You got into ministry because you love Jesus and because you felt a call. Your motives, quite honestly, were about as pure as they come.
Yet, if you’re like most pastors or church leaders, you discover that perhaps the most challenging aspect of your work in the church is to keep your personal faith in Christ vibrant and your heart open.
But there’s something that happens inside almost every church leader’s heart that makes it difficult to maintain a vibrant relationship with God, with people, and even with yourself.
Strangely enough, it’s like a reversal of the great commandment sneaks up on us. The very thing Jesus told us to do—love God, our neighbors, and ourselves—often proves to be the most difficult thing a church leader does.
It’s like there is a hollow in your soul that grows. And if left unchecked, it threatens to overtake you and cause detachment from spiritual life.
It’s called spiritual burnout, and it’s the new epidemic overtaking church leaders, pastors, and clergy.
According to a recent Barna poll, 42% of pastors have seriously thought about quitting the church ministry in the last year.
It’s a significant crisis that has to be taken seriously, particularly when there isn’t a long line of qualified young pastors waiting to take their place.
Spiritual burnout, or spiritual exhaustion, is often the underlying reason behind many pastors’ decision to leave ministry. But how this type of burnout manifests itself tends to begin far more subtle and excusable.
You are angrier than you need to be. You sing lyrics on Sunday, but the world feels distant and disconnected from your emotions. Reading Scripture feels like an item on a list you need to check. The only time you pray is when you have an audience.
What happened to the love? The joy? The hope?
It isn’t long before what you thought was a passing season becomes endemic, and you learn to mask your cynicism and bitterness with spiritual platitudes and self-deprecating humor.
The creeping hollowness in your soul begins to affect the stability of your marriage, the relationship with your kids, the quality of your leadership, and your congregation’s health. When a church leader experiences a spiritual crisis, everyone suffers.
And, so, you start to wonder: What if I just left ministry for good?
Symptoms of Spiritual Burnout
Spiritual burnout affects every pastor differently. However, in my experience, a few symptoms tend to be universally experienced in the long run.
You’re tired all of the time.
Listen, we’ve been through an exhausting season of crisis leadership. The past few years have been hard on everybody—especially church leaders.
But this is different from mere fatigue. For a healthy person, a good night’s sleep or a weekend away is enough to recharge their batteries. If you’re in the midst of burnout, however, rest and vacation leave you feeling no different than before. You’re always tired.
Your primary emotion is “numbness.”
When you’re healthy, you feel things—particularly the highs and lows.
But when you’re burning out, the highs and lows feel the exact same. It’s difficult to muster up any enthusiasm or sadness. You just feel numb, and you’re starting to wonder if anything will make you “feel” again.
Being around other people drains you.
Just because you’re a ministry leader doesn’t mean you’re an extrovert. In fact, I suspect more church leaders are introverts than we realize.
Introverts tend to recharge in less stimulating environments, so big events and large gatherings wear them out faster. However, good company and deep conversations are still welcome and energizing.
When you’re burning out, on the other hand, everything and everyone leaves you feeling drained. Even everyday life like a phone call, coffee shop conversation with a good friend, or date night with your spouse can make you feel worse afterwards. But when nobody energizes you, they’re not the problem. You are.
You can’t think straight.
When you’re burning out, your heart messes with your head; you lose the ability to think straight.
Sometimes it’s the small things– like reading several pages in a book and realizing you’ve retained none of what you’ve read. Or, making plans and doing simple tasks feels like a monumental endeavor. Like a mental fog hanging over everything, burnout obscures simplicity and rational thought.
But there’s another side of this coin. People tend to make really foolish decisions when they’re burning out. They rage quit their job. Initiate an affair with a coworker. Buy an expensive sports car.
Maybe it’s a last-ditch attempt to “feel something” again, but when you’re on the cusp of burnout, sometimes just avoiding stupid is a win.
Your passion and joy are gone.
Everybody struggles with passion from time to time, but burnout moves you into a place of sustained motivation loss.
Think about it. For those of you in leadership or ministry, you used to have a passion for what you did. Passion got you into leadership, and it’s one of the factors that makes life and leadership wonderful over a long period.
But when you’re in the grips of spiritual burnout, that passion sets like the sun.
The joy and comfort you used to experience diving into Scripture or participating in worship are also gone. You know everyone’s faith experiences “dry spells,” but this feels like a full-on drought with no end in sight.
My Experience with Spiritual Burnout
I had never been through anything quite as deep—or frankly, personally frightening—as my burnout back in 2006.
Burnout moves fatigue and the darkness from a place where it was in your control to a place where you can simply no longer control either.
The church I led was thriving, but I was working crazy hours and pushing myself further than was reasonable. People warned me I’d burn out. I thought I could prove them wrong.
But I was the one who was wrong.
Looking back, the diagnosis is still a little elusive and mysterious. Who really knows what corrodes the soul to the point where it deflates?
But I’d say the most likely candidate for what derailed me is what I’d call spiritual burnout.
In caring for others, I had not adequately cared for my heart or soul, or let others who wanted to care for it do so.
I spiraled down for about 3 months before I hit bottom.
Then with the love and assistance of a great wife, leadership team, close friends, a counselor, and a very gracious God, I slowly began to recover.
Honestly, it took a few years to really feel in full stride again, but I recovered to 80-90% of full strength in the first year. The last 10% took two or three more years.
The good news is there is life after burnout.
How to Recover from Spiritual Burnout
First off, if you even suspect you’re burning out, I’d encourage you to seek immediate professional help—a medical doctor and a trained Christian counselor. Depression and burnout often go hand-in-hand, and no one gets an award for keeping quiet about their mental health.
In addition to professional counseling (and I cannot overstate the importance of receiving professional help), I’ve come away with a few insights I’d like to share from my spiritual journey to the other side of burnout.
1. Remember that God is still present even when He feels absent.
It’s hard to feel God’s presence when you’ve hit bottom.
There were months where I simply went through the motions—praying, reading my bible and following God as best as I could, even though I felt nothing.
There were moments in which I felt there was no way God could be present because clearly I had failed him, or I wouldn’t be feeling the way I did.
But that simply isn’t true.
God was very present when I was burning out. In fact, he was doing some deep work in me: prodding, shaping and refining who I was. You could even argue he was preparing me for what was ahead.
Did it have to be as painful as it was? Of course not. Had I listened earlier and heeded the warning signs, I probably wouldn’t have burned out.
But God is sovereign, and his faithfulness doesn’t depend on me.
2. Manage your energy, not just your time.
Prior to my burnout, I worked a lot on time management.
Since I burned out, I still work hard on optimal time management, but I’ve discovered a much better approach: energy management.
Your energy waxes and wanes throughout the day. Rather than fight that, I’ve learned to cooperate with it. I’ve discovered that there are probably 3-5 hours a day when I’m at my best (for me, that’s usually in the morning).
I’ve moved all my most important work to those hours when I’m at my best.
3. Limits exist for a reason
As a young leader, it’s easy to think limits don’t apply to you. In some ways, they don’t.
Until they do.
Prior to my burnout, I thought that taking on extra responsibilities beyond the scope of my job description was a virtue.
I thought I was invincible. I was so wrong.
I have a much greater respect for God-given limits: Limits for how much I can do, what I should be involved in, when I should say no, and even how much sleep I need.
I’ve discovered that when I respect limits, I ironically get far more accomplished. The desire many leaders feel to burn through all limits is, in the end, counterproductive.
The pastor who attempts to do everything will often become a leader incapable of doing anything. Burnout does that to you.
One of the things I’ve learned to do is to use systems to help me stay organized and avoid burnout.
For example, an effective church management system like ChurchStaq can help remove a lot of the stress of running a church, reducing the risk of any type of burnout.
Using ChurchStaq to simplify (and automate) day-to-day administration tasks, encourage generosity through giving tools, and engage your congregation and staff with a custom mobile app can open up your schedule to help you focus on other areas of your soul you might have been neglecting.
4. Burnout sneaks up on you in isolation. Seek community.
I’d also encourage you to talk to a close circle of friends. You’re not meant to walk this road alone. And,I hope it is clear by now, you are not alone. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of church leaders have or are currently experiencing spiritual burnout.
That’s one of the main reasons I created The Art of Leadership Academy. It’s a community of church leaders like you looking to be challenged, encouraged, and refined during this incredibly difficult season of leadership.
A Final Word (To the Church Leader Who Wants to Quit)
I’ve always told myself (and other leaders): never quit on a bad day.
And sure, we’ve had a few years of really bad days.
Despite all that, reframe what’s ahead of you. Instead of thinking about quitting, think about finishing.
Quitting is easy. Finishing is hard.
Leaders who quit usually surrender to impulse or unresolved pain. Leaders who finish well don’t.
As a result, leaders who finish well leave a far different legacy than leaders who quit.
The point isn’t to never leave. No one, after all, stays forever.
The point is to leave when you’ve made a well-considered, prayerful, wise decision. Then you’ll finish. And finishing is a far better alternative.