A Taxonomy of At-Risk Pastors
During a pastoral ministry class in seminary, my professor addressed the tragedy of pastors committing sexual immorality. I still remember the advice he gave us for avoiding such moral failure: “The first step in protecting yourself against having an affair is to admit that you are capable of having an affair.” Ouch.
That admonition applies to pastoral burnout, too. The first step in protecting yourself against burnout is to admit that you can, in fact, burn out. Even youths grow weary and faint, and even good pastors can fry. We all have a breaking point. Some pastors have more resilience and capacity than others, but no one is immune to profound emotional and spiritual exhaustion.
In this article, I want to help us humbly face the danger of burnout in ministry by considering some specific ways we may be at risk. Sometimes, the threat of collapse comes from external circumstances. Other times, it arises internally from our own weaknesses. Probably most cases of burnout include both.
Consider these five categories of at-risk pastors:
#1: The Solo Pastor
Do you shepherd alone? Are you the only paid pastor in your church? Maybe you work with a lay deacon board or church council, but when you come to work everyday there’s no one there, except the part-time secretary. The writer of Ecclesiastes summed up your burnout risk well:
“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up.” Ecclesiastes 4:9–10
The solo pastor pours himself out by lifting everyone else up. But who lifts him? Ministry is often confusing, discouraging, and painful—and facing it alone can be a recipe for burnout.
When I look back at my own pastoral career, one of my greatest joys has been relationships with other pastors and church staff. My co-workers have provided me safe friendships for venting and laughing. They’ve helped me solve problems, shoulder tasks, defuse conflicts, and evaluate ministry. The solo pastor lacks these day-to-day partnerships.
Solo pastors, you can mitigate your burnout risk by pursuing collegial, life-giving relationships wherever possible. Meet weekly with another pastor in your town. Work with your church to bring on a pastoral intern. And most importantly, lead your church toward adopting lay elders. God’s plan for the local church, and for you, includes a shepherding team (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).
By the way, here’s another twist on the solo pastor. Some pastors actually do have a staff and elders, but they’re functionally solo because they isolate themselves. They don’t have real friendships, and no one truly knows them.
Are you relationally solo? If you were falling apart or caught in sin, would anyone realize it?
#2: The Silo Pastor
It’s not just solo pastors of small churches who face burnout. Meet the “silo pastor” in the big church down the street. He’s an associate or assistant pastor overseeing a very defined program (a.k.a. a ministry “silo”). He might be the singles pastor or the missions pastor or the associate pastor of youth and family ministry. He’s typically viewed as a “specialist” who leads ministry to a specific church demographic.
Sounds good, right? Who wouldn’t love a chance to be on a big staff team in a large church? Who wouldn’t want the responsibility of running an important department?
Yet ironically, that same silo can sometimes feel less like an opportunity and more like a prison. The silo pastor can get pigeonholed. He has a pastor’s heart and calling, but he doesn’t get many chances to experience pastoral duties like preaching or counseling or doing a funeral or attending an elders meeting because he’s “just” the pastor of assimilation. Like the mid-level corporate manager who feels as if he’s a replaceable cog in a big machine, the specialist pastor can get a sense that he’s merely there to keep a program running and well-attended.
And that can slowly suck the life out of you.
Silo pastor, keep growing. Don’t just give up and get by. Read. Pursue a degree. Take opportunities to collaborate with other staff in other ministries. Ask and beg your senior leadership for opportunities for pastoral tasks outside of your lane.
And senior pastors and elders, what are you doing to help your staff grow? Are you caring for their souls? Are you discouraging them—or are you developing them?
#3: The Super Pastor
The “super pastor” does it all. He attends most committee meetings, leads several Bible studies, weighs in on most decisions, serves as a denominational leader, edits all the church publications, and constantly checks his phone for texts, emails, and calls about church stuff. He works some (much) of his day off and never uses up all his vacation time. Ministry is his passion, his hobby, his identity, his life.
Super pastors get their super strength for perpetual motion from different sources. Some are fueled by a desire to please people. Others have an unstoppable drive for success and significance so they maintain blogs and launch ministries and catalyze movements. Ministry is their high.
Other types of super pastors exist, too. There are super spiritual super pastors who are so radically devoted to God that they see doing anything outside of ministry as a sell-out. Likewise, perfectionistic super pastors push themselves, and everyone around them, to strive for almost unattainable standards in the name of “giving the Lord our best.” And don’t forget the savior super pastors, who sense a crushing obligation to solve everyone’s problems and meet everyone’s needs.
Though Super Pastors fly high, they often crash—because none of us can do it all. None of us can keep everyone happy. None of us can fix everything. Eventually, something gives, and the hero burns out. And sadly, it’s often the super pastor’s family that pays the biggest price.
Are you a ministry workaholic? Does your wife agree with how you answered that question?
#4: The Pragmatic Pastor
I’m quite familiar with this one because I consider myself a recovering pragmatic pastor. You can even read an article about my experiences here.
The pragmatic pastor is committed to doing “whatever works” in order to reach people. Rather than making ministry decisions based on Scripture, he devours the latest best-selling book written by the pastor of the fastest growing church. Being a pragmatic pastor means chasing trends, conducting surveys, tracking numbers, watching other churches, attending cutting-edge conferences, staying technologically savvy, and always reinventing things in that elusive quest to find what “works.”
I found the pragmatic path exhausting. It was burning me out. I had this nagging feeling that I was being blown by the winds of human wisdom, rather than steering the church by the compass of God’s Word. But when I stopped asking, “What works?” and started asking, “What does Scripture say?” I discovered a great staying power for ministry. You can weather much disappointment and suffering in pastoral work, without burning out, when you know that your task is simply to be faithful to what God has already said in the Bible.
What’s your philosophy of ministry? Can it sustain you for the long haul?
#5: The Embattled Pastor
One of the most common causes of burnout is conflict. A few persistent opponents can steal the joy of pastoral work. I’ve never ceased to be amazed at how one critical detractor on a Sunday morning can offset a dozen encouraging words.
Are you in a church that has lots of opposition? Are you weathering a firestorm of public attacks? Is your staff divided? Perhaps you’re working to bring needed reform. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees that the church needs to change, and now the dissenters are organizing themselves.
Take special care to watch over your soul in these seasons of strife. You can easily fry. It’s time to fast and pray. Get godly counsel. Discipline yourself to spend more time pouring over God’s Word rather than re-reading the latest blistering email from you-know-who.
Strength in Weakness
How at-risk are you for burnout? Are you refreshed and happy, or are you one big crisis away from resigning and maybe leaving ministry altogether? It’s a humbling question to ask because none of us like to admit our fragility. Pastors are supposed to have it all together, right?
And yet, ironically, it’s when we confess and embrace our weakness to God that we find our real strength.
“Therefore I will most gladly boast all the more about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and difficult for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9–10