What Causes Ministry Burnout?

We tend to think ministry life will consist of serving God faithfully, seeing people come to Christ, and stewarding a growing church. Unfortunately, serving on staff at a church can often become stressful, overwhelming, and all-consuming. For many people, this leads to ministry burnout.

If you’ve wondered how much longer you can last in ministry, you’re not the only one. A quick search on “ministry burnout” turns up over 3.5 million results. From Carey Nieuwhof to Ed Stetzer and others, more church leaders are openly discussing the issue of burnout (many with their own experiences).

Most of the resources I’ve found focus on the burnout of pastors. As the senior pastor is the key leader in a given church, if he burns out there’s a significant impact on the entire staff and congregation. Pastors also have the burden of “the buck stops here,” which contributes to their potential for burnout.

However, there’s also the danger for church staff and even volunteers to burnout.

While there are unique challenges that only the senior pastor faces, there are several common issues that can lead to burnout for anyone working in ministry.

Factors that contribute to ministry burnout:

#1 – Working for God…not always with God

  • Subconsciously thinking we have to do what only God can do
  • Spiritually sounding motives fueled with guilt “If we don’t reach them…”
  • Workaholic tendencies justified by “but I’m serving God” that leads to neglecting one’s family or even your health
  • Spending time in the Word only for sermon preparation (or to develop a Bible study lesson) and not for your relationship with Christ
  • Tying your spiritual right-standing with God to your performance at the church office

#2 – Unrealistic expectations

  • Trying to please everyone (Spoiler alert: It’s not possible or practical.)
  • Pressure and unrealistic expectations from others (the congregation, leadership, or both)
  • The temptation to put church leaders on a pedestal that’s not realistic or maintainable (thereby putting pressure on them to live up to that standard no matter what the cost)
  • Unwillingness to accept momentary limits (and taking on excessive debt or pushing people to work excessive hours to push past those limits)

#3 – Isolation

  • Loneliness and isolation – leaders not feeling they can trust anyone with their struggles or issues (sadly, many times for good reason, having been betrayed by a confidant in the past)
  • Feeling the need to compete with other pastors or churches
  • Not collaborating or learning from other churches who’ve “been there, done that”
  • Refusing to delegate
  • Pride – thinking success all rest on your shoulders

#4 – Lack of Vision Clarity

  • Lack of planning, structure, and organization leads to last-minute “fire drills” and unnecessarily long hours trying to “make it happen”
  • Scattershot approach vs. laser focus, therefore doing too much with minimal results
  • A congregation resistant to change or only wanting to focus inward

How to Prevent Ministry Burnout

Tip #1: Delegate

Delegate to whom? Great question. Even if you don’t have any staff reporting to you, you still have delegation options. You may have individuals within your congregation who could help a few hours a week with administrative tasks. Delegate the easier stuff first – tasks that take up your time but don’t require much training to pass on to someone else. Another option could be a virtual assistant. You can contract out specific tasks and pay for the hours you need.

Another option is to find online tools or resources that offer shortcuts to the information or processes you need to implement. The Church Operations Toolkit includes templates, how-to guides, and expert interviews that can save you time and money.

Tip #2: Prioritize

Review your calendar for the last few weeks. What does that tell you about what’s most important? After all, what we schedule tends to be what gets done and therefore shows what’s most important to us. Does your calendar align with what you say is most important to you?

While it may feel like it, not everything is urgent and important. End each day by creating a to-do list for the next day. You close out that day’s work and set yourself up for a solid start the next. Recognize upfront that you’ll never really get to the end of your to-do list. This isn’t accepting defeat; it’s facing reality. Prioritize your list and work on the highest impact, most valuable tasks first.

Tip #3: Leave Work and Disconnect

How many evenings did you work late last month?

Your relationship with your family plus your physical health will take a hit if you’re working late too often. There will be busy seasons, but those should be seasons, not every day. This is much easier to say than do, but it’s important to say “no” to work (even church work), so you can say “yes” to your family.

I like how Eric Geiger puts it in his post, Four Reasons Burnout Is More Prevalent in Ministry Leadership:

“In most roles, overwork feels sinful and neglectful. In ministry, overwork can wrongly feel holy. After all, you are “doing all these things for the Lord and for people.” Some leaders struggle to say no because doing so would feel like denying ministry to people. Leaders can justify all the hours in their minds, the neglect of their own souls, and the neglect of their families. Ministry can attract workaholics and give them a reason to justify their addiction.”

Turn off your cell phone and stop checking email after a particular time each day. You need a few hours each evening to decompress, spend time with your family and friends, and recharge. Let your colleagues know what you’re doing and who they can call in case of an emergency. By the way, you probably need to define “emergency” as “the church is on fire” or “someone passed away.”

Tip #4: Invest in Your Relationship with God

We all need time with God for the sole purpose of listening, learning, and enjoying His presence. It’s easy to try and justify not having personal time with God if you’ve already spent several hours preparing for a message. While I’m sure you benefitted personally from that time, it can’t fully replace time invested in focusing on your relationship with God.

Take one day a week to do absolutely nothing related to your job. Play with your kids, take your spouse out on a date, go for a jog, sleep in, etc. Rest and invest in activities that restore your mind, body, and soul. You’ll be more effective and productive later as a result.

Tip #5: Reward What You Value

What do you praise or reward with your team? Working long hours or productivity that comes from planning ahead, making long hours unnecessary? Work with your team to plan, hold each other accountable to deadlines, and streamline processes.

Tip #6: Leave Breathing Room

Do you have any time scheduled (as in a meeting on your calendar) with yourself to think, plan, or dream? If not, start carving out time for this activity.

This is time for you to consider the projects and tasks ahead in the light of the vision/mission of your church and considering whether you’re working on the right things that will help you achieve that vision.

It’s time to think about your staff and volunteers…to consider how you’re leading them and what to encourage or correct. This time looks like the opposite of productivity, but this is where the magic happens. It’s where you realize you’re running in the wrong lane and need to make a course correction.

It’s hard to do this when you’re wired for accomplishment, but this will help you be more productive in the long run.

Tip #7: Focus on a Few

Take a look at the church calendar. Is it jam-packed with services, outreaches, special events, small group meetings, and more? Even if many of these are virtual, they require time and attention to coordinate. Analyze the programs, ministries, and events of the church with the leadership team. Scrutinize each item to determine if it’s worth continuing and cut what no longer works. We only have so many hours in a week, and so much money in the budget. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, focus on the fewer items that have the greatest impact.

Tip #8: Recognize Your Role

Your talents and abilities are valuable in ministry. Do your best and pursue excellence as you serve. At the same time, recognize that God is still on His throne. He can handle all that weight you’re trying to carry on your shoulders. We weren’t designed to handle everything. God designed us to depend on and get our strength from Him. Trust Him to provide wisdom and provision.

Burnout doesn’t have to be part of your story. There’s no easy answer or quick fix here. However, it is possible to have a healthy, sustainable role in ministry.

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