How Do I Avoid Pastoral Burnout During COVID-19?
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This pandemic has exposed pastors to new and unexpected pressure points in their ministries. Often, I’ve felt alone and exhausted. There’s no easy way out of the ditch of despair, but here’s some advice I hope will be helpful.
1. Discern your soul.
Faithfulness isn’t always pressing through the fog. Sometimes, we need to stop and reorient. What are you anxious about? Where is the pressure coming from? Who are you afraid of disappointing? What are you running to for comfort? Give voice to what’s swirling inside you.
Pray that God will draw out what is going on from the depths of your soul. Process with trusted brothers knowing that “the purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Prov. 20:5). Ask God to use friends to expose fears, anxieties, expectations, or sin that might be crushing you. Bring them to Jesus and cast your anxieties on him knowing he cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7).
2. Embrace your limitations.
“Who is sufficient for these things?” ought to be the motto of every minister (2 Cor. 2:16). Yet I’m often tempted to try and have it all together in ways that only God does. I’ve needed to freshly embrace my inadequacies.
I cannot be an omnipresent pastor, who tries to be everywhere for everyone. Instead, God has called me to be faithful with what’s in front of me. I can’t call everyone on the same day. I can’t read every blog post, watch every news update, and jump on every call I’m invited to. I am limited, but my God is not, so it’s OK.
Neither can I be an omnipotent pastor, who tries to fix everything for everyone. Rather, I must rest, knowing that there are things I can neither control nor fix. I can’t make a pandemic stop or visit every lonely member. I can’t be a perfect husband, father, pastor, or friend. Yet God has strength that works in my weakness, so it’s OK (2 Cor. 12:9).
I can’t be an omniscient pastor, who has all the answers. God has not called me to be a politically savvy epidemiologist who creatively navigates the unprecedented opportunities of technology in a global pandemic. My knowledge has limits, but God has understanding beyond measure, so it’s OK (Ps. 147:5).
3. Change your pace.
A friend challenged me to view this season of ministry similar to the way a triathlete views a race (cf. 2 Tim. 2:5). As the athlete encounters different terrains, he adjusts his approach accordingly. In the same way, I needed to adjust my pace as I entered this new pandemic terrain.
I realized that not leaving the house made me always “on” in a way I wasn’t used to before. My rhythms were erased and all of a sudden, I was husbanding, parenting, and pastoring all at the same time—in the same place.
Because life and ministry aren’t the same as they were a few months ago, I needed to make some changes. I needed to humble myself under God’s mighty hand and allow him to show me my limitations (1 Pet. 5:5–6). Interruptions were going to be part of the new arrangement—and it didn’t catch God by surprise. I needed to humble myself, make whatever adjustments I could, and reevaluate my expectations for what work was going to be like.
4. Check your disciplines.
The pandemic paved the way for slothfulness in my life. It became easy to make excuses for lazy living. The trajectory was terrifying. Thankfully, the Lord reminded me of Paul’s words to Timothy, “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:7–8). This challenged helped me to reevaluate how I was disciplining myself in areas that were “less important” yet directly impacted my spiritual life. Here are a few:
- Eating: beware of becoming undisciplined in eating. Stress-eating, boredom-eating, overeating, or unhealthy eating effects your mood, focus, and energy levels. An extra glass of wine or soda can be easily justified in times like these. Discipline your eating for the purpose of godliness.
- Exercise: taking brief walks throughout the day can be life-giving and mind-clearing. Developing an attainable workout routine and inviting accountability is an enormous help for many.
- Entertainment: easily accessible escapes from reality are always tempting. Binge watching shows and inordinate time on social media has dangerous effects on your walk with God. We’re free to enjoy some entertainment, but beware of allowing it to master you (1 Cor. 6:12).
- Engage: if you have family, make sure that being “on” all the time doesn’t mean they get an irritated form of you. Guard time with them. Take your day off. Shut your computer. Put down the phone. Go outside. Play a game with them. Talk to them. Pray with them. Engage with your wife, children, or roommates.
You’ll only be as useful as you are well. This is true spiritually, but it’s not unconnected from what you do physically.
5. Don’t compare yourself to other pastors.
Initially my insecurities were enflamed when I saw other pastors proclaiming their creative plans for the pandemic. I became anxious, envious, and discouraged. I felt that if I didn’t come up with some amazing idea to lead droves to Jesus I would be failing. But the Lord used a friend to remind me that Paul told Timothy, “fulfill yourministry” not worry about others’ministries (2 Tim. 4:5).
If you live and die upon the expectations of others, you will become exhausted, tempted to compromise, and forgetful of Jesus. Compare yourself only with Jesus. Devote yourself only to his approval. Turn off social media if it invokes envy. Spend time with the Lord in his Word and feel free not to follow what everyone else is doing. Fulfill your ministry for God’s pleasure.
6. Come to Jesus.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 10:28).
Jesus assures us that if we are weary, he will care for us. Guard your time in his Word. Trust that his Word is working even if it doesn’t feel like it. Mark out intentional, uninterrupted time for prayer. Press through the fog in faith. If we will minister the Word to others, we must be ministered to by Jesus through his Word. Confess sins you’ve been giving into. Reach out for encouragement and accountability.
Do not lose heart. Jesus promises to care for you and give you rest. Hear afresh this promise from God’s Word: “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isa. 40:31).
Strengthen us Lord, we need you.
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These lessons are taken from chapters 5–7 of one my favorite ministry books: Imperfect Pastor, by Zach Eswine