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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  • Neophytos says on

    Another one: “The pastor hung with his clique.” Sadly I’ve seen this as well. the young pastor has his special inner sanctum of the really good friends, then there was the rest of the chuch.

    I still prayed daily for the pastor and his family and always tried to encourage him, but I always felt awkward about bringing this point up ever. It’s sad that I’ve seen this at various churches.

  • I happened upon this post while actually pondering resignation from my church. I’ve been in a real valley of decision for the last few weeks, and I actually wrote a draft of a resignation letter 2 days ago. Even though it’s tough, I feel compelled to prayerfully consider putting some of your suggestions into practice before walking away. I’m 38 and trying desperately to lead a 125 year old church where I am easily the youngest person (by at least 15 years) in any meeting I’m in. Thanks to your words, I don’t feel like I’m on an island anymore! Time to plan my first vacation in 4 years…

  • Scott Newman says on

    Yet another addition: Debt–both personal and church. Personally, we’re free from debt excepting a small medical bill and our mortgage. The church is another story. Either way, debt enslaves.

  • Jimmy Casey says on

    I find it funny about the sabbatical, very few people I know ever get that Dr. Rainer I have been preaching since I was 14 I am 42 now. I have been pastoring since I was 20 if I am lucky I have had two weeks off in a year.

  • I would add that burned out pastors dont have a support and accountability group with whom they meet regularly.

    Great post!

  • Gentlemen and ladies, just want to say that your comments bless me just as much as many of the articles. Thank you for sharing.

  • After a lot of years in ministry and reading articles like this, which describe conditions that exist within church ministry, as well as, other professions, I would like to see some quantifiers put on some of the terminology. Burnout is a highly popularized term that sometimes describes those who have self-defeating patterns of behavior or simply give up for whatever reason. Another term is dysfunctional and what does that really mean? All people in the ministry have self defeating habits, it is when they go unrecognized and are not managed that extinction of hope sets in and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is there really any such thing as a church that is not dysfunctional at some point. Churches are dysfunctional because they are occupied and led with people who are dysfunctional. It is my opinion that church ministry is always a learning process of engaging the dysfunctional, with hope to manage challenges and even in the midst of difficult people and circumstances to learn how to manage, lead, and provide ministry without becoming a part of a system that sucks the life away from people who are called by God. Thanks so much for your work ….

  • A couple of observations from my own burnout.

    The current CEO/business models of leadership can often hold out the promise of growth and health for the church, but also lay huge responsibility on the back of a pastor who, by Jesus’ word should be a servant-leader, nor replicate the world’s authoritarian models.

    The person who is moving into burnout doesn’t recognize it! Nor likely will their congregation members. They desperately need competent people to come alongside with questions, compassion and grace, not cold diagnostics. The symptoms will show themselves differently from individual to individual.

  • A few years ago I burned out big time. Ended up in hospital after looking for a bridge to jump off of. The answers are not to be found in medicine or shock treatments. Both of which were tried on me. Often times they only make us worse. The answer is found in Christ, and getting used to the fact God is alive and well. If you can’t change it don’t try to. Today I am in a new Church and very happy. For me I have found being bi vocational is a big boast. You can walk away from a problem and simply respond by saying I’m only part time and my time is up for today. Just a thought.