How to Avoid Pastoral “Burnout”


“Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.” (I Timothy 4:16)

Our new pastor just moved into the parsonage! On Sunday morning he greeted each of us with a big smile and said, “Just call me Pastor Jack!” With this introduction we learned that Pastor Jack was friendly and did not want to be called Reverend Smith. Why the identification of “Pastor Jack?” “Pastor” is a popular title that many pastors wish their congregation to use. It identifies their position and role among the people and the offer of their first name, “Jack,” is an attempt to be approachable and to avoid formality.

The Scriptural Meaning of the Word “Pastor”

What is the significance of assuming the title “pastor?” “Pastor” literally means “shepherd,” and is used in both the Old Testament and the New Testament in a figurative sense for rulers and leaders. Of the twelve times it is used in the New Testament, it is a metaphor for “leader.” It is translated “pastor” in the King James Version only in Ephesians 4:11. The role of “pastor,” or more properly, “pastor-teacher,” is one of the four gifts given to the Church for leadership by the ascended Lord (Eph. 4:8, 11).

Whereas the gifts of apostles, prophets, and evangelists minister in the Church at large, the gift of pastor-teacher is primarily for the local congregation. The verb “to shepherd” is used to describe the work of local church leaders (Jn. 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2), and often the congregation is called a “flock.” It is the pastor’s responsibility to protect the flock from false teaching (Acts 20:29–30), to build it up in the most holy faith, and to guide its daily life through personal example and biblical exhortation (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:7).

Preeminently, the term “pastor” is applied to and fulfilled in Jesus Christ Himself (Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25; Rev. 7:17).

The Scriptural Motivation for Becoming a Pastor

Why would anyone want to be a pastor? In my role as chairman of the Ministerial Education Division at God’s Bible School and College, I frequently ask young people who are preparing for a pastoral ministry what has prompted them to do so. I receive answers such as, “I feel God has called me into full-time ministry,” or “I feel like God is leading me to be a pastor, or a youth pastor.” Sometimes I hear responses like, “I want to help people,” or “I like people, and I enjoy sharing God’s Word with them.” Or, “I want to help people who are in trouble. I was in trouble and God helped me and in turn I would like to help others.”

All of these responses are good and express a heart attitude that will be essential for ministry. May I suggest, however, that none of them are sufficient to sustain long-term ministry. The reason I say this is that both the pastor and the people he must work with are fallen, fragile, and broken individuals. Even the best people can disappoint you and criticize you if you fail to meet their expectations.

Some people will demand your time and attention, and drain you. Then, if you do not satisfy their felt needs for continual positive affirmation, they may turn on you and find fault with you to their friends in your church. Worse, when they decide to leave your church and go to another church, they may tell all their friends in your church how you either hurt them, or failed to give them the “spiritual food” they needed.

Further, there are many daily pressures that a pastor faces. In addition to the constant evaluation of spouse and children, the pastor lives in a performance pressure-cooker that is labeled “success.” And success is usually measured by how much people like you and stay impressed with your ministry. Is the church growing under your leadership (i.e., increasing in numerical size)? Are people excited with your vision for the church? Are you able to create and sustain a positive momentum within the church body, even though there are periodic setbacks and disappointments?

Statistics tell us that most pastors cannot sustain long-term enthusiasm for ministry unless there is sufficient positive feed-back from their congregation. If you are motivated by the size of your congregation, or by the amount of excitement that is generated in and by your ministry, eventually you will grow weary in well doing.

The “seasons of life” in pastoral ministry wax and wane. In seasons of increase, you will be enthused, excited, and alive to do the “work of God.” In seasons of reversal, due to economic down turns in your geographic area, or due to unhappiness or discontent by some influential power-brokers in your church, you will experience disappointment, discouragement, and, depending on your temperament, even severe depression.

Everyone likes a “winner.” Right? Ask yourself, “Who is asked to speak at special conferences?” “Who is asked to share what God is doing in his church?” Is it the pastor who is faithful, who is praying, studying, and doing his best to edify his flock, but is seeing no numerical growth? Or is it the pastor who, for whatever reason, is seeing the biggest growth in the size of his congregation? No wonder the statistics on pastoral burnout and pastoral drop-out are so depressing!

The “Ministering to Ministers Foundation,” which exists to serve as advocates for clergy, estimates that in evangelical Protestant ranks there are somewhere around 1,200-1,400 per month who are in the midst of a congregational crisis severe enough to lead to their involuntary termination by their churches.

The Scriptural Means to Avoid the Pastoral “Burn-out” Syndrome

Our text for this sermon exhorts, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (1 Timothy 4:16). The first way to “take heed unto thyself” as a pastor is to make sure, after you have taken a personal spiritual checkup, that your motivation for ministry is properly focused. Let me explain what I mean.

After His bodily resurrection, Jesus explained to His disciples the proper motivation for pastoring. As recorded in John 21:15-17, Jesus focused His attention on Peter and asked him a personal and pointed question, “Do you love me?” Jesus’ response to Peter’s affirmative answer was “Feed my lambs.” A repeat of the question of, “Do you love me?” received a similar command, “Feed my sheep.”

When Jesus asked Peter the third time the same pointed question, Peter was deeply troubled. Did Jesus doubt Peter’s repentance for his previous failure thereby doubting Peter’s love and loyalty? I don’t think Jesus had any doubt about Peter’s love for Him. Rather, I believe the reason for repeating the question three times was to communicate, not just to Peter and the other disciples seated around the morning breakfast fire on the shore of Galilee, but to all of His followers, that as important as love and compassion for people is, and as significant as wanting to help broken and hurting people is, one’s love for Christ and making sure that one’s pastoral ministry to others springs out of your love for Christ is far more important.

People can and will disappoint you. Jesus will never disappoint you! People can and will leave your flock. However, Jesus will never leave you (Heb. 13:5). He will never criticize you, gossip to others about your weaknesses or failures, or in any way discourage you.

Although He corrects those He loves, His love is unconditional and is the well-spring out of which love for others and ministry to others must flow. I believe this is what Paul meant when he said, in a context that speaks of ministry to others, “The love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:14).

Love for Christ and a compelling sense that He wants you to pastor must be your primary motivation. You give unselfishly of yourself to others as an offering to Christ. If the sheep you pastor appreciate you, wonderful.  If they don’t, you tell it to Jesus and ask Him to help you to be a faithful pastor because you are pastoring with the supreme desire to please Him! It is His smile of approval you seek. It is His sustaining and refreshing grace that you daily draw into your soul.

You are pastoring because you feel this is the ministry to which God has called you. When things go wrong, you cast your care on Him, remembering that people abandoned Christ and rejected Him, but Jesus did not take it personally. He knew the problems he faced and was determined to do the Father’s will unto death.

If you wish to avoid the pastoral burn-out syndrome, the foundational cornerstone of the biblical motivation for pursuing a pastoral ministry must be first and foremost – Christ’s love for you is unfailing. In response to that love, your love for Christ is drawing you into a “feeding, leading, caring, protecting, and guiding” role for Jesus’ “lambs and sheep.” God bless every pastor who is seeking to be faithful in word and doctrine!

May you daily renew and rekindle the fires of your love for Christ and draw on the comfort of His unfailing love for you. Pastoring is a spiritual sacrifice we offer to God. Let us learn how to make this sacrifice with an eye focused on our holy calling, His boundless grace, and with words of praise and thanksgiving to Him on our lips.



Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

Allan Brown
Allan Brown
Dr. Allan Brown is Professor and Chair of the Division of Ministerial Education at God's Bible School & College. He holds his PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of several books and articles.