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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  • Thom,

    I don’t often comment on your articles, but nearly every one of them blesses me, educates me, and encourages me. So keep up the great work and stay faithful to equipping God’s church and building up the pastors. As a bi-vocational pastor myself, your articles are a breath of fresh air. We need more voices like yours on the internet.

    PS: I love listening to your podcasts. Keep referencing your books and other resources, because they are very helpful. No need to apologize for self-promotion, because God is using those books for his glory alone. 😉


  • Dr. Rainer… Will you define “sabbatical” and clarify the difference between it and a vacation? I know this is a very sensitive topic among church members because they think, “I don’t get three months off in my job, why should the pastor?”

    This sounds like a great topic for a podcast!

    Thanks for all that you and Jonathan do! Love you guys and am grateful for your influence!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Sabbatical is a time of rest and/or study away from the daily demands of the church. Those who receive sabbaticals typically do so after extended years of service. I know of few vocations that have the demands and emotional swings of pastoral ministry. The typical sabbatical is a few weeks in duration.

  • It is always heart breaking to me when a someone is burned out and leaves the ministry. Personally, I think this is a great list that can give members, friends and family a great way to pray for their ministers, pastors and elders.

  • I would add being emberessed to ask for mental health help as well. Depression and anxiety are prevelant among pastors but it’s a taboo subject.

  • Hi Thom,

    Great list! I’ve seen each one of them before, both in the senior pastor and the pastoral staff. Would you say these issues are also applicable to pastoral staff?


  • Jonathan Brodeur says on

    I am a youth pastor at a church without a pastor and so I feel like I’m expected to not only do youth ministry but also do 900 other things as well. I am going to be honest I have trouble saying no and I am trying to find that balance between doing youth ministry and making sure I am not neglecting my wife. I really needed to read this and want to say thank you for sharing it with us all.

  • Scott Newman says on

    25 years of pastoral ministry…never been offered a sabbatical.

  • I think I have hit just about every one of the stressors listed. Not so long ago, one of my parishioners mentioned that I seem to have lost some of my enthusiasm. She does not realize that I am holding on for dear life at this point. If I could afford to retire, I would and maybe remind myself why I am on this journey and what is my relationship with God right now.

  • Worn Out says on

    I have been on the edge of leaving the ministry more than once. I am a bi-vo pastor and work 7 days a week and up to 14-16 hours a day at least a few of those 7 days. I see virtually no way out of this. Do you have anything for the bivo guy that has to pastor, but also has to support his family but doesn’t want to lose his wife and kids in the process???

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Worn Out –

      I’ve written several articles on the topic for pastors and staff in general at this blog, but not specifically for bi-vocational pastors. I still think many of the principles apply. Let me know if you can’t find some of the articles in the search box. By the way, family always has to come first (1 Timothy 3:5), even if you have to give up your church.

      • Worn Out says on

        1 Timothy 3:5 has rang in my head many times and every time I am on the edge of walking away from the ministry, I come back….
        Thanks for your ministry.
        About 10 years ago, I sat across a table from you at SBTS and you gave me some great encouragement as I was starting seminary….something I won’t forget. Blessings on you my friend.

      • Anthony says on

        Worn out, please don’t give up. Being bi- vocational allows us the opportunity to step back at times and just work one job.
        Know that I’m praying for you and if we could ever get together we could encourage each other. Romans 1:12!!

      • Worn Out says on

        Thanks Anthony.

    • Are you familiar with Ray Gilder? He heads up the Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network for the Southern Baptist Convention. If you’re not tapped into that network, I encourage you to find them online. Ray was my pastor during my first two years of seminary, and he’s a very wise and encouraging man.

  • I can attest to each of these. I’ve been in each of these situations before and some still today. 10 is the most pressing to me. Being a first generation minister and called later in life than many in seminary to the church, leadership and the church having been outright shocking at times. I’ve had little direction in leadership and was expected to lead meetings which I didn’t even know what they were!

    To go from no kinds of leadership positions before graduation to the complete overseeing of a church is an amazing paradigm shift.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You’ve noted a big need of many in pastoral leadership, Steve.

    • That was pretty much my situation when I went to my first pastorate. I was 28 at the time and already had my seminary degree, but I really felt like I was in over my head (to be honest, sometimes I still do!). It’s normal to feel inadequate for ministry, and in some ways it’s healthy, because it forces you to look to God for guidance.

      That being said, I would advise seminary students to try and get on a church staff or at least find some kind of internship while they’re in seminary. Nothing will better prepare you for ministry than hands-on experience.

  • What about the leadership piling more work on the pastor and not permitting breaks, rest, any easing of the pressure to perform, etc.?

    I think the take home message is that the pastor has to take control of the situation before it gets out of hand.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      That’s true, Mark. But the pastor could also use some friends and allies in the process as well.

      • Amen to that!

      • David Self says on

        I also take an hour off once in a while to meet a friend at a coffee house. We talk about family, God, and the universe. It helps me vent and sometimes dream of ministry opportunities. It’s cheaper than a vacation. However, one should choose such a friend carefully.