How to Avoid Burnout in Ministry

According to a report that appeared in the New York Times (August 1, 2010), 45% of pastor's either burnout and leave their ministry posts, or belong to a growing club of those who would like to quit but haven't figured out yet how to do it.*

Within the Seventh-day Adventist Church some have suggested this number is as high as 35%. 

Why is it so high? Until you have walked in a pastor's shoes, you may not realize the complexity of their work or appreciate the fact that it never ends. 

Years ago, Methodist pastor, Pierce Harris, said this of a pastor's work:

"The modern preacher has to make as many visits as a country doctor, shake as many hands as a politician, prepare as many briefs as a lawyer, and see as many people as a specialist. He has to be as good an executive as the president of a university, as good a financier as a bank president; and in the midst of it all, he has to be so good a diplomat that he could umpire a baseball game between the Knights of Columbus and the Ku Klux Klan." 

Pastoral ministry can be a rewarding experience that continues to enrich and bless those who respond to the call.

I have been employed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church most of my adult life. I've served as a pastoral intern, associate pastor, lead pastor, high school chaplain, Bible teacher and resource developer. During this time I have seen the operations of the church at many levels and have been awed by the reality that God is able to use humanity to further his mission.

I've also seen the underbelly of the ecclesiastical organization we call "church," —the parts many don't see. I don't have any doubt that God is working in our midst, but sometimes, "it ain't pretty."

I've made my share of mistakes and am humbled that God still allows me to play a part in sharing His incredible message of hope with others.

If you think being a pastor or working for the church means that you automatically have greater access to God, or that you have some kind of inside spiritual advantage, think again! In reality, working for the church probably means you are more vulnerable to the attacks of the devil and more subject to a host of temptations the average person doesn't have. 

But I don't want to be negative! There are many rewards that come to those who partner with God in what is undoubtedly the grandest mission ever undertaken!

So how can we stay positive and keep our hearts sensitive to God's Spirit? Here are seven tips that can keep you from losing it.

1. First of all, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that even though you are employed by the church, you don't work for the church. When God invites us to follow Him and participate in His mission, we are called to work for and with Him. We may draw a paycheck from a church institution, but ultimately we are accountable to God for how we conduct ourselves.

2. A second important factor to keep in mind is that the church organization is not the end, but a means to an end. The end is Jesus. The importance and usefulness of the institutional church is directly proportional to its recognition that it is a temporary apparatus that exists to direct people to Jesus Christ. 

3. Don't expect the members in the church to be perfect. In reality every church is filled with sick people. That's because we are all damaged and in the process of being restored. We have all botched things up and made fools of ourselves at one time or another! So, go easy on those who "sin" differently than you. 

4. Remember, the church doesn't belong to you, the board of Elders or the General Conference. The church that Christ is the head of is not a denomination, sorority, or club. It's made up of men, women and children from all walks of life who choose to live God's way.

5. Don't live in a bubble. Jesus wants us to be the salt of the earth, not survivalists in remote wilderness spots, or cultural hermits in Adventist ghettos. We are called to be in the world with people—which requires patience, purpose and grace.

6. Spend more time listening than talking. Leadership is more about discovery than "taking charge" or giving orders. 

7. Pastors are not responsible for their churches or individual members. They are responsible to them. Knowing the difference can prevent burnout and emotional ruin.

I am not saved or lost because I work for the church. I am honored to be able to come close to people in their moments of joy, celebration and grief. There are very few professions that allow us to talk with people about their dreams, deep questions and struggles. Yet, I am not saved or lost by my ministerial performance. I am simply a beggar who's trying to help other beggars find spiritual nourishment and healing.

Some pastors have burned out, left the church and turned their backs on God because they couldn't deal with the weight of responsibility that either they, or an unbalanced church leader placed upon them. You are not the Messiah, and the sooner you recognize this the better off you, your family and church will be.

Rich DuBose has pastored churches in California, Colorado and Florida, and is currently director of Pacific Union Conference Church Support Services

*Cited by Daniel Sherman at PastorBurnout.com