After the death of my third child, my family physician told me that clinical depression was the result of accumulated stress that had been allowed to exist and grow over a period of years. My onset had been triggered by the trauma of death and the hormonal symptoms inflicted upon my wife that created forms of stress and conflict that we had never even come close to experiencing.
According to webmd.com, “Your adrenal glands, which are small organs above your kidneys, respond to stress by releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.”
Eventually, the adrenal glands become fatigued and cease to function properly. Some doctors believe that adrenal fatigue may be linked not only to physical exhaustion but to depression, sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, and many other conditions.
According to my physician, stress over time, triggered by a specific trauma, resulted in burnout of my adrenal system. Something like this may be to blame for what some experience after years of pastoral ministry. If you Google pastoral burnout, you will discover that you are not alone in feeling empty, unmotivated, and exhausted.
It seems like burnout has become an all-too-common pastoral job hazard.
How Can I Know If I am Burned Out?
I have experienced pastoral burnout three or four times in the past twenty-five years. You’d think I would learn my lesson on how to avoid it. I wish. At least I know from first-hand knowledge what it feels like so that I can help you take your pastoral temperature as you consider your own health status.
While you can’t take a blood test for burnout, you can discern the symptoms.
Lack of Motivation
I was only eighteen months out of seminary and had been thrilled about my first official pastoral ministry at a well-known, large church in the heart of a major city.
As the church was understaffed, my role as an assistant pastor quickly expanded, taking on more and more ministry responsibilities. Along with a newborn with medical complications, I was working sixty-plus hours every week, including five to six nights out.
Realizing that I was chopping at many trees without felling any, I asked the senior pastor if I could focus my ministry responsibilities on two or three areas instead of five. He smiled, slapped me on the back, and said, “No. Welcome to ministry.”
Not long after my plea for pastoral mercy I clearly remember walking into my office, sitting down, and burying my head in folded arms on the desk. I had so much work to do but just couldn’t find the energy to pick my head up off the table.
The problem wasn’t lack of sleep. It was a lack of motivation. I was only twenty-six and already burning out.
Lack of Energy
It goes without saying that a lack of motivation is also wed to a lack of energy. I felt tired all the time. Really tired. Everything I did felt heavy and hard, from preparing sermons and Bible studies, to leading ministry team meetings, to counseling, to leading worship services and visiting hospitals. It all felt like a burden.
Lack of focus
When emotionally burned out, life and ministry become a blur. Where to begin the day? Which project? Who to call or visit? What “to do” should I work on first? Nothing stands out. And if something does stand out, it feels so heavy that we keep scrolling down the list until we find something that seems doable. Like watching Netflix.
Lack of Joy
While ministry is a great privilege, burnout steals joy because doing even the most basic ministry tasks requires energy and motivation that you do not possess. If you are burning out, waking in the morning does not come as a welcome moment but creates the feeling of dread.
In addition to the lack of motivation, energy, focus, and joy was the feeling of emotional emptiness. Emotional numbness. This may be the most devastating symptom of burnout, as the soul retreats into self-protective mode by not engaging anyone, even one’s spouse and children. Relational engagement just takes too much energy — energy that we do not have to give.
The danger of emotional emptiness is that in this condition, the burned-out pastor is most vulnerable to addictive behavior as a way to fill the emptiness or to help deaden the waves of dread that continue to wash up on the shore of his heart, eroding hope.
Looking for a Way Out
All of these symptoms culminate with the burned-out pastor constantly thinking through a variety of exit strategies. Over time, we can’t imagine going on.
Maybe it is the stigma with weakness and the shame that we feel for not being strong enough to press on, but most of us pastors know a pastoral friend who has taken his life. I suspect that often, it is at the bottom of the burnout, looking for a way out, and finding suicide as the only resort.
Please hear the Father’s heart for you in this moment. Taking your own life is not the only resort. God has provided an alternative way out. Let me help you take it.
In sports like football and basketball, coaches have a certain number of time-outs they are allowed to use for the purpose of stopping the clock to gather the team together to discuss the next play or just to allow the players to take a break after a long stretch of intense engagement.
Emotional burnout due to adrenal fatigue is the body’s way of calling time out.
While God has built a one day in seven plan for ongoing rest, there are times when we need a longer stretch of time for deep recovery from the impact of prolonged stress.
This may be two weeks or even longer.
And there are times in ministry, perhaps two or three in one’s pastoral career, when a substantial break is necessary for long-term health. Universities, corporations, and churches call this a Sabbatical.
Do This Next
If you are burned out, I want you to take a deep breath and consider reading this post, which will outline the three rings of sabbatical rest that will help you find your way out of burnout.