Voices: What pastors need but do not want during burnout

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If you ever want to be challenged about the realities of pastors and burnout, spend some time googling “pastor” and “burnout.” You will discover article after article about pastors’ experiences with burnout, lessons learned from burnout and ways to prevent burnout.

As a pastor, though, I do not have to read too many articles because I know what it is like to feel burnout.

My experiences were not debilitating, career-altering or requiring of hospitalization. Nevertheless, I have gone through seasons in all three of the churches I have pastored where I felt some telltale signs of burnout:

  • Feeling lethargic and unable to feel rested
  • Spending too much time anxious about or brooding over what was or was not happening
  • Disillusionment with the church and/or being a pastor
  • Daydreaming about quitting and doing something else

Burnout and your relationship with Jesus

From 2007 to 2012, I was part of a group of pastors who met once a year with retired missionary, pastor and Baylor University chaplain Milton Cunningham, in either Salado or Glen Rose, before he passed away.

As Milton would lead us through discussions, he would encourage and challenge us. One year, he began the conversation with us by saying, as best as I can remember, “I am tired of hearing about you pastors burning out. Burning out just means your relationship with Jesus is not what it should be.”

My first response to this statement was not positive.

I kept my objections to myself, but my internal debate with him was that burnout is a complex phenomenon involving external factors (church conflict, financial stress, etc.) and internal factors (physical, emotional, and spiritual health).

Nevertheless, as I debated Milton in my mind, I knew that he not only had an important point—which I have always remembered—but also had something I did not want but was needed.

Want vs. need

The reality is that when I have gone through experiences of burnout, what I want is for people to feel sorry for me and feed a kind of “martyrdom complex” that I sometimes develop.

What I need, though, is what Milton provided: (1) I need to be challenged, and (2) I need someone to point me to Jesus.

I need someone to call me out of my self-focus to the one who can shoulder my burden, enable me to serve and restore joy: Christ Jesus. Of course, this does not exempt the need for pastors experiencing burnout to, as needed, talk to a doctor, seek out counseling, begin eating better and exercising, etc.

For me, though, most of the times when I have experienced some of the realities of burnout, it’s because I’ve embraced a way of pastoring that is self-reliant and focused on what is or is not happening in the church, how I am being treated by some person or people, disappointment, and/or challenging circumstances.

There are few things more exhausting than trying to pastor in one’s own strength and being focused on someone or something else.

‘Joy and renewal’

When my attention, though, has been turned back to Jesus, I discover the joy and renewal of simply being with him. The result is that I can live and lead from overflow instead of depletion. When I return my focus to Jesus, I find him saying to me—to you—in Matthew 11:28–29: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

These words from Jesus are not always what I want to hear, but they are always what I need to hear.

Ross Shelton is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Brenham, Texas.

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