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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  • Eddie Thompson says on

    After going through a serious burnout in 1999 it took me quite a while to understand what had really happened. After reading Archibald Hart’s book Adrenaline and Stress, I learned that burnout is as much physiological as it is psychological. Living under severe daily stress for an extended period of time creates a serious adrenal gland problem. Depending on a boost of adrenaline everyday to function creates a long term, although misunderstood, health problem. If changes don’t take place, the person will eventually crash and burn, opening up a door for dangerous long term health problems.

    According to Arch Hart, pastors often are adrenaline addicts…but without good reason. He said pastors just don”t need that much adrenaline to do what they do. But it becomes their drug of choice.

    It seems the adrenal gland sends out this powerful chemical for energy (especially in an emergency). But living under serious long term stress and making constant demand for adrenaline, the adrenal gland becomes severely over taxed and eventually stops working. The demand is still there, but no adrenaline is coming. When that happens the person will experience a fatigue so deep they will have a hard time functioning. They will wonder why they are so tired and can’t recover? Taking a break or vacationing doesn’t help that much.

    Because they didn’t discover what’s going on in their body, they will eventually go back to the same cycle.Then they are in danger of making bad choices to feel better – or feel anything (alcohol, drugs, illicit sex, XXX porn, deep depression, suicide, or even preaching louder and more demanding trying to expose the sins of others. (The old adage is that “He who preaches the loudest is usually the most guilty”) Or they blame the church for over working them and walk away from ministry altogether.

    So pastors who are prone to extended stress burnout will have to choose a completely different lifestyle because this one has become insane and unworkable. They must stop this pattern of living and ministry so the adrenal gland can begin functioning again as it should. Pastor Wayne Cordero is an example of someone who understood this and eventually recovered. From recovery going forward, they have to be very careful about how much stress they have. They can easily fall back into burnout even though they’re not under the same load of stress as before. Their capacity for this is forever altered and that may a good thing. It may keep them from destroying themselves.

    If you are watching a pastor who is severely stressed out, please help him understand the danger. You might save his marriage, family and his ministry. Perhaps even his life.

    Thanks for your feedback.

    Eddie Thompson, Senior Consultant, Family Evangelism & Discipleship
    Baptist State Convention of North Carolina
    205 Convention Drive • Cary, NC 27511
    [email protected]

  • Burnout is over the top real! I watched as my husband made the journey through a very dark place around 2009-2010. After serving at the same church for (now) 23 years, numerous transitions and painful moments over the course of that time led him to a book, mentioned by Dr. Johnny Hunt, “Leading On Empty” by Wayne Cordeiro. This. book. was. life. changing for my husband.
    Now he is passionately leading the same church but with a different outlook.
    God has also led us to offer a place of respite & refreshing for ministers & their spouse. Check us out at
    Truth is, we are all running this race so let us run to win by giving encouragement to one another.

    • I loved the article! This is a needed discussion! Thank you, Dr. Rainer!

      It took me almost 20 years as a pastor to actually find the courage to talk about these issues with the Church and church leaders. I was afraid of being misunderstood and being thought of as a whiner. Oh how I wish I had confronted that fear long ago! Most of our church leaders and especially the church body understood I was just speaking the truth! I was being transparent! They appreciated it and were GLAD to see I was human…

      I have also found that there are a lot of fellow pastors dealing with the same junk (even before I read all of these responses to this article!). If we as pastors would let down our guard and stop competing with one another we could actually encourage and help one another by meeting regularly, listening, learning, praying, weeping and laughing with one another.

      May God revive us pastors and our churches!

  • This is a great article. I’m not a Pastor but I’ve been in leadership capacities and found that the more burned out a Pastor is the more disconnected he is and the more he relies on his leadership and then they in turn get burned out.
    My family had to leave our beloved church because we were all buned out. My wife was having panic attacks. When the phone rang she would be scared it was the Pastor asking for us to add something else to our already full plate.
    He was burned out and thus put more pressure on the leadership. When we started saying no out of preservation he lashed out and left us no choice but to leave.
    We were devastated. I’m still in contact with a few members and they mention how exhausted the Pastor always is and how his preaching has turned from love to ranting about everything that’s wrong with the world.
    Please Pastors take a rest. We love you and want to help you.

  • Peter Tang says on

    Thanks Rainer for the insightful symptoms of pastoral downhill. I have seen many of the issues as direct causes for ministry burnt-out. But I am not sure an absence of sabbatical is part of the cause. By definition, a sabbatical is a long period of refreshment (from 6 months to a year) after 6 years of continuous service. Sticking to this format causes more harm than good (especially to a small church with one pastor). To have to wait 6 years for refreshment and renewal is just too long a wait. By that time, most would have been dead and beyond resuscitation! A shorter but more regular period for spiritual refreshment is necessary for a pastor to remain motivated and challenged to lead the church. Churches must provide time and money to allow pastors to be away for short period of refreshment and renewal without pre-conditions.
    Peter Tang

  • I am approaching 35 years in ministry. I entered into ministry after being raised up from the dead, (literally) and having been recovered by the Lord. I attended a two year Bible school, where my wife and I met and married. We returned to her home town following graduation and committed to help her parents with a church they pioneered and pastored. At first everything seemed fine and on track with church development and growth, including a Bible School with several graduates who went on to become successful ministers in surrounding communities. Unfortunately my Father in law had become quite cynical, embittered, and backslid. The Church board recognized his distress and sought to encourage his recovery including a sabbatical, but he only grew more embittered and distant. Eventually I an a fellow associate were asked to “co-pastor” as a last resort effort in his recovery, the board suspended my father in law and told him we would fill in until and if he would repent and be recovered. He only became more combative and sought to undermine the board and any efforts to continue the ministry at the Church from which he had been suspended. I wanted to run at the time, some 32 or so years ago, but felt a sense of responsibility before the Lord, for the people…so I stayed. The school from which I graduated and ministerial organization they formed, sided with my Father in law due to his misrepresentation, deceptions, and outright lies about the Church and myself. Mind you, during all of this, folks would come up and thank us for taking action, often saying that we had no idea how necessary it was for him to have stepped down, but that things were far worse that we even knew. We faced rejection by many we loved and respected, as well as by the majority of folks in the surrounding community…but we sought to minister to those who remained and walk in love toward, praying for my faith in law. The stress became so great it took a toll on my family, on my marriage, and what relationships remained. My wife became distant and estranged, we nearly divorced after she became emotionally involved with another man about 14 years ago…and meanwhile I continued to pastor….FAST FORWARD. Thankfully my wife and I were able to (by the Lord’s grace) recover our marriage, but we continued at the same church and despite all of our efforts, it began to decline. In the midst of recovering our marriage, we were able to reach out to ,my father in law during what turned out to be his final days. He actually thanked us for having upheld the standard of God’s Word and for having walked in love toward him, while he acknowledged his regret for failing to do the same toward us. We stood with and prayed for him and during that time it came to light that he had been inappropriately involved with numerous women back when pastoring the Church from which he had been suspended, then continued afterward. In fact several of the women that affirmed our need to have him step down were listed in a diary of his sexual conquests that was discovered which detailed his sin. Having said all of this, I am now at the point of having placed the actual Church property up for sale, in hopes of planting a new work and allowing my wife and I to take a sabbatical after all of these years. The Lord finally was able to convey to both of us that neither we nor the “church” could or would flourish if it remained as, and where it is. In part the Lord was able to help us by acknowledging that there were communities in which even He was incapable of ministering to the folks as He desired, such as His own home town. He also brought to our attention that while there were times recorded in the Acts, in which various ones were led to specific placed to minister, there were also times they were discouraged if not prevented form going to other places. While I do believe there was a season in which the Lord wanted us to remain planted, I also believe we very likely have overstayed that season and did so to our own hurt. I am almost 60, dealing with health and financial issues, no retirement to speak of, and with the prospect of starting over. As overwhelming as this prospect is, I continue to rejoice in the Lord’s faithfulness and would ask folks to learn form other’s insights and if need be failures and the wisdom of sound counsel such as that offered in this article.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      What an incredible story of tragedy and victory in The Lord. I am taking time to pray for you now, PM.

  • Tom, this is a great article. I was wondering if you any suggestions on how a pastor who needs to improve on being effective relationally and develop his leadership skills? Are there courses you would suggest a pastor take, books to read, etc? Thanks – Pastor Jim

  • I’m curious about the “sabbatical” comment. Is that really a viable option for small-church and bivocational pastors?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I think a mini-sabbatical is, Ken, even if it’s only 10 to 14 days.

      • In your opinion, how long should a pastor serve at a church before he is allowed a sabbatical? I’m at a small church, and I’ve served here seven years, so I admit I have an ulterior motive for asking! 🙂

      • @Dr. Rainer: I guess what I meant to say is, how often do you think pastors should take sabbaticals? In all seriousness, I really would like to know your opinion on that.

  • I know burnout is a real issue. I currently have no other ministerial staff. I am desperate to keep the youth ministry focused since I have two sons in the youth group. I have attempted to keep the music ministry focused and faced criticism for the way it has been addressed. Nothing seems to get done unless I am pushing it or getting my hands involved. I don’t mind serving I just wished people took ownership of their responsibilities. I know the stress is affecting my relationships at home and at church. We are financially strapped. We literally live week to week most months. There are few couples in the church that have been a blessing to us and if it were not for them we would never be able to enjoy some time away – they literally pay for us to get away. Our Sunday nights are dead and none of my leadership will accept that fact.

    I probably shouldn’t write this on a Monday morning but I am weary. I struggle to stay focused on the mission at hand and my hope and faith in God’s provision and deliverance is met with the darts of doubt and discouragement. I was encouraged this morning in my devotional time with this truth, “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD” (Psalm 27:14).

    I am grateful for this ministry and as I read the stories of other pastors I know I am not alone. I know God has not abandoned me. I know my wife is my number one supporter and encourager. I am striving to stay focused and faithful. It is hard at times. I know that God has a plan and He will work His plan for me when He has prepared me for what is next in my life. Until then it is my desire to continue to preach the Word and love the people. The latter part is the greatest challenge for me today.

    Thank you Thom for what you do to help pastors. I hope to personally meet you one day.

  • Charles N. says on

    I took a church almost seven years ago which to my finding had some of the above mentioned problems. I went in as a full-time pastor but soon i realized i needed to work a full time job to pay the bills. The church is an older church, been around for over 150 years. I have people that outright tell me if change a certain thing in the building or take something down they will leave. I have a horrendous Sunday PM and Midweek attendance in comparison to Sunday. Folks right out tell me, who have been here forever, no way they would ever come to anything but Sun AM, and they even won’t come in on time for that.. My people think i don’t do anything. A lady in the church asked me why i was so tired on Sundays since she couldn’t figure out what i do. Of course at the time i was also working midnights on Saturday and then coming in after getting off at 8.30am on Sundays and getting in the van since no one else would drive the van route. I have no friends in the church or even in the ministry. Having to work full-time precludes me from fellowships. My college, which is big on numbers, treats me as a pariah. I had someone from my school call me about preaching for me. I told him we are in a small town and run about 45. Never heard back again.
    Physically i am exhausted. Work full time. I have two special needs sons who live in a home an hour and a half away. We are there at least once a week. I usually don’t have a day off at all. Lucky to get time off here and there. I have very little help when it comes to doing anything other than what people want to do. Most of which needs to be left falls on my wife and me. I have little time for visitation and soulwinning.
    Financially we are a mess. I was hurt at work but didn’t realize it until I couldn’t file a claim. I had surgery in December and have quite a bit owed from it. I haven’t been paid 3000 all year to this point by the church. We live in the parsonage but truthfully I would rather not.
    What kills me the most is i am such a flop. All i am doing is what i need to do to just get by the day and the week. We have folks come thru from missions to groups who are doing all these things for God. Winning folks. Training them. Seeing them grow. I have done none of that. I have just done what i could to keep the church functional. What to do? i don’t know? I am tired. I have failed these people and most of all I have failed God.

  • Richard says on

    Is there a potential problem if a church calls a pastor who has suffered burn-out and is still appears to be in recovery? It appears it takes a lot of maturity, strength, and recognition of the causes of burn-out and the time it would take for the healing progress. Is the Pastor Nominating Committee putting the church into potential peril in recommending a call?

  • Evelyn Lee says on

    So do we have a cogent definition of a “dysfunctional church”? That’s really something that non-clergy like myself need to be more mindful of as we struggle to support our clergy