No matter who you are or what city, state, or country you live in, you are allotted a maximum of 168 hours a week that comes in 24 hour segments called days and adds up to 7 days a week. Yet, if you’re like me, our to-do lists are never-ending and rest always appears just out of reach. 

As the Lead Pastor at Skyline Church, I’ve definitely been trying to sprint a marathon and rest has been just out of reach. Quite often, being a pastor requires twenty-four-hour availability. A pastor is never truly “off.” And the problem is … I LOVE IT.

Maybe you feel this way too? Whether your work, family, volunteering, finances, or even social media make you feel like you always have to be “on,” you’re struggling to find rest. Today I want to focus on characteristics of burnout. I’ll mainly focus on pastors but these principles apply to anyone who is sprinting the marathon of life.

Studies report that 90% of pastors do not retire from the ministry; rather they burn out, quit, or have a moral failure. This is shocking, particularly in light of Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” 

The Battle Begins With the Pastor

The health and vitality of churches is dependent upon the health and vitality of pastors. The statistics mentioned below are so alarming that they cannot be ignored. There’s a clear correlation between the declining health of pastors and the declining health of churches. These statistics are before COVID, so we can imagine it is even worse now.

  • 50% of ministers starting out will not last 5 years.
  • 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.
  • 4,000 new churches begin each year and 7,000 churches close.
  • Over 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month.
  • Over 3,500 people a day decide to leave their church.

Those statistics are hard to swallow but the truth is the truth. Pastors seem to view ministry like a sprint instead of a marathon, thus we may not even recognize that we’re on the road to burnout as we strive to reach our goals, aspirations, and purpose. However, we often find ourselves sprinting towards workaholism, depression, fatigue, and various other health and moral issues.

How we prioritize our life is seen in where we put our time and energy. All aspects of life demand our attention, but where are you placing your focus? I recognize that even in the church there’s this invisible force conditioning us to overwork, not take breaks, vacations, or sabbaticals. Recognizing this is very important because a lack of personal renewal leads to spiritual dryness and burnout. 

Identifying Characteristics of Pastoral Burnout

After extensive research in my doctoral studies, I have found the following three characteristics identify common signs of burnout in pastors. 

Characteristics and Solutions to Burnout

1. Lack of Rest and Recreation

Have you experienced the unwritten rule that you need to work harder, longer, and move at a faster pace than anyone else? The first and most common characteristic of burnout is a lack of rest. Many of us do not have proper boundaries in place to protect our time. Our heart to serve causes us to want to be the good guy or the one the congregation can always count on. However, it is this heart to serve and help others that becomes a double-edged sword. Being “on” all the time comes at a high price. The first thing to go is rest and recreation. 
Many pastors and leaders thrive off the adrenaline rush that ministry can provide. We become addicted to being busy and working tirelessly. For this reason, it’s important to schedule in rest before our calendar fills up. If rest is not scheduled, it can easily get pushed to the bottom of the list of priorities. When it comes to the issue of scheduling the time, there is really only one person responsible for making this happen. No matter how busy a person may be, that responsible person is none other than the one in the mirror. However, it seems we would rather entertain the need to feel like an indispensable busy body. News flash … everyone is indeed replaceable.

Solution: The importance of taking time to rest, reflect, and refuel cannot be overstated. To get good rest means to disconnect entirely, to have none of your regular work/pastoral responsibilities, and if necessary to get out of town far enough away that if there is a crisis you couldn’t do anything about it. Although getting out of town may not always be possible every single week, it’s important to do so at least annually. Schedule at least one or two times a year where you get out of town for consecutive days or weeks. You’ll be amazed at how much relief you feel as you drive or fly out of the stress zone towards your vacation destination.

Now, I’m not talking to lazy people here. There are lazy pastors and lazy people in all vocations.  And while lazy people will always exist and always try to manipulate the benevolent time off or vacation system set up in their particular place of work, rest is necessary for those overworking and sprinting too hard. So, start by scheduling an annual getaway.

That’s the big picture, but what about the weekly grind? On a weekly basis, it may be just a day or two a week where the phone is turned off and the email is not checked and rest and recuperation are the main focus of that day. To get the rest we need, we need to have boundaries and not let people encroach or break down those boundaries. We cannot fall into the trap of thinking that we can or need to do everything. The church actually becomes less healthy and less of a biblical church community when ministry is not shared among believers (see Ephesians 4).

2. Discouragement

A second characteristic of burnout is the feeling of discouragement. Discouragement can come in many forms, though mainly through conflict, criticism, and division within the church. It should be no surprise that the average pastoral tenure is between three and four years. That’s just about the time the honeymoon is over and people begin to feel comfortable enough to let the pastor know how they really feel.

Maybe you’ve experienced criticism while serving in your church. When criticism is levied, pastors may not feel like addressing the issue. One may feel it is more Jesus-like to simply “turn the other cheek” for fear of offending someone. This only adds to the discouragement, and this is not the Jesus way. Jesus confronted and he even offended. Jesus said, “It is impossible that no offenses should come.” On many occasions, Jesus confronted those who needed it, especially the Pharisees. We all need to love those in our church enough to speak the truth and when necessary confront the critic or the creator of the conflict.

When discouragement piles up, it becomes difficult for us to see the vision God has for a given ministry. At Skyline Church, our staff and leaders are constantly reminding one another and keeping the vision for our church in front of us. It’s necessary for this reason: Complaints speak louder than compliments. You may receive fifteen compliments and one complaint about the same topic, and the complaint is the one we remember. It’s unfortunate yet it is human nature. 

Criticism often leads to conflict and conflict is one of the main reasons for discouragement. Enough discouragement and anyone is tempted to throw their hands up in defeat, wondering if it is really worth the trouble. This discouragement leaves us feeling like we can never live up to the expectations set before us.

Solution: One of the primary ways to defeat discouragement is through what has already been stated in scheduling rest and recreation. This is of great importance in having a renewed mind and heart and being ready to fight the good fight. However, there are many other ways to defeat discouragement.

One of the most effective ways is to connect with other people who are in the same boat as you. Some of our healthiest leaders at Skyline Church are connected in one way or another to a support group with people within or outside our own congregation. It’s important to be around others who have no expectations of you. This can give us a sense of realness and relief that we’re not regularly experiencing.

This is one way to turn the “on” dial way down when we’re unable to take that annual get away just yet. It’s important to share your burdens, expectations, and pressures with others who are in a similar position. I guarantee that doing life in community with others will bring you encouragement and refreshment.

3. Unrealistic Expectations

We are often our own worst enemy. Having the heart to serve and please people can backfire when we’re just not able to live up to our own lofty expectations. Saying no is a challenge for a lot of people. We may even know in the back of our mind that no one is limitless, yet we tend to act otherwise. You are not superhuman. In fact, it’s good practice to confess your limitations. 

The Lord is the only limitless One. Realizing this frees us to be who we are meant to be in life and in ministry. Every human being is limited, on purpose and for a purpose. We must remember to acknowledge our limits as pastors, leaders, volunteers, parents, co-workers … you name it. People demand much of us because they are used to, or expecting to get what they want. Unrealistic expectations ultimately lead to burnout.

Solution: Remember this … when you say “yes” to everything, you’re actually saying “no” to something. Ask yourself what you’re saying “no” to. Is it your physical health, mental health, family, another opportunity? 

Burn Out Prevention

I’ll leave you with this analogy … it’s no secret that injury prevention is key in sports. Professional sports teams spend millions of dollars on injury prevention for their athletes. They know the investment means keeping the player in the game. They view their work as vital to helping an athlete make it through the long season uninjured thereby giving the team the greatest chance to succeed. This concept can also be applied to the “sport” of ministry. 

The reality is that more and more people are entering the marathon of ministry, yet only a few finish the race well. This is very discouraging for the church and the mission of helping people find and follow Jesus seven days a week. Many will avoid this race because it is just too hazardous an occupation! However, there is hope. Burnout is absolutely preventable! Just as injury prevention is key in professional sports, injury prevention is key in thriving in ministry.

Saved People Serve People

After a very long sprint of doing ministry, I’m excited to take a break. Merging Seven San Diego Church and Skyline Church only to turn around and face the most unprecedented year of challenges with crazy COVID rules and regulations … that really set a tone for sprinting this marathon of ministry life. I am thankful that we opened, faced the pressure from the County, shouted our stance from the rooftops to the media, politicians and anyone else who wanted to know. We stayed open and served people all year and we will continue to do so. 

We’ve built some great momentum (we’ve added over 2,500 new people every Sunday taking us over 5,200 people in average attendance last month). We’ve overcome some incredible obstacles and strengthened our Pastoral Team with God’s leading and blessing over the course of the past few years. 

I’m confident that spiritual fruit will continue to grow while I am away for this short vacation. While no physical, mental, or spiritual injuries have occurred, I know that rest is the next best step for me to take as your lead pastor at Skyline Church … even though I LOVE THE SPRINT … but I know I need to prepare for the marathon, not just the sprint. For the next few weeks, I will be taking some time off from my regular pastoral duties to fully unplug and recharge. Our outstanding pastoral team and staff will be here to take care of any and all needs you may have.

One of the core values of Skyline Church is “Saved People Serve People.” This is part of the DNA of Skyline Church. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus! As we look to the future, we believe God has a tremendous vision and plan for Skyline Church. This plan will require that our core members assist in serving our new body of believers with the ultimate goal of living out our purpose of “Helping people find and follow Jesus seven days a week.” 

For those who are stepping more and more into ministry by serving with their time and gifts, it is important to identify common characteristics of burnout AND then adhering to the solutions mentioned above. We value you and your walk with the Lord and want you to stay rested, encouraged, and fulfilled in serving the great commission. This will not only help ministries survive the marathon but thrive all the way through the finish line.