Some Reasons for Pastoral Burnout

On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor Clay Werner, a pastor in the PCA (Presbyterian Church of America), has been through the pastoral wringer and lived to write about it in his new book, On The Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2014).  If you’re a pastor who feels overwhelmed with the workload, difficulties, disappointments, and hardships in the ministry, you’ll need to read this book.

Perhaps our readers who aren’t pastors may sometimes wonder what causes pastors to face burn out?  Werner explains a few (I’ve edited these to keep them brief):

1) Prolonged Exhaustion.  Prolonged exhaustion can be driven by the expectations of others in the church and also by our own prideful motivations.  Others may expect you to be present at every committee meeting to make decisions, every hospital room to pray, every church event to participate, and in everyone’s living room for conversation and dessert….

2) Delight Turned to Duty.  Delight can turn to duty in our own personal relationship with God and also in our calling to minister to others.  There is an enormous temptation in ministry, because you are around the Word of God so often, to begin to treat it as something common and eventually unnecessary.  …There can be an emotional deadness of soul that begins to make you wonder if God is really there.

3) Mild Discouragement to Severe Depression.  Most leaders have great expectations of how God is going to work in and through them and how God is going to transform the community of which they are a part.  More often than not, our expectations are not met to the extent or in the time-frame we hope for. …When we lose hope that God will work, it is easier to walk away from the situation.

4) An Older-Brother View of Ministry.  [This is when the pastor thinks,] ‘God, I’ve been through so much and done so much for you, and this [tragedy] is what I get?’  See Luke 15:28-30.

5) Anger.  …If you stay angry long enough, you may begin to think that others are not worthy of your ministry or that people are impossible, so you might as well give up.

6) Fear, Anxiety, and Worry.  If our ministry experiences have involved a lot of interpersonal conflict or congregational chaos, we may begin to be controlled by fear.  If someone asks to come and talk to us, we know for sure that it’s because he or she is angry at us for doing something or disappointed in us for not doing something.  We fear being exposed, humiliated, or rejected, and so we may stop visiting people, encouraging or correcting others, or making necessary phone calls.

7) Sinful Self-Indulgence.  …We [often] are unaware that we are not rooting our ultimate and deepest joy in Christ, so we try to find joy in the  midst of ministry, and if we don’t find it there, we look for it somewhere else.

Werner notes that this list isn’t exhaustive, of course.  He also goes on to talk about the power of God’s grace in the pastoral ministry, and how pastors are to rest in his grace to make it through the difficulties of pastoral ministry.  I’ll come back to some of these themes later, Lord willing.

For now, I recommend this book for tired and weary pastors who need some encouraging words of grace.  Also, if you’re a parishioner whose pastor has a heavy workload, I’d say get this for him – and pray for him while you do so!

Clay Werner, On the Brink (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2014).

rev shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond, wi

2 thoughts on “Some Reasons for Pastoral Burnout”

  1. This sounds excellent! As a young pastor many years ago, I had to ask myself the question, “Are you so frustrated because so little happens in your ministry and it damages your image of yourself as another Billy Graham, or because so little is done for the glory of God?” I am not sure we can always tease out the different strands of motivation, or if it is absolutely necessary to do so (I Cor 4:3,4), but it is helpful to remind ourselves that much of our burden is self-imposed. I wonder also if guilt should not be added to the mix, especially for a young pastor, who normally is in the throes of establishing his life-long career and at the same time, as a young pastor, probably has an exhausted wife and small children; it is far too easy to neglect them or give them the butt-end of the day, and this weighs on us.
    I remember some comments I heard Al Martin say once: When he was approached, as he frequently was, by young pastors on the verge of quitting or sad in lesser ways, he said he posed three questions: 1) are you getting enough exercise; 2) are you spending time with God in prayer; 3) are you spending enough time with your wife? He claimed he never had a return patient.
    (Of course, I suppose he wouldn’t hear from those who did quit–little reality orientation there.)


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