Autopsy of a Burned Out Pastor: 13 Lessons


Perhaps the autopsy metaphor is not the best choice. After all, the person is not deceased. But the pastor who is burned out feels like life is draining out. Unfortunately, I have spoken with too many pastors for whom burnout is a reality or a near reality.

What lessons can we learn from those pastors who burned out? Allow me to share 13 lessons I have learned from those who have met this fate. They are in no particular order.

  1. The pastor would not say “no” to requests for time. Being a short-term people pleaser became a longer-term problem.
  2. The pastor had no effective way to deal with critics. What types of systems do effective leaders put in place to deal with criticisms so they respond when necessary, but don’t deplete their emotional reservoirs?
  3. The pastor served a dysfunctional church. Any pastor who leads a church that remains dysfunctional over a long period of time is likely headed toward burnout.
  4. The pastor did little or no physical exercise. I understand this dilemma because I have been there in the recent past.
  5. The pastor did not have daily Bible time. I continue to be amazed, but not surprised, how this discipline affects our spiritual health, our emotional health, and our leadership ability.
  6. The pastor’s family was neglected. “If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5, HCSB).
  7. The pastor rarely took a day off. No break in the routine and demands of pastoring is a path for burnout.
  8. The pastor rarely took a vacation. Again, the issues are similar to the failure to take a day off.
  9. The pastor never took a sabbatical. After several years of the intense demands of serving a church, a sabbatical of a few weeks is critical to the emotional, spiritual, and physical health of a pastor.
  10. The pastor never learned effective relational and leadership skills. When that is the case, conflict and weak vocational performance are inevitable. That, in turn, leads to burnout.
  11. The pastor was negative and argumentative. Negativity and an argumentative spirit drain a pastor. That negativity can be expressed in conversations, sermons, blogs, or any communication venue. Argumentative pastors are among the first to experience burnout.
  12. The pastor was not a continuous learner. Pastors who fail to learn continuously are not nearly as energized as those who do. Again, this disposition can lead to burnout.
  13. The pastor was not paid fairly. Financial stress can lead to burnout quickly. I will address this issue again in my next post.

Many pastors are leaving ministry because they have experienced burnout. Many others are just on the edge of burnout. Pastors need our continuous support and prayers. And they themselves need to avoid the thirteen issues noted here.

Please let me know what you think of these factors. And feel free to add your comments and questions to this conversation.

Posted on June 23, 2014

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I realize this is a post about pastor burnout, but I believe most of these could be true of professionals and business owners working in many areas. Or even volunteers who area burned out. I think the bottom line is that we all run the risk of burnout when we are out of balance with God’s priorities.

  • Elder Larry says on

    I would want to be the last to add any more to the pressure Pastors feel as a result of the pressure of serving others. May I ask, if burn out is a symptom of doing a work, that only can be done “In Christ”. The golden rule for those that “care for others” is to take care of yourself, if you are going to have a opportunity to save or care for others.

    Even Jesus illustrated to us in a way that cannot be ignored, we need to take time to strengthen ourselves, if we are going to be a help to others. Jesus illustrated this to us in a way that cannot be ignored. He often withdrew from the crowds, even his Disciples to go away on retreat, alone often to pray. In Matthew 14:22, Jesus take the time to reflect and consult the Father “BEFORE” taking on new and sometime life changing events. (22) And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away… (24) But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. It was then that Jesus could be seen by His followers “walking on water”, and of course saving them from the wind and rain, taking them to a new level!

    In another well illustrated post “Jesus Set Boundaries”, we find a need to have balance in all we do!;

    •Personal Prayer Time: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matthew 6:6).

    •Set Priorities: “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Luke 16:13).

    •Please God, Not People: “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).

  • This is very interesting to me. My Ph.D. research focused on stress and bunrout in paraprofessionals in 1983 (Michigan State). Since that time, through a career in ministry and higher education, I have had many opportunities to work with pastors who are overly stressed and thoe who have experienced burnout. It is REAL. I have also used my educational and career consulting practice to assist in either reaffirming interests, abilibites, values and personality in light of decision-making, and this has proven most informative and helpful, giving some structure for the minister. What I appreciate about this article is that it addresses lifestyle matters which are essential to avoiding or healing burnout and which can be addressed as interests which can be incorporated into a realisitic action plan.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Bob.

    • Bob, I would love to connect with you. I pray you’ll see this response, even though it’s nine months later than yours. I recently completed my DMin pastoral burnout and building community through social media to address it, and I’m looking to leverage my research in any way possible. I experienced burnout in and resignation from pastoral ministry, but God encouraged me out of my depression and allowed me to channel my experiences to do meaningful research I pray I can use to help other pastors overcome what I’ve been through. I would love to learn more about the research you did, as I’m trying to learn as much as I can about burnout in other fields, as well. Dr. Rainer, your blog and podcast have been tremendously valuable resources for me over the past year. In fact, Breakout Churches was the primary texts for one of my DMin courses. Thank you for your ministry and God bless you!

  • Charles Rambeau, Jr. says on

    I resigned my church yesterday. I am a bi-vocational minister and found that my secular job and my ministry were taking a toll on my relationship with God. I was burning out and bailed out before the church and I crashed. Burnout is real.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I am praying for you right now, Charles.

    • Anthony says on

      I am bi-vocational also. We really want to help struggling churches but it’s like saving an uncooperative drowning person.
      Not all small churches are #3. I served many years in a great all church and hate to walk away from the church I serve now, but it is not worth family and health.
      We even went thru- “I Am A Church Member!” LOL. Great book and they loved it. But no help so far.

  • Chris Gilliam says on

    “Yet I would like to see some writing in the vein of the endemic problem that perhaps has its roots on the 40-50 ” Should have read 1940’s and 1950’s/

  • Chris Gilliam says on


    Numbers 3,9,13 and possibly 8 are not in the pastor’s control. However there are many churches that operate this way. Indeed such a sad state of affairs. I would suggest that these 3 (4) assist in the creating of many of the other symptoms. I know you have dealt with this in your writings on the churches. One thing I find interesting, in my days at seminary we were encouraged to go and reform/revitalize these hard places. Today it seems the shift is to plant around them. Yet I would like to see some writing in the vein of the endemic problem that perhaps has its roots on the 40-50 when the mode for some of the dying churches was stamped. Could it be the mechanized processes were the culprit? Could it be the people’s expectations were set in stone when the church of 50-100 had constant pastoral care to the expense of the pulpit? And what of the campaigns like “a million more in 54”, what effect did that have in shaping the churches that are dying and have pastor’s that burn out? I would be interested in your findings. One last note, I have ministered in a full spectrum of SBC church life at the church level, to all us pastors–be faithful to God, your family, and to the bride he is directing your service too. Having read Jonathan Edward’s dismissal this mooring I was reminded, sometime bad happens to the best.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That’s absolutely true, Chris. Good pastors do get hurt. On the other matter, I am encouraged to see a new interest in revitalizing churches.

  • Excellent. 20+ years of ministry – learning the value of sabbaticals. Thank you for the great word.

  • Allen Calkins says on

    The BIGGEST one on your list is serving a dysfunctional church, especially if that church is in a non-growing area. I really do not know what can be done, but something needs to be done to address the problem of pastor eating dysfunctional churches. Perhaps stats could be developed to identify them better to prospective pastors and an aggressive set of questions given for a pastor to ask and get agreement on BEFORE agreeing to go to one of these toxic churches. Unfortunately, the more dysfunctional, the less likely they will find a pastor with the skills to change them. This is probably true for two reasons. 1) Some prospective pastors are wise enough to recognize the signs or research the situation and stay away. 2) God does not waste highly skilled pastors on churches that will waste that person’s gifts and abilities. So He does not lead them there.

    Another reason one not on your list is the hopelessness that accompanies not being able to leave a failing dysfunctional church. Few churches are interested in talking to a pastor whose resume is not one of positive growth.

    Another is how other pastors frequently shun pastors in troubled churches like they have a disease to be caught.

    • Amen and amen! I too feel the hopelessness of not having that church success story to add to my resume. I struggle every Sunday night, wondering how I’m going to get through the next week. Should I REALLY be a pastor??? What else could I do??? Where can I go???

      Your post hit home to me. Thanks!

      • Allen & Jeff,

        You are in the “mainstream” of pastors. The problem is, folks (and those in organizational leadership – people of influence) gravitate toward the successful, pace-setter pastors. Sadly, much of the “church growth” in our area is the result of someone building a new facility and syphoning-off members from area churches. People like something “new” and obviously, if its growing, (and if the kids like it!) God must be in it! Sound a little resentful? Perhaps. Our church and several others around us have “donated” members to such churches.

      • “What else could I do??? Where can I go???” And I thought I was one of the few who felt this way.

      • Allen Calkins says on

        To Gary Jeff M and Angela I would say the BEST response for those who have discovered they are ministering in a dysfunctional church (some traits: tradition bound, unrealistic expectations, unwillingness to change, chronic critical spirit, dominating negative lay leader, legalistic looking at pastor, community and other members) is faithfully serving where you are. You have to learn to celebrate the little victories that go unnoticed by the church. It is also helpful to find other avenues of service that become your creative outlet. For me that has been Assoc work in support of church planting and working through the local Min Alliance to get area churches to cooperate on larger projects even though I knew my church would likely not benefit from the fruit.
        I was fired from one toxic church after 5 yrs. and served another for 10 years begging God for a new assignment for the last 4 years. I finally got that opportunity last year to a declining church with less dysfunctionality than the others I have served. So I am hopeful that revitalization is possible this time…but only time will tell.

      • Douglas Adams says on

        What is really sad is to be pastoring a dysfunctional church and still have your success measured in terms of budgets, baptisms, and buildings. While not a rationalization for true failure one must discover the true measure of success in the Sciptures and a walk with God. Oftentimes, easier said than done. My heart goes out to my brothers and sisters.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Those are some very good observations, Allen. Thank you.

    • Amen and Amen again Allen!!

      And then after this poor clergy person who was appointed (in many traditions) to serve a toxic and highly dysfunctional church, was burnt/chewed up by the clergy-killing congregation and spit out, I would ask the next question: “Whatever happened to Pastor {insert name here}”???

      All too often, many of these individuals, despite their good intentions to serve God and God’s people, become burnt out beyond the repair of a sabbatical and (unfortunately) leave ministry all together.

    • Anthony says on

      Thom, thanks for this post!! I am blessed to be a bi-vocational pastor. My secular job is a wonderful place to work. They teach us leadership, conflict resolution, and just common courtesy.
      I serve the church that represents #3 very well. From my secular job I return to the church over half my salary and tithes and offerings. With both jobs I’m averaging over 70 hours per week. My wife and children are also involved in the ministry by being at the church.
      What we do is never enough. The deacon body has shot down every recommendation over the last four years but continues to complain about declining numbers and are unwilling to offer any solutions themselves. Our family is ready to quit.

    • I would like to know the symptoms of a dysfunctional church. Next, thoughts on how to lead a dysfunctional church into a healthy status.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Ed: My book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, addresses the first issue. I’ll be dealing with the second issue fully by video this fall.

    • Allen, I would disagree with your position that God doesn’t “waste” highly skilled pastors in such churches. I believe that whole attitude is part of the problem. Pastors that are “successful” are just pastors whose ministry the Spirit has chosen to bless visibly. There are many pastors in small, dysfunctional churches who are heroes, doing the very difficult work of loving unlovable people, sharing the gospel, and preaching persistently. The Spirit is at work through them, just not in a way that can be measured by a survey. Isaiah and Ezekiel were called by God to preach to rebellious people who would never change. What’s to say God doesn’t call great men to do the same today?

      • Drew, I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve watched how certain pastors in our Association have risen to “Super-star” status, primarily because their church began to grow (largely by transfer of membership) and became the “happenin'” place. Suddenly, a pastor whose face I wouldn’t have recognized in an association meeting – because he never participated – becomes the key-note speaker here and there.
        I understand (not to say I agree with) the politics of success and the desire to have a successful image both in the pulpit and int he community. Also, I’m not saying God doesn’t truly bless some pastors and churches with exceptional gifts and grace resulting in growth.
        Still, I have personally known several of those pastor to whom you refer, who serve faithfully, laboring to expound the Word of God, caring for a small flock without fanfare or, in many instances, appreciation. They don’t serve for those things, but, it is obvious they aren’t considered by many in places of influence to be men of any really significant ministry.
        I’m glad favor of God doesn’t depend on success…

    • Allen,
      It breaks my heart that pastor’s around you are not praying for you, listening to you and there to help you! I thank God for pastor’s who have encouraged me when I was down. So much so that I sought out other men in similar situations and we started meeting regularly to encourage and help one another. It was great to know “I was not alone” and to find that I could learn from other pastors and help them too! God bless you brother!

  • Perhaps this goes along with one of your points and maybe a previous comment:

    I would also say that a Pastor who’s foundation of ministry is not set on Christ, will burn out much quicker. What I mean is this: From experience (as a youth pastor), I firmly believe my aim and goal in ministry is not ultimately to be about people. I firmly believe that my goal and aim in ministry is to honor my Lord Jesus. If my focus is on pleasing people or even trying to find the best “method” to “grow a church” (which is not our job) than we are only setting ourselves up for failure because we will want to see certain results to our labor but we may never get it but we will only experience severe heartache and frustration.

    If we would remember that we are here for our God (Colossians 1), and by our worship of Him through our ministry, things will happen. God will and can and is doing great things!

  • I would never take another sabbatical again. It was not worth the nonsense the awaited me when I returned. I would have been better off working straight through.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That’s not a good sign about the health of your church, Kent, though I’m likely stating the obvious.

    • I’ve taken two Sabbaticals over the course of my 23+ years in this church. And I look forward to another in 3 more years.

      Our church (200 members) is led by a team of pastor/elders, and we have two on full-time staff. Leaving for a Sabbatical doesn’t leave a leadership vacuum. That’s not to say that upon my return there aren’t some things waiting for me, but that’s true after a week of vacation.

      But our leaders are given the empowerment to lead and direct in my absence, because they do so in my presence.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Good word, Rick.

      • Bryan M says on

        Rick, that last line ought to be tattooed on the forehead of every minister! It is absolutely key to building strong, healthy leadership in a church. As the saying goes: “If your leading, and nobody is following, you’re just out for a walk!”

    • A dear pastor friend of mine here in Missouri (passed away a few years ago) took a month’s sabbatical. He really was in need of some R&R. When he returned, plans were in the works which led to his vacating the pulpit. Sabbaticals sound nice, and, the concept is good. I’ve rarely seen a happy ending to one unless it involved pastors of larger churches. Unfortunately(?), the majority of pastors are in smaller churches.

  • Chris Amos says on

    Perhaps in addition Thom, the pastor became obsessed with earthly kingdom building and noses in the pews.

    Excellent post, as always. I must say I have a few of these t-shirts hanging up in my closet but by the grace of God He has given me a new love for ministry and His people. It took 8 months of a death by a million cuts back in 2012 but the lessons learned, wisdom gained, and second chance given I would not trade for the world.

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