How to Show Compassion and Avoid Pastoral Burnout
How can pastors avoid burning out as they compassionately care for their people? Here are thirteen suggestions to consider:
- You are not the Lord. The most dangerous thing about counseling is thinking you can change people, when it is really only the Lord who transforms hearts. Obviously, you are a means of God’s grace in their life, but you are only a means, not an end. God can use you even better when you demonstrate wisdom in caring for folks.
- Don’t try to save the world. Be careful in assuming you can help in every situation. Your members/attendees will look to you for all types of problems, and they expect really wise answers. You can’t help everyone all of the time. If you start with this assumption, you’ll prevent a lot of problems at the outset.
- Don’t be scared to see your own sin in the lives of others. As I hear people struggling in their marriage, I’m often reminded of my own failures. It helps me to both have sympathy for them and also make changes in my own life.
- Don’t be scared to make a connection with the worst of situations. I can quickly relate to men who struggle with lust, get angry in parenting, or want to do better in marital conflict. I don’t as easily connect with the experience of a drug addict or an alcoholic (or bank robber, or murders, or adulterer) because I have not committed the same sins. Yet, I know something of their experience in seeing similarities in my own life. I don’t know what it means to be addict to cocaine or vodka, but I know idols in my own life that have turned into addictions. I struggle with food, success, significance. My addictions are more sanctified; but just because they are culturally acceptable, they don’t make me any better than the “worst” of sinners. I can have great compassion for them because I see that their sins and my sins came from similar depraved hearts. Powlison articulated this point quite well in his interview with Marrk Dever.
- Don’t be like the Pharisees. Self-righteousness is always a danger. You’re a sinner. Your members are sinners. We all need help. Enough said on that one.
- Set boundaries. The demands of your members, people in the community, and staff can easily overtake your schedule. So set limits. If you are setting a priority on preaching, you should naturally have time built into your schedule for reading, Scripture study, writing, etc. As best you can, protect that time. I have a workday each week where I don’t do any counseling.
- Get accountability. Talk with others about your counseling load and your most difficult situations. Make sure there is at least one other elder who is asking you regularly about your counseling, and particularly your most emotionally-draining situations. This allows you the opportunity to talk through difficult situations and it gives them an opportunity to pray for you.
- Get others involved. Assume others must help. One of the first questions I ask is “Who else do you know in our congregation?” If they don’t know anyone, I ask them to meet up with someone (in addition to myself) and talk about what they are struggling with. The more they confess and bring things out into the light, the better it is for everyone. If they don’t know anyone, I make a few phone calls and send out some emails. My goal is to eventually work my way out of the job, and at that point, they need to have at least a one person in the congregation who know their issues and who are talking with them (or else, they’ll end up back in your office fairly quickly!).
- Set an expectation with the congregation that they are to be counseling each other. A culture of discipleship and an expectation that members need to care for other members helps a ton. Too many folks expect that the professionals (counselors, pastors) are the only ones who can help. But my assumption is that every member can do something to help. They can’t fix the problem, but they can help. The pastor should never be the only person to help in a situation. The more the congregation is trained to give wise counsel to each other, the less often folks will end up in our office. (I will try to write another post at some point describing some of the things we do to train members to be better counselors.)
- Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent rule your schedule. You will get plenty of crisis calls. Sometimes it is a “legitimate” crisis (suicide, heart attack); sometimes it is “crisis” in their mind, but not really for anyone else. Just because they feel it is a crisis doesn’t mean it is as bad as they think. You can use discernment to know when a bad situation needs to be dealt with immediately and what situations can wait.
- Take a break. Get your church to give a sabbatical (yearly is ideal). Take your vacation time. Every once in a while get away with your wife only and leave the kids with the grandparents. If the church gives you time off then take it. You need it more than you realize.
- Listen to your wife. Your wife will more quickly than most be able to notice if you are getting burned out, doing too much, and need to make adjustments. Listen to her. God put her in your life for your own sanctification.
- Remind yourself daily of your need for grace and forgiveness. In a lot of situations (especially the worst ones), I look at it and think, “apart from the grace of God that would also be me…” It is a good reminder that I desperately need God’s grace to do any of this. There are several passages I visit regularly as a reminder of my need for God’s grace and forgiveness (Psalm 51, Matthew 18:21-35, Romans 1-3, Eph 2:1-10).
Deepak Reju is an associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.