There are a number of causes that lie behind ministers and pastors burning out, hitting the wall, breaking down, or generally flaming (or shaming) out. Underlying these causes are issues of human frailty, sin, insecurity and depravity.

A significant example of this is the tendency for ministers to overextend their concept of responsibility to the point where they are carrying burdens that don’t belong to them, and so collapse. To illustrate, consider the following recount of a conversation I had with a mental health professional recently…

Him: “Your organisation seems remarkably well set up to handle cases of burnout and breakdown.”

Me: “I think that is due to it having some experience in this area. In fact the prevalence of clergy breakdown is high across all denominations…”

Him: “Why is that? What are the churches doing wrong?”

Me: “I don’t necessarily think it comes from expectations placed by church hierachy or even from the grassroots (although that is more common), I think it usually comes from self-imposed expectations by most pastors.”

Him: “What are they?”

Me: “Those associated with the world’s worst job description – ‘Go and change the world.’ How on earth do you set KPI’s and SMART goals for that?!??”

Here’s the rub for many of us ministers. We do deal with eternal matters. We are about interacting with the broad eschatological arcs of history and applying them in the broken, hard, confusing here-and-now. Without that the task would be nothing but some form of insipid civic chaplaincy, at best.

But how is a temporal person expected to further such eternal things? Does the responsibility for the Kingdom of God lay upon our shoulders?

It’s not like there isn’t a biblical mandate for stretching our arms wide, thinking big and reaching long. Consider two popular biblical commissions that have energised many, including myself:

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Mt 18:19-20a)

“…I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction… keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” (2 Tim 4:1b,2,5)

And it’s not like there’s any pretense that it’s going to be easy. Paul, for instance, exemplifies something of the pastoral reality when he corrects (with only a hint of sarcasm) the spiritual pride of the Corinthians:

“We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world… I urge you to imitate me.” (1 Cor 4:10-14, 16)

All this is stuff that we are charged with doing, energy and cost that we are called to bear as ministers of the gospel. It is unashamedly, and in the Bible often quite literally, a calling for martyrs. (The word, in the broadest sense, simply means “witness”, a martyr bears witness to the truth even to the end.) To have passion for the gospel is to be passionate for Jesus and so share his Passion. This means that ministry involves suffering, as Paul says:

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commision God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness – the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints.” (Col 1:24-26)

So, is this what ministry is all about – responsibility for the application of eternity, commitment to whatever affliction and suffering is necessary?

Perhaps, yes, for it’s an answer that looks like Jesus, and we are called to imitate him.

But it’s an answer that is missing one thing – Jesus himself.

The picture of ministry, if concluded at this point, would be concluded too early. And the result, I contend, is despair and burnout.

The thought process in this incomplete picture runs like this:

  • The minister has been charged with ministry.
  • The responsibility for ministry lies with the minister – whose job it is to do the baptizing, the teaching, the preaching, the correcting, the rebuking, the encouraging, etc. – if you like, the bringing of the Kingdom of God.
  • When the ministry lacks fruit (as it always will in certain seasons of consolidation or testing) or misses some non-biblical, human-imposed KPI (e.g. something nonsensical like percentage growth in attendance) then this must be because the minister has not baptized, taught, preached, corrected, rebuked, or encouraged, etc. well.
  • The answer is to push harder, suffer more, embrace weariness as a friend, and push on in affliction, do everything yourself, etc.

Such a thought process is often internal to the minister and fueled by an over-developed sense of duty or responsibility, and in recent times amongst younger generations by an overdeveloped sense of machoism.

But it misses Jesus.

It may be a picture that is patterned on Jesus, but it actually ignores him or replaces him.

It misses the point.

The point of ministry is never the minister, it is God.
The heart of ministry is not affliction, it is grace.

We need a more complete picture. Which, unsurprisingly, is actually the picture that the Bible provides. Consider the words of commission listed above, this time with some words of context:

All authority in heaven on earth has been given to me. Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20)

In the presence of God and of Christ who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction… keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” (2 Tim 4:1-5)

The task is not “Do ministry” it is “Given that Christ is real and present, minister with him.”

And so Paul can write about doing “everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil 4:13) and “struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Col 1:29). And when it comes to affliction he looks only to “suffering by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.” (2 Tim 8b-9). He is echoed in the lives of the early church fathers – people like Polycarp – who would deliberately avoid affliction and martyrdom where they could because it was seen not as something to run towards but as a grace to receive if, and only if, it is given and empowered by God.

In other words, without the power of God, without his energy, without Christ’s strength – in short, without grace – ministry is simply human, sin-ridden, frail and emotionally deadly.  Without the specific call of God, suffering is the fruit of sin and pride, and the grace is for it to be dealt with or remedied, not embraced.

And those who are in ministry (which is all of us, right?) would do best not to begin with ourselves, on human responsibility and human agenda; but to begin with worship and actively work from there, by his grace alone, all the way to the end.

Asked by Anonymous.

Thanks for the question.  There will be a more complete answer when I write about the recent season of my life soon.

But the simple and quick answer is this: worship.  My reason for living is to worship God.

Why? Beyond the fact that that is simply the Right Thing to Do… Building on the scriptural premise (to borrow the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism):

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, [a] and to enjoy him for ever. [b]
[a]. Ps. 86:9; Isa. 60:21; Rom. 11:36; I Cor. 6:20; 10:31; Rev. 4:11
[b]. Ps. 16:5-11; 144:15; Isa. 12:2; Luke 2:10; Phil. 4:4; Rev. 21:3-4

… I have been very aware in the last while that God is the single constancy in life.  All other values, purposes, ambitions, feelings and even relationships, while real and precious (even when difficult) are fleeting and unreliable.  In the end, the reason I live is because God, and God alone, is faithful.

A thought-provoking article from Acts 29 by John Bryson entitled “Learning to be Miserable.” Here’s an excerpt:

“Don’t be a whiner, quitter, or baby and quit pouting or being surprised about “how hard” it is to do what you are doing. Of course it is. You are limited as a fallen human in a fallen world. Learn to cultivate and create…all the while, being miserable. If you can thrive and stay on mission, especially through the worst of circumstances, you are preparing to be a game changer, a true leader, who can adapt, adjust, and endure.”

Now I get what is being said. Life wasn’t meant to be easy, my friend. And much of ministry is slog work for Jesus. And this is Acts 29 macho rhetoric, which has it’s value.

But, seriously – be “miserable”? I know what’s it like to be miserable in ministry, to be depressed, in a hole, clinging to vestiges of faith to get through each day. And while that may be a necessary season of the shadows of death to die to self and learn some humility and dependency upon God – I don’t think it’s healthy to aspire to it.

The danger is that you end up sanctifying such a fear of being a slacker that you generate a culture of striving, desperation, and a glorification of leaders-as-martyrs. I’ve been in those rooms where pastors compare “hours-worked-per-week” with unholy (and somewhat Freudian) bravado.

Bryson does offset it with his last sentence: “Jesus is still our perfect rescuer and our relentless pursuit of Him is still our greatest joy.” But it seems antagonistic to the rest of his article. I couldn’t help correlate it to the curse of Jeremiah 17:5-6. Misery is a curse, not a blessing, or a necessity here:

Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who depends on flesh for his strength
and whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He will be like a bush in the wastelands;
he will not see prosperity when it comes.
He will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.

To honour God, ministry has to be work-from-rest, the fruit of worship, a hope, a trust, a joy – with no worries, and green freshness.

But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose confidence is in him.
He will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit.

Misery happens, for sure, and the faithful push through it. But we must learn to have faith, not learn to be miserable.

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Eye-opening and thought-provoking article at Acts 29 on “Why every leader needs a shepherd”.  An excerpt  here, but read it in full for some challenging statistics.

Pastors deal with an array of emotions as a result of ministering to a group of people. The stress of preparing sermons, developing leaders, handling boards, raising funds for the budget, caring for the sick and elderly, encouraging the wayward, challenging people to get on mission, bringing unity, reconciling conflicts, conducting worship, handling facility issues, counseling, weddings, funerals, social functions, praying with others and the responsibility of having an exemplary marriage and family.

I had this piece emailed to me today by a member of my leadership team. Bill Wilson posts “7 Things Your Pastor Wishes You Knew, But Is Afraid To Tell You”

  • It’s not their fault, but your minister didn’t learn everything they needed in seminary to be a pastor. Like doctors leaving medical school, clergy need a time to do their “residency” and learn to practice in the field what they’ve learned in the classroom. Actually, that theological education never stops. So give your minister permission not to be perfect and always to be learning.
  • Every pastor must learn to “choose their guilt.” There is always more to do than there is time to do it. Every minister must come to terms with an inherent guilt around what he or she did not do today. Too often that means their own family gets the leftovers. By the way, this is a dilemma for all of us regardless of our vocation.
  • Be kind if you have a criticism. Healthy clergy welcome constructive criticism. Everyone abhors petty nitpicking. Make sure you engage in the former and not the latter.
  • Have some realistic expectations for the pastor’s family. How many ways can we say this? Please give your minister’s family an extra measure of grace.
  • Err on the side of generosity. I’m not just talking about money, though I am talking about money. I also mean be generous with your attention, questions, interest, ability to remember family names, laughter, food, jokes, invitations to ball games and your life.
  • Your pastor loves you, but he or she may or may not like you. As in your family, there are days when your spouse, child or parent loves you, but is frustrated by you or wondering what they did to deserve you. That ambivalence is part of being human. Own it and expect it.
  • Your comfort is not your pastor’s primary concern. Hope you know this. If not, read the Bible and remind yourself why your church exists in the first place. Trying to be priest (comforting the afflicted) and prophet (afflicting the comfortable) to the same people is confusing, messy and an invitation to misunderstandings.

I’ll have to write my own list one day.

An interesting piece on “When depression leads pastors to suicide” at The Christian Century (H/T TitusOneNine):

Being a pastor—a high-profile, high-stress job with nearly impossible expectations for success—can send one down the road to depression, according to pastoral counselors…

When pastors fail to live up to demands imposed by themselves or others, they often “turn their frustration back on themselves,” leading to self-doubt and feelings of failure and hopelessness…

It’s a job that breeds isolation and loneliness—the pastorate’s “greatest occupational hazards,”…

Nearly two out of three depressed people don’t seek treatment, according to studies by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Counselors say even fewer depressed ministers get treated because of career fears, social stigma and spiritual taboo…

For pastors, treatment can come at a high price. “You are committing career suicide if you have to seek treatment,” said Stanford, “particularly if you have to take time off.”…

Nothing particularly surprising there. Depression has certainly been part of my story as a man and as a pastor. There is a balance between unhealthy silence and public bleeding that is sometimes hard to find. And there is comfort in the gospel: a riposte against dark emotions with the truth that no matter what I feel nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing can change the way God feels about me, loves me, accepts me. The life, death and new life of Jesus proves it.

And I am heartened to hear language coming from the new generation of leaders (of the Acts 29 / In the Chute variety particularly) that includes admissions of weakness and an honesty about struggles.

There still needs to be care taken however. Much depression in pastors is amplified by a context of pharisaicism – a perceived understanding that “everyone burdens me with expectation but no one lifts a finger to help me.” It’s a fineline, for instance, between a healthy promotion of masculine holiness in the leaders of the church and the creation of a framework which breeds anxiety rather than encouragement.

Brothers, let us not forget grace.

I know very little of this situation but I was moved close to tears when I read of the suicide of Acts 29 network church planter Thomas Young of The Sanctuary Fellowship in Texas.

Wisely, some factual information has been released publicly:

The Sanctuary has posted updates at their website:

  • A marital dispute arose between Thomas and his wife.
  • Thomas made a bad choice in how he sought to settle it, and during the dispute, took his own life.
  • He was life-flighted to the hospital, but did not survive.
  • His wife and three children are with friends, family and church leadership, loving and supporting each other.
  • the funeral will be Thursday, December 3.

Please pray for your pastors. There is a right expectation of high standards of our leaders but our pastors are sheep before they are shepherds and sometimes our hearts break. We are to be men, yet children of God. We are to be strong, yet demonstrate our Christ-dependence that flows from our weakness. We are to be morally upright, but without pretense of perfection. We are to lead the charge, yet always run to our Father’s arms.

I earlier looked at comments from Mark Driscoll on loneliness in leadership. He has now released the second part of his reflection. This part is mostly advice and it’s pretty decent. I particularly like the following:

…Too often leaders do not practice sufficient times of silence and solitude when such times can be invaluable to working on their life rather than staying at the office and continue working in it until they become angry, unhealthy, depressed, and burned out…

…Rather than picking up the phone, sending an email, or taking action, I have decided to wait twenty-four hours on any non-emergency issue and sincerely and specifically pray for God to go before me to move other people to meet the need or for God to take care of it himself. I have been able to check more than half of the items off my to do list by doing nothing but praying, as God has faithfully revealed himself to care more about my ministry than I do.

Coincidentally Mikey has linked to another Driscoll-related piece on why pastors want to quit. The following reasons have been listed in feedback from pastors. I’ve been to most of these places:

  • To Protect My Family – the cost of ministry upon wife and kids is more than most people know.
  • Criticism – although once you’ve been through the fire criticism can start leading to added resolve rather than depressed resignation.
  • The Hard Work of Shepherding – you can’t just “launch” a church you have to shepherd the flock. Personally, the need to shepherd very rarely gets me down – it’s the feelings of inadequacy about how to help others. You can’t live other people’s lives for them.
  • Restlessness – itchy feet happens, you learn to deal with it.
  • Coveting Others’ Gifts – Quote: “One pastor named his struggle for what it is: ‘coveting others’ gifts, leadership, fruitfulness.’
  • Lack of Change – Stagnation, walking through molasses, spinning your wheels against the immovable ojbect.

In the end, it’s great that God is God. Ministry is a series of ordinary quiet miracles.

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Others are starting to comment about a recent post by Mark Driscoll entitled “Leadership is Lonely – Part 1.”

It is well worth the read. The following dot-points were thought provoking (honesty-provoking perhaps?)

For leaders and those who love them and can help them see their own sin, especially their spouse, the following self-assessment statements may prove helpful in diagnosing sinful responses to the loneliness of leadership:

  1. I feel that God has abandoned me to an impossible task and have begun to question his goodness.
  2. I become annoyed by my team because they do not understand me or the difficulties I face as their leader.
  3. I wish someone would just tell me what to do, give me permission to not do so much, and sort out the complexity of my life.
  4. I am annoyed by others because I believe they are stupid, lazy, slowing me down, and simply unwilling and/or unable to keep up with me and all the work I have to do.
  5. I question if anyone really loves me and secretly think that almost everyone is simply using me.

In order of propensity I relate to 1, 3, 5, 2, 4. Unlike Driscoll I think my unhealth takes me towards self-blame and self-deprecation so I’m more likely to drift into melancholy about myself than be annoyed by any supposed stupidity in my team (Besides, there is very little, if any, stupidity in my team!)

Driscoll’s initial sentence is intriguing though:

By definition, a leader is out ahead of his or her team, seeing, experiencing, and learning things before everyone else.

Once again we see Driscoll’s tendency to not, um, nuance his definitions. Does leadership really mean being “out ahead.” Perhaps, often, yes, leadership requires the input of novel ideas, new discernment, clarity of vision that no one else has yet considered. But that’s not always the case.

A metaphorical consideration: I often spin the image of a bushwalk when talking about leadership. If anyone has ever hiked with their family they will know that to get that family up and over the hill to the glorious vista that awaits requires a combination of, yes, scouting ahead and finding the way, but also letting the young boys run ahead while the even younger daughters require a shoulder ride, pausing to attend to cuts and bruises, walking beside those who are discouraged. When the going gets tough it involves spinning the inspiration of why we’re walking at all – encouraging, sometimes rebuking, sometimes from in front, sometimes from behind.

In this metaphor the leader is not necessarily the one “out ahead of the team.” The leader may not be the “ideas person.” But the leader is required to make the calls, carry them through, and bring the people with them. The leader is not necessarily the scout – or indeed the navigator.

A case-study consideration: I heard tell once of a senior pastor of a pentecostal persuasion who was struggling significantly in ministry. He did not feel that he was receiving the necessary revelation from God that kept in “ahead of the team.” “How can I be a leader if someone else hears the word?” was the attitude. That was an unhealthy attitude. Someone else may “have the word” (in Pentecostal-speak) but the leader is the one who assesses, permits, resources, integrates, and if all else fails, carries the burden of that word.

I prefer the definition of leaders that I heard somewhere else – “Leaders beget leaders.” In that sense a leader will often times have leaders-they-are-leading out there “ahead” with them. Sometimes those other leaders will even “overtake” for a time, or in a particular area. All that means is that that leader has been led well by the leader who is behind.

Anyway, this is only Part 1 of Driscoll’s reflection. Looking forward to part 2.