It never fails, every few weeks I get to sit down either over coffee or on the phone with a brother-in-arms in the Gospel ministry who is ready to throw it all away and quit. “Walking back into the world seems like the only hope I have to stay alive,” one said to me recently. Another pointing out how he just cannot go on taking the negative and thankless hatred that is spewed to his face and about him week after week.
It’s time to consider what makes a man go to the desperate end to consider walking away from what God calls him to do until his heart stops beating. I’ve never really written about this, but boy, have I lived and dealt with it many times over. As a matter of fact, I have actually written a resignation letter more times than I can remember, the glory of it all, is that I have never printed them out and turned them in. Thank God for His grace.
“Burn Out” is one thing, continuing to “smoke” is another. As I entitled this post I thought some people would take this and run with it, we’ll see; however, when a pastor “burns out”, he often doesn’t even have the option of taking up smoking, because it would just belabor the problems in his life. And when ministry knocks you down and there is hardly any breath left in your lungs, you are now just blue, but beaten to a pulp – I digress.
Really though, burn-out for the pastor is something that all too often comes quickly and smothering to the point that he is unable to overcome the pain, even if he remains, and becomes disqualified to shepherd himself, must less any flock of sheep. As I think about these seasons in my past and know that there might well be such a season right around the corner, I think about Paul’s teaching to Timothy where he said, “preach the word in season and out of season.” I know Paul was not lying here, but I can honestly say I have never seen an “in-season” for the word of God in many congregations. Although one can see many in seasons in the lives of individuals and those who hunger passionately for God’s truth, as a whole, the bodies in the pews are not usually ready for the truth of God’s word. So thinking through the seasons of a pastor’s life, I think it’s a big and constant “out of season” lesson that we must endure.
Well, I hope this helped, have a great life…
Now if I had ended this article there it would have been a mess. So, as I move forward, I want to make very clear a few things. There are reasons a man feels burnout and some of them can be man-made or God-made. In this context, if a pastor, who is called of God to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and shepherd the body of Christ to maturity and love is doing everything but what God has called him to do, he has reason to be burned out because he is a wasted life. On the other hand, sometimes proclaiming and pushing the truth to light brings some external and internal struggles that bring the frustration to a boil. I want to mention a few things, obviously not exhaustively, that might help such a man get his bearings.
As a way of presupposition, as a child of God, I believe in a VERY BIG GOD. I am not talking about size in comparison, I am talking about WEIGHT and GLORY and SOVEREIGNTY. I know that ALL CAPS is shouting in typing, so take it for what it is; I like to shout great things about my GREAT BIG GOD! The reason for this little doxological statement is so you understand that I have learned that even in my depressed, guilt-ridden, death wish disastrous desire to quit the ministry at times, it was ALL IN THE HANDS and ordained sovereignty of God. But this is where God brings one, it’s not where we begin. I will stop rambling now and move on.
What is the cause of pastoral burnout? Let’s look at a few possibilities on all three sides of the coin that cause pastors to consider throwing in the towel: (This was going to be a post on a few things, now the following lists are going to be separate posts in the future, Lord willing.)
- Failure to be faithful to the Word of God.
- Other’s people view of you and your “job”.
- Thinking you have a “job” in the first place.
- Being misaligned with church leadership and their philosophy and theology.
- Second-guessing everything you do.
- Spending more time administering than in the ministry of reconciliation.
But the reality of burnout means that you are not enduring. Enduring is a promise of God to His children, and yes, pastors are His children. The reality of a lack of hope in your calling really means:
- You have failed to trust in God and are trusting in yourself.
- You consider your “ministry” work more difficult than God’s power.
- The gospel is not your power but your own understanding is your hope.
- You are not spending enough time in Worship and Study and Prayer.
- You are not surrounded by brothers who can encourage and exhort you.
- You don’t understand the suffering that “fills up what is lacking” in Christ’s suffering.
- Your God is too small.
So what is a man to do when he feels and sees this in his own life? Quit or endure? Toughen up or just walk away? Well, that depends. Are you called (I love changing between first and third person)? Are you elect? Are you desiring Christ as your treasure or has ministry become your king?
What to do? FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT… Fight for JOY. Find your JOY in Christ alone and pursue Him as a lover should. Be intimate in the Word of God so that your joy may be full and find those around you who are willing to pursue Christ with you. Even if they are not there, run and fight as you have never fought before to find the joy of your salvation. Tremble before the Word and cry out for grace and mercy. Throw yourself at the feet of Jesus and FIGHT FOR REST at His feet as Mary who did the “better thing.”
FIGHT and fight some more. Make war on your unbelief and trust completely in the TRUE who is God and is LIFE Eternal. Become closer to the Son and push away the world, including your ministry dreams and ambitions, and make Christ your only PRIZE. He is the CROWN OF LIFE, He is THE KINGDOM OF GOD, He is ETERNAL LIFE, He is SALVATION, He is WISDOM, He is RIGHTEOUSNESS, He is THE TREASURE, He is THE PEARL, He is REWARD OF HEAVEN… He is, He is, He is the I AM.
So, when you are sitting on the floor in your study, with your clean desk because you have just thrown everything, including your laptop, on the floor and your tears keep you from putting the papers back in the correct order and the running of your nose leaves salt on your lips – your heart is bleeding for help and recovery. THIS IS WHERE GOD WANTS YOU TO BE! Broken and contrite, unable to sufficiently do anything for yourself, your calling or your world. This is where God shines the brightest, this is where the KINGSHIP of Jesus comes to live in your soul. This is when God picks you up and you SEE the beauty of His glory in a time when nothing and no one could ever come to your rescue. Christ COMES and His Grace is Sufficient!
You are lifted, broken, battered, bitter and His words give you life. His words give you hope. His words give you POWER and you pick up the pieces and throw them into the fire of His Holiness. You pick up the shattered glass and allow it to melt into the flowing of His blood and you WORSHIP. You praise Him because He is the one who KNOWS you and Loves you and saves you and keeps you. He will never cast you out and He will not take away your suffering, because this is just a taste of His promise – His presence, His ministry, His calling, His word in you.
Live in Christ alone – by faith alone in His mercy and find REST for your soul. Christ will return to you the joy of your salvation and you will become like a tree planted by the waters; fruitful (in God’s way, not man’s) and alive! This is my story, a tiny glimpse into a huge cavern of doubt and self-pity. God’s mercy is new every day – in Lamentations no doubt… what a place to find His mercies. It’s the only place they come. Think about it.
If you want the mercy and hope of Christ, you must endure and RUN INTO the suffering. If you want a life of luxury, look the world and live your “best life now.” Enjoy Christ and be filled with hope while the world hates you. If you can, find brothers to love you and share this journey, because you are not alone.
Lord willing, I will finalize my book on this issue of depression in ministry. I talk with another publisher on Monday and if He wills a printing, it will be free to every pastor in the world who needs it. Whether it is worth anything or not, God’s mercy and power are what sustains His sheep and their under-shepherds. We must RUN this race together, for the sake of Christ.
Wow, I did not mean for these few thoughts to get so wordy and “rambly”. Lord willing I hope these words minister to someone today. If you would like to discuss this, please let me know. Email me directly via my contact page, or leave me a comment and I will gladly pray with you and provide you with some encouragement. Pastor, don’t overlook sin in your life, don’t forget that we must depend on God’s grace as we exhort others to do the same. Finish the race, win the prize.
 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus,  by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh,  and since we have a great priest over the house of God,  let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.  Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,  not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
(Hebrews 10:19-25 ESV)