Preventing Pastoral Stress and Burnout

Pastor's Life

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Serving the local church as a pastor is a calling, and on the best days, there’s nothing more fulfilling than leading a congregation into deeper relationship with God. But, on other days, we pastors face challenges that are unique to our individual callings as we wear the mantle of responsibility and bear the weight of spiritual battle in our leadership.

The expectations of a job in pastoral ministry can be enormous, and it’s certainly not a 9 – 5 job by any stretch of the imagination, so it may not be surprising that several recent high-profile suicides by pastors have revealed a growing problem in the church with depression, stress, and burnout amongst its leaders.

Fuller Institute of Church Growth found that 75% of pastors report high amounts of stress on a regular basis (2006). And, all of the evangelical pastors in two Francis A. Schaeffer Institute studies reported that they had a colleague who left the ministry because of burnout, church conflict, or moral failure (2006). As the senior pastor of a local church and through the ministry organization I lead, World Challenge, I have seen much of the same over the past 40 years, and there doesn’t seem to be any sign that it’s slowing down.

Through World Challenge, each year we host conferences for thousands of pastors and leaders around the world to equip them to lead their churches and communities, and I’ve certainly witnessed more depression in America’s pastoral ministry than in the other countries I visit. The pace in many other countries is slower (in a good way), not as performance driven. So how can we, as pastors, guard against stress, burnout, and even depression?

Decide against stress.

I believe that one of the biggest reasons that pastors are stressed is because we believe we are failing. We often have expectations that we’re going to come out of seminary with a Rick Warren story: we’ll start a church in a highly affluent area; it will grow to 20,000; we’ll write a bestselling book and then appear on CNN and Fox News. The expectation is so strong that if you don’t attain this level or higher, it can feel like you’re failing.

And in the everyday of pastoring, we can absorb the disappointment of others over our sermons, our counsel, and our leadership decisions. Make a conscious decision not to do that.

Do yourself a favor and decide against stress. Don’t compare yourself to others and stay the course that God has called you to. You are called to your congregation and God has equipped you with what you need to get the job done with joy.

Also remember, in warfare, if a thousand soldiers come forward and the enemy sees them, with the commanding officer out in front, it would be obvious to target that person, to take out the leader. The spiritual war is very real, and often those who serve in the church receive the heaviest barrages.

Safeguard against burnout.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced that burnout is now a legitimate mental health syndrome. It’s considered an “occupational phenomenon” effecting health. In other words, burnout is the result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

If this sounds familiar, pastors, you are not alone. Several studies show that work stress is the major source of anxiety for American adults, and it has continued to increase over the past several decades. Symptoms include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests the following factors can help reduce workplace stress:

  1. Balance between work and family or personal life
  2. A support network of friends and coworkers
  3. A relaxed and positive outlook

While these factors are good advice, leaning on God’s word is even better. A verse that I rely heavily upon to try and maintain balance in my own life is 1 Thessalonians 5:23: May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This verse reminds me to practice self-care since I’m no good to others unless I’m doing things like getting enough rest, spending time with friends and family, and carving out time to recharge and relax. Healthy life balance makes you a better pastor.

Don’t battle depression alone.

The battle against depression for pastors has been in the headlines recently, but the truth is, nearly half of all pastors have struggled with depression at some point during their ministry (Barna, 2017). I can’t implore my fellow pastors enough: if you are in this battle, seek help. Don’t try to handle this on your own. The physical and emotional costs of working in ministry, along with spiritual attack, can easily become a serious discouragement for those who serve in the church.
Maybe you’re unsure of what you’re experiencing, so be strategic about fighting for your own peace of mind and heart, as well as your spiritual healthiness. First, self-examination is critical—being aware of yourself. Asking yourself whether you are experiencing something that is circumstantial or whether what you are feeling is depression can be key in helping you to take the appropriate next steps.

Second, community is vital. Don’t isolate yourself. Reaching out for help may be challenging, but it’s of the utmost importance.

Serving in pastoral ministry is a responsibility we have been entrusted with. It is an honor and our distinct calling to serve the local church with excellence, and learning to work though and manage stress and burnout will ultimately help us fulfill our callings.

As Scripture says in Acts 20:28: Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

Gary Wilkerson is president of World Challenge, an international mission organization founded by his father, David Wilkerson, and host of the Gary Wilkerson podcast. Gary is also founding pastor of The Springs Church. Gary and his wife, Kelly, have four children and live in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

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