Matthew is a stereotypical millennial evangelical worship pastor. He dressed the part with his oversized sweater, ripped jeans, and converse shoes. He was highly creative, passionate, and extremely extroverted. I could feel his energy even before he walked into the room. He was the type of guy that would make you smile just by being in his presence. This made him not only a person you wanted to hang around but also an amazing worship leader, and he was an accomplished musician.
Matthew had been coming to see me for several weeks. He was initially sent to me as part of his church’s employment requirements. Each member of the pastoral staff was required to complete six sessions of counseling a year as a posture of self-care. After several sessions it became apparent that Matthew needed more. “Doc” he stated, “I truly love my job! I love the creativity and the ability to link up with the Holy Spirit as I lead people in worship.” He paused and looked down, “But I’m feeling empty. I’m tired, drained, and I don’t know what to do.” As Matthew spoke, I could feel the depths of his struggle. He spent most of the year pouring out and did very little to recharge or receive. He was on a path to burnout.
My time with Matthew taught me a few key things that I believe every pastor should consider. By implementing these three key things, I believe you can move from potential burnout to renewal.
Tip #1: Admit where you are at.
The biggest lie in ministry is that you must have it (or keep it) all together. You cannot show weakness and you cannot show struggle. Why? Because if you do, your leadership might be called into question, your influence may suffer, you might be seen as weak, or even worse, you might lose your job. This lie has kept pastors isolated for years and has created a massive ripple effect of burnout. Admitting where you are at is a moment in time, a clear representation of current reality, and an honest reflection of where you are currently at mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. It brings your current reality into the light so that it can be adequately assessed and purposely worked through. Continuing to hide or deny it will always lead to burnout.
Tip #2: Assess your emotional resilience.
To avoid burnout, we must consistently assess how we are doing emotionally. Emotions are indicators. They are our warning system, alerting us to something that might be off. Think of them as like the “check engine” light on your car. The light comes on when something is off. If we pay attention to that light and take it to the mechanic, we avoid disaster. Similarly, if we pay attention to our emotions and their status, we can effectively confront what is not working. Resilience is our flexibility and ability to bounce back and recover. To do this well, we must acknowledge, understand, and be comfortable with our emotions rather than ignoring, avoiding, or numbing them. Many of us in ministry must also pay attention to the difference between our emotional experiences and the emotional experiences of those we minister to. Often the two can get co-mingled, and we can quickly move toward burnout because of the added weight of other people’s emotions.
Tip #3: Recognize we cannot do this by ourselves.
Loneliness leads to isolation, and isolation will lead to death mentally, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and sometimes physically. I do not like the phrase “lonely at the top.” To lead well, you need to be surrounded by wise, trusted support. You need people in your corner, cheering you on and keeping you accountable. Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. As pastors, you need to find and develop safe places for this to happen.
Burnout is on a continuum. It is not static. Health and renewal are on the same continuum. The question becomes which way are you facing and who is helping you on this journey? Burnout happens in an echo chamber. Health and renewal happen in community. Where are you at?
Dr. Mark Mayfield is a former pastor, a licensed professional counselor (LPC), a board-certified counselor, and the founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers. He has more than fourteen years of professional counseling experience in clinical, judicial, and faith-based counseling settings across a wide range of patient demographics. Mayfield has professional experience in addressing and treating anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance abuse, domestic violence, self-injury, and suicidal thoughts. He is passionate about the integration of faith and mental health and especially about equipping pastors and leaders to be frontline mental and emotional health caregivers. He has been featured in prominent media outlets, including Woman’s Day, HelloGiggles, NBC, Reader’s Digest, Byrdie, and more. His most recent book, The Path to Wholeness, will release from Tyndale House Publishers in May 2023.