Ministry Burnout: Falling Into the Abyss

For those in Christian leadership burnout can always be knocking at the door as a very real threat. Pastor burnout, missionary burnout, parachurch ministry burnout – it happens and it happens often.

Burnout: The Statistics

London and Wiseman reported that 45.5 % of pastors say that they’ve experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry.[1]

According to one study by Klaas and Klaas (approximately 1000 pastors), 40% of pastors in one of the Lutheran denominations (Missouri Synod) are either in advanced stages of burnout or are well on their way to burnout.[2]

Stephen Muse, reporting on an Australian study of 6900 congregations reports that “nineteen percent of clergy in this study were in the severe range and another 56% identified themselves as being at “borderline burnout.”[3]

Burnout: The Definition

 While not specific to those in ministry, I like the definition developed by Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter in The Truth about Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It: “Burnout is the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will–an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral from which it’s hard to recover … What might happen if you begin to burn out? Actually three things happen: you become chronically exhausted; you become cynical and detached from your work; and you feel increasingly ineffective on the job.”[4]

This definition better captures the magnitude of the issue when burnout is left untreated and becomes severe. “An erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will – an erosion of the human soul.”

Burnout: The Seriousness

In the letter to the Thessalonians Paul, Silas, and Timothy affirm the good motivations of the church. They write, “We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 1:3. Most in ministry begin with these Godly motivations but when in burnout about the only motivation left is survival. Burnout is more than a state of exhaustion – it is killing your heart.

We refer to burnout as a gateway condition. When Christian leaders are in extreme burnout and do not address it in healthy ways, they will eventually address it in unhealthy ways. We have worked with so many pastors who had hit a significant level of burnout, sometimes even made a cry for help and were not heard, and then within the year were involved in an affair, using pornography, or drinking a bottle of wine a night.

Prolonged burnout changes you chemically and begins changing your brain, particularly the link between the amygdala (fear and aggression center) and the prefrontal cortex which controls executive function. This means those in burnout react more negatively to new stressors than those not in burnout and they do not problem solve as well because they have negative over reactions to problems. Another way to say it is that those in severe burnout are not in their right mind and unfortunately are making decisions (or not making necessary decisions) that only worsen their situation.

Burnout: What to Do?

 To simplify, there are three key steps to beating burnout.

First, is identifying whether or not you are burned out. As we often say to our clients and counseling students “for an effective treatment an accurate diagnosis is paramount.” Burnout is different than depression or even the normal exhaustion after an intense season in ministry. A couple of ways to determine whether you are burned out or not are to ask your spouse, ministry co-laborers, or a close friend if they see signs of burnout in you, or you can take an inventory such as the one created by Archiblad Hart which can be found at:

Second, if you determine that you are in a state of burnout then address the heart pain that was a part of the cause of the burnout in the first place. The most healing experience for this heart pain is to have a deep, real, intimate, and loving encounter with God and at least one of His people. Burnout disconnects you from God and others. In order to have the passion, desire, and clarity needed to make some of the practical changes you need to make to recover and stay out of burnout then you need your heart and mind connected with God and others. This step in the process can happen in a number of ways from beginning to meet regularly with a trusted friend to pour out how you have been impacted by the stressors of ministry, to going to a spiritual formation retreat, to doing an intensive Christian counseling experience like we do here at Marble Retreat.

Third, make the practical changes you need to make. A good example of the changes you may need to make comes from London and Wiseman in Pastors at Greater Risk:

  1. Rethink your day off – Monday is probably not the best day.
  2. Welcome your spouse into prevention – they probably see things more clearly than you do.
  3. Reach across isolation – build a support system of peers and friends.
  4. Take charge of your recovery – build a healthy lifestyle.
  5. Confront your addictions, which are often a fallout of burnout.
  6. Limit your engagement with needy people.
  7. Get back to your passion in ministry.[5]

As Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians let our motivations for ministry be pure: “your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.


[1] ) H. B. London and Neil B. Wiseman, Pastors at Greater Risk, Rev. ed. (Ventura, Calif.: Gospel Light, 2003. P.172.

[2]Alan C. Klaas and Cheryl D. Klaas, Clergy Shortage Study (Smithville, Mo: Mission Growth Ministries, 1999), 47-48. quoted in The Leadership Situation Facing American Congregations, The Alban Institute, (accessed April 25, 2009).

[3] Stephen Muse, “Clergy in Crisis: When Human Power Isn’t Enough,” The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 61, no. 3 (2007): 184.

[4] Maslach and Leiter, The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It., P.17.

[5] Ibid., 181-185.

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