5 Ways to Prevent Pastoral Burnout

pastor sitting on the edge of his bed thinking about his mental health

Several years ago, the New York Times observed that “members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen.”1

The solution proposed by healthcare experts and religious leaders? Rest.

I can’t snap my fingers and give you a sabbatical, but if you or a pastor you know is on the brink of burnout, here are some things you can do to make regular rest a reality.

1. Find a small group you don’t have to lead

I’m in a small group with a pastor who works at another church. Throughout the week, he pours everything he can into his relationships with the young adults he serves. In our small group, he just shows up with his family and enjoys the company of his brothers and sisters in Christ.

He doesn’t have to prepare anything. He doesn’t have to teach anything. He can choose to share what’s on his heart and what God’s been teaching him—or just listen.

How many relationships in your life require you to sacrifice something? Wisdom, compassion, grace, and empathy are powerful gifts pastors try to bring to every relationship, regardless of whether it’s reciprocated. God has an infinite supply of each of those blessings, and an infinite capacity to give them—but you don’t.

Pouring yourself out for the body without letting the body pour into you is like being a heart that only has arteries. Sooner or later, you’re going to bleed out.

I’m not suggesting there is some magic ratio of relationships you pour into versus relationships that pour into you. Maybe for you, adding rest into your schedule means gathering with other local pastors or a close friend. It shouldn’t feel like “one more thing” in your week.

Whatever it looks like, make time for relationships that permit you to just be. Look for relationships that fill you up and prepare you to pour out again.

2. Create healthy boundaries

One pastor I know found himself constantly drained. Members of his congregation loved that they could come to him for anything, at any time. He loved it, too—for a while. As a pastor, that was exactly what he signed up for.

He loves developing leaders, building people up, and serving his congregation. But as many pastors know all too well, this role stretches well beyond 9–5. When you’re too available, the window for rest is constantly shrinking.

Without boundaries, this pastor was going to burn out.

A youth leader on my team recently shared that as a full-time teacher and a wife, she couldn’t be as available to the girls she was leading, and she was conflicted about it. Investing in relationships and being available to people who need you is important—but how do you balance work, life, and ministry without collapsing under the weight?

Her solution was to make herself available to the girls at specific times. Rather than bending over backward to fit into their schedules, she made it clear that she’s always available at a specific time, and that she wants to spend that time with them.

For some, the solution may mean being less available—or else building this availability into your regular schedule. Obviously life doesn’t fit into our schedules perfectly. God isn’t bound to our calendars, itineraries, or templates for ministry. But sooner or later, your congregation has to accept that pastors still exist in the fourth dimension (time) and are bound by human limits.

If you don’t set healthy boundaries because you want to maximize your impact, think about what squeezing in a little extra work now could cost you later. If you burn out, that’s it. You’re done. You’re trying to build a fire that lasts, not light a firework that fizzles out.

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3. Seek counsel regularly

Pastors are exposed to the worst days, worst secrets, and worst mistakes of people they love on a regular basis.

You may not always need professional help to process what you’re going through, but you should always at least have someone (or a group of people) walking through the valleys with you, just as you do for your congregation.

Pastors spend a lot of time in the valleys anyway—don’t make those valleys deeper by isolating yourself from help.

People have high moral expectations for pastors that often extend far beyond the accountability of James 3:1. Some people unfairly expect too much from pastors’ spouses, children, and lives—as if pastors’ families are somehow superhuman. This can make some pastors feel so isolated that they don’t ask for help when they need it. Family conflicts or tension can get dismissed or addressed inadequately, creating long-term problems that only get worse.

Seeking counsel is not admitting defeat or showing weakness—it’s an intentional commitment to progress as a person and a pastor.

4. Celebrate with your church

Rigid routines and never-ending cycles of busyness can accelerate pastor burnout. When you’re stuck thinking about ministry in terms of the Christmas, Easter, summer slump, and back-to-school cycle, it’s easy to lose sight of the positive things occurring in your church.

Break up your calendar by taking time to recognize the things worth celebrating in your congregation. Make an intentional effort to call out volunteer or staff contributions, baptisms, growing families, students, service projects, and milestones of spiritual growth.

Pastors are constantly invited into crises and asked to help people process tragedy. To stay emotionally and spiritually healthy, churches need to celebrate together.

5. Build a volunteer program

There are people in your church just waiting to be asked to help share the load. Maybe they don’t know how to help. Maybe they haven’t been invited to help in the right way yet. If your church staff is overburdened, and your time as a pastor brings you more stress and heartache than joy, it might be time to refill your pool of church volunteers. The body is made of many parts, not just you and your staff—so let them build you up as well.

***

This article originally appeared in the fall 2021 issue of Ministry Team magazine.

  1. Paul Vitello, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” New York Times, Aug 2, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/ nyregion/02burnout.html.
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Written by
Ryan Nelson

Ryan Nelson is a writer for OverviewBible, where he uses Logos to explore the characters, groups, places, and books of the Bible. He has served in a variety of volunteer ministry positions, primarily through Young Life.

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Written by Ryan Nelson