How I Burned Out In Ministry (And How You Can Avoid It)
Updated: Jan 17
“Turn your ears to wisdom and listen for understanding… search for them like hidden treasures.” Proverbs 5:2-3
You’ve probably heard the statistics. 70% of all pastors say they regularly fight depression. 50% of pastors are so discouraged they would quit the ministry if they could afford to. 80% of pastors believe the ministry has had a negative impact on their health and their families. And so on…
If you would’ve asked me in my 20s and 30s what I thought about the pastors who fell into those statisticalcategories, I would have said they were “losers.” They must be unspiritual, denominational, career ministers, stuck in dead end ministries. That could never be me.
If you would ask me now, at age 62 and after over 30 years of successful church planting and church growth, I would say “watch out, pride goes before a fall.”
I planted our church in 1990 with no people and no money, and it grew to one of the largest churches in our city. I remember looking out at 4,000 people over one weekend and feeling pretty good about me, God and the Bible.
After 15 years of running and praying hard, I remember the signs of success and that God was truly with us. We had loads of people getting saved. Families were being changed. We owned property and buildings and had resources. We had the ability to influence local elections, and the respect of our elected leaders and community. And we were planning for more expansion. Isn’t that the way it works?
Little did I know that in just under five years, I would suffer a major burn out that would forever change my life and ministry.
While I was celebrating all the signs of spiritual success, I was ignoring all of the signs of a physical and mental breakdown. I was praying for vision and spending hours in my prayer closet to hear the still small voice of God, and all along God was shouting to me through my body.
I was praying for vision and spending hours in my prayer closet to hear the still small
voice of God, and all along God was shouting to me through my body.
Under the pressures of ministry, I had begun to develop chronic migraine headaches, insomnia, severe IBS, and a growing struggle with anxiety and stress that was taxing my mind and body. I ignored it for five years and took medication’s to power through. I especially loaded up on the weekends where I felt the pressure most acutely. I came to church late and stayed in the bathroom until it was time to preach. It never even occurred to me that God might be speaking to me through my body.
It turns out that ignoring physical and emotional warning signs for five years is not a wise ministry strategy. Things escalated and I began having full-blown panic attacks while preaching in the pulpit. I had no idea what was happening to me, but I knew something was very wrong. It got to the point that I found myself in the fetal position at home on Sunday mornings begging God to take me to heaven rather than make me go to church.
God had finally got my attention.
I was fortunate to find a pastoral counselor to confide in, and began the long process of getting the medical and emotional help I needed. I would like to tell you that I was healed and whole and life went back to normal, but that isn’t what happened. Some injuries can leave you with a permanent limp. Especially the ones we ignore. And some of the ways that we do life and ministry are never what God intended, and are simply unsustainable.
In the Bible, Elijah had a similar kind of burn out experience (read I Kings 19). Afterward, God provided a prescription that would become the blueprint for a newer, healthier life and ministry. God spoke to me through this passage, and these are the steps that have guided my life ever since:
1. Rest your body. Elijah ate bread, drank water and slept. That’s all he did over and over until he was healthy again. Take care of your mental and physical health, and listen to your body. We have limits and we need to honor them.
2. Re-organize your life. Don’t do life and ministry alone. Re-organize. Delegate. Get help. Share the spotlight and build a preaching team. Elijah went and found Elisha. Re-organize the way you do things because you can’t carry the burdens of life and ministry alone.
3. Renew your spirit. Hear the still small voice of God, get away from the addiction to bigger and louder and greater things. Let God gently lead you in green pastures and beside still waters. Find a healthy way for you to be you and let God redirect your life and ministry.
The spiritual advice that I give all young pastors is counterintuitive. I assume you are going to listen to God. I assume you are going to listen to your spirit. I assume you are going to listen to His Word. But I think we often miss another voice. Don’t make the same mistake that I made. My advice is simple: Listen to Your Body!
I eventually transitioned leadership of our church to a new generation of leaders, and today I find incredible joy and satisfaction encouraging and spending time with pastors at soul care retreats designed to help them live well and finish strong. If I could be a help to you, or someone you know, please reach out. Its free, but it’s not cheap.
Don’t Do Ministry Alone,