schedule can spread the work out over time, and build affection with your congregation. If you don’t know how to establish a healthy schedule, seek the advice of an experienced pastor who does.

Check your expectations. Some new ministers don’t know what to do when they are not immediately popular and esteemed. Patience is a must. Trust must be earned. Give the congregation time to get to know you. Provide them with sensitive and skilled pastoral care, and you will find that your congregation increasingly cares for you.

Check your ability to relate to people who are different. You may have entered the ministry without experience with people outside your own racial, ethnic, economic, and educational background. Your own personal history becomes a barrier to comfortable relationships with those quite different from you.

I am grateful that I grew up in a lower middle class home, went to public school, and worked in farms, factories, construction, and sales. By necessity, I became comfortable working with and serving different kinds of people.

Ministry is hard if you can’t relate comfortably to people whose backgrounds and life experiences are not like yours. For you to enjoy ministry, barriers need to come down so you can widen your circle of friendships.

Check your leadership experience. Leadership is frustrating when you’re inexperienced – and people quickly become frustrated with you when you don’t know how to lead!

Fortunately, leadership skills can be learned. Begin by identifying a pastor with those gifts who is willing to invest time in you; attend pastoral leadership conferences; read leadership books.

Check your Sabbath-keeping. God has stamped a day of rest and refreshment on every believers calendar. That day is Sunday – the Lord’s Day – the Christian sabbath. My practice is to complete my sermon preparations prior to Sunday, and to do no more than review my notes and pray before I speak. I encourage my churches not to conduct business meeting on Sundays. With planning, you can make your Sundays restful. Set up a boundary that keeps unnecessary work and recreations from intruding. 

Check your email habits. Why work on emails at night? Respond the next day. Don’t even look at them in the evening. Why go to bed worrying about their content? Communications that may trouble you late at night when you’re exhausted, may seem routine after a good night’s sleep.

Check your internet and social media time. Misuse of the internet and social media threatens more than moral integrity. Habitual misuse will impair your ministry.

Internet and social media can consume vast amounts of time. Working from 7-11am on a sermon is not four hours of work if you interrupt your studies to monitor email, surf the web, and peruse Facebook and Twitter.

Internet and social media detracts from deep work. Deep work is the ability to focus on the demanding work of sermon preparation and leadership planning without distraction. We kid ourselves if we think that breaking our concentration isn’t costly. See Cal Newport’s Deep Work.

Social media promotes needless conflict. You have to serve all kinds of people. I hope you’re ministering to Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Why offend them by what you put on social media? What gospel work have you accomplished by engaging in partisan political conflict? Why speak on complicated political and economic issues when you, at best, have only a rudimentary grasp of them? Remember, conflict is wearying, and to spark unnecessary strife is wearying. More importantly, it does nothing to promote the work of the gospel.

Social media fosters a false sense of omni-competency. If you feel compelled to comment on a wide range of political and cultural issues, one of two outcomes is likely. Either you will speak into issues of which you have limited knowledge, or you will have to undertake a good deal of research to stay passably informed. Neither outcome is desirable. If you choose to research, you have to ask yourself: Is the investment of time worth it? Does my social commentary advance my gospel work?

Social media becomes a substitute from physical presence. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that this is a substitute for face-to-face time with your congregation.

Set boundaries that limit your access to social media.

Thoughtful reflection on burnout and its causes will put you in good stead as you begin your ministry. One resource I have found particularly helpful and have my students read is David Murray’s Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture. It is required reading in my Pastoral Leadership Class at Reformed Theological Seminary.


[1] H.C.G. Moule, To My Younger Brethren: Chapters on Pastoral Life and Work (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902), 31.

1 Comment

  1. dieter schneider on October 26, 2018 at 9:43 am

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