How Pastors and Church Leaders Can Deal with Burnout

There is an epidemic of burnout among pastors today. Amidst a clergy shortage, political and social divisions, and a post-pandemic world, a cloud of cynical fatigue is hanging over many church workers. How do we retain our zeal for ministering to God's people nonetheless?

Descending into Ministerial Burnout

The most prominent symptoms of burnout are withdrawal, negativism, and exhaustion. Many pastors and other church leaders are demonstrating those symptoms today. But such ministry burnout is not exclusive to our contemporary era. Several of God’s leaders depicted in the Bible exhibited such characteristics. One of them was Elijah. We can learn about burnout—and restoration from it—from this prophet’s experience.

Elijah ministered in a very difficult context. The king, queen, and people of Israel were hostile to his message that Yahweh alone was God. They promoted the worship of false gods and pagan practices. Because of Elijah’s courageous confession of the one true faith, he was persecuted and threatened with death (1 Kings 19:1–2). Although Elijah had spoken faithfully and forcefully for years, this was the tipping point for him. He descended into ministerial burnout.

Running Away

First, Elijah withdrew from his ministry and from others: “Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree” (1 Kings 19:3–4a). Elijah ran to the secluded desert and isolated himself from others. This withdrawal is evident in many who suffer burnout. They distance themselves from others. Pastors and other church workers do this by disconnecting from those with whom they serve and those to whom they are called to minister. 

Spiraling and Sapped

Second, Elijah engaged in negative thoughts. He became quite cynical, even despairing of life: “And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4b). Elijah rehearsed all the hard work he had done for the Lord’s cause that he now felt was for naught, concluding that everyone else had forsaken God’s cause (1 Kings 19:10, 14). He became discouraged, depressed, and despairing. Similarly, church leaders who enter burnout see their ministries as flops and themselves as failures. They can become bitter against others and even toward God. Their perspective is tainted by negativism.

Third, Elijah experienced exhaustion. 1 Kings 19:5 reports, “he lay down and slept under a broom tree.” His energy was depleted, and his strength came to an end. He was drained and depleted of vitality. Also, today many church workers are exhausted. Especially after navigating the pandemic and its accompanying political divisions with their congregational members, they are sapped of strength and motivation

But God did not abandon Elijah to his burnout. Neither does God abandon church leaders today.

Reconnecting with God and Others

First, God addressed the prophet’s loneliness. God came to Elijah in his isolation and assured the prophet of his presence. Several times the Lord approached Elijah, caring for him and reassuring him (1 Kings 19:5–13). As a result, Elijah became reconnected to God. Moreover, God connected Elijah with other humans who could serve with him and support him, including Elisha, who would become a stable companion and partner in ministry (1 Kings 19:15–21). Similarly, burned-out church leaders who feel isolated can find healing by reconnecting with the God who loves them unconditionally, taking heart in the promise that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31–39). They also will be renewed through connections with other people who will support them in ministry.

Adopting a New Perspective

Second, God addressed Elijah’s negative thoughts. The prophet believed that he was the last lone believer in Yahweh. But the Lord gave him a new perspective, the true perspective. He said: “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). Things weren’t as bad as Elijah thought. Elijah came to see that God was still at work in the world to carry out his redemptive mission through his faithful people. Today, we do well not to dwell on all the problems and challenges of the church, but to focus on the mighty works that the Holy Spirit is accomplishing in and through his Church. We find renewed hope in Christ’s promise to do great things through us (John 14:12).

Resting and Refueling

Finally, God brought strength to Elijah in his exhaustion. Several times God provided food and rest to the weary prophet, enabling him to renew his strength (1 Kings 19:5–8). God patiently allowed Elijah to take time to rest and refuel. Even now pastors and other church leaders will find renewal in rest and recreation. By enjoying the time of Sabbath and by attending to healthy habits of body and mind, clergy can experience renewed strength to “mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31).

Burnout may be at epidemic levels in the church today. But God restores pastors and other congregational leaders by connecting them to Him through His Word and Sacraments, by refocusing their perspective of His work in and through them, and by strengthening them through rest of body, mind, and spirit.

Scripture: ESV®

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Written by

David J. Peter

Dr. David J. Peter has spent twenty-three years in the parish, experiencing the realities of pastoral ministry and researching congregational dynamics. As a professor of practical theology and the dean of faculty at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, he regularly leads courses for practicing pastors. He has also gained many insights from students about the realities of administration and leadership in congregations.

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