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 suspect that beyond these 13 behaviors are much deeper and poignant systemic issues. I can say, at least for me, that some of these didn’t matter to me until other types of stress were introduced that were unmanageable. While doing these thirteen things might help people feel like they aren’t burned out, they are still dealing with things that are stressing them out because of huge systemic shifts occurring in ministry.

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  • Thanks so much for the article . i have reflected on each of the ways you have discussed. I haven’t quiet understood no. 3. What does a dysfunctional church look like?

  • Faith Cravens says on

    I’m a pastor’s wife trying to find help for my husband…he is burnt out and is dying inside, but I’m the one who knows. I think the problem is #10 because, although he is a great preacher, he really struggles in the area of administration and leadership. He is also a very quiet, reserved person, so it’s hard for him to engage socially, which is most of what a pastor does. He has definitely been called to preach, but the leadership role and being in charge of the whole thing is very uncomfortable for him. Is there any way to continue preaching but not be a pastor? We’ve been at the same church for 18 years. It doesn’t seem to be dysfunctional–I think it’s us.

  • #11″The pastor was negative and argumentative” can be a symptom of burnout not just the cause. When someone is experiencing secondary trauma or compassion fatigue (google these, they are like PTSD in care givers). They will become hyper-vigilant, which causes them to be self-protective. This will come across to others as defensive, negative, and argumentative. However, in reality, the pastor is just so emotionally raw and wounded, they are crying out for help while trying to protect themselves. The tragic thing, is that churches do not recognize the symptoms of a hurting and abused pastor and end up adding to the pain. It usually takes another Pastor who has been there to recognize the symptoms and provide the help. That’s what saved my ministry a few years ago.

  • Thanks for the blog. I am blessed to serve in a church that loves me and my family. I take responsibility for most of these areas. But after 14 years as senior pastor at one church and 25 total in ministry I see the need for a sabbatical (that includes some rest and some continuing ed) of maybe 3 to 4 weeks. I typically take a week for vacation, though my church allows 2 (plus a couple Sundays away for pulpit supply, missions, or revivals.) But it seems so self-serving to be the one who brings up a sabbatical. How do pastors educate their churches on the care needs of the pastor without seeming self-serving? We tend to be the ones who get the info and read blogs like this. That question applies to more than sabbaticals. Even forwarding this blog to the finance team, personnel team, or deacons seems self-serving… even risking the morale and confidence the people have in the pastor.

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