In this excerpt adapted from the course Church Leadership and Strategy for the Care of Souls, by Harold L. Senkbeil and Dr. Lucas Woodford, Senkbeil explores the two stages of pastoral burnout—what he calls “pastoral depletion syndrome”—and how to recover if you are experiencing it.
2 stages of pastoral depletion syndrome
Stage 1 of pastoral burnout: Loss of true pastoral identity
I believe that the largest factor in the startling number of pastors who resign their calls or who are driven from them by dysfunctional congregations is the loss of pastoral identity. Churches have forgotten what pastors are supposed to do, and we pastors just don’t know anymore who we are [or] what we’re supposed to be doing. We become pastoral mimics—pastor impersonators, you could say. We go through the motions. We keep on trying extra hard, but we’re getting nowhere fast. And when that sad cycle starts, then pastors begin exhibiting serious symptoms of what I call this pastoral depletion syndrome.
The first stage is confusion. This happens when, although you’ve had a top-drawer seminary training, nothing really seems to work like you thought it should. You compare yourself with other, more effective—shall we say, successful—pastors, and inside, you begin to wonder whether you’re cut out for this job. You’re confused. You’ve done everything you can, and yet it never seems to be enough. You’re able to please some of the people some of the time but certainly not all the people all the time. And so, slowly, you begin to shrivel up, and something inside dies.
One response to that is to become what Eugene Peterson called “shopkeepers,” instead of servants of the living Lord. He writes, “They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns—how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.” You know [how it is]. You adopt the misbelief that all the resources for ministry are inside you. If you just work harder and smarter, then you would achieve the results that you crave. And yet the reality is that, often, these desired outcomes remain tantalizingly just outside reach.
Desperation leads to dysfunction
At this stage the good pastor begins to lose his grip. He moves beyond confusion into the next stage of pastoral depletion syndrome, namely desperation. And when the pastor becomes desperate, he verges on the dysfunctional. It’s at this stage that clinical symptoms like anxiety and depression can occur. Spiritually, he’s vulnerable to the temptations of [the] devil, world, and flesh. Survival is his goal, and so he’s willing to try almost anything that comes along that promises the statistical “lift” that he’s looking for in his ministry—and in the process, biblical and doctrinal standards are sacrificed in a frantic attempt to turn things around. Everything is an emergency.
At first, he may be ashamed that he’s lowered his standards, but then he convinces himself that desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s then that spiritual numbness descends. It’s like he’s developed calluses on his soul. His prayer life takes a nosedive. He might turn to alcohol or other drugs for help, and some men treat this spiritual apathy or acedia and their inner pain with a surefire jolt of internet porn.
Stage 2 of pastoral burnout: Breakdown of emotions
Family life suffers
A pastor in that condition is utterly convinced that by putting on a brave face—by gutting through, by sheer force and determination—you can turn things around. He becomes tapped out, running on empty. Something has to give, and one of the first things to suffer is his family life. The wife of a desperate pastor is effectively widowed. She comes to resent the congregation that seems to attract so much of her husband’s attention. In her mind, it becomes the “other woman” in his life. And when their father is over his head in ministry, children, too, resent the church. They frequently harden their hearts toward a God that they see as unrealistically demanding and unrelenting.
A single man in ministry [experiences] a uniquely toxic form of desperation because he doesn’t have a wife or children who need him. Then congregations victimize and abuse their single pastor. They assume he should be on duty 24/7, and when a single pastor buys into this delusion, he carelessly ignores his own personal needs for rest and relaxation. And without relaxation and recreation, he hobbles his soul. He begins to shrivel up inside. When he neglects cultivating and nourishing friendships, that single pastor lives on an island of loneliness that grows smaller and smaller with every passing month.
Many a pastor knows what the tragic aftermath of desperation looks like. The holy things of God lose their appeal. Such a pastor can go through the motions, but he finds little or no satisfaction in it. He feels like he’s slogging through some never-ending swamp. Many men resign at this stage; and if, by sheer determination, he’s able to continue, he becomes very adept at impersonating a pastor. And when that happens, the pastor moves into a third and final stage of pastoral depletion: capitulation.
Stage 3 of pastoral burnout: Capitulation
Now, ironically, capitulation can take two different forms.
The first is obvious and predictable—namely, the pastor just gives up and resigns. The second is subtler and more paradoxical—namely, hyperactivity. Both, I think, are an immense personal tragedy, and they leave open wounds and scars on the body of Christ. The first is giving up, and the pastor realizes he’s hit a wall, or others realize it for him. Then he resigns, [or] he’s forced to resign by members of his congregation or his supervisors in his church body. The pressing question for him [concerns] supporting his family. Having prepared for the ministry, [and] having put so much time and energy and money into this vocation, what is he going to do for the rest of his life?
And, of course, the most pressing need of all often goes begging—namely, his profound spiritual hunger plus a deep and abiding sense of failure. And, too often, such a pastor who capitulates is left to manage as best he can [and] to fend for himself. Perhaps he’s referred to a therapist—a therapist he most likely can’t afford. But all too rarely is such a man given pastoral attention for his spiritual needs. He’s like the proverbial wounded soldier left behind on the battlefield. This, I think, is a glaring scar on the body of Christ, and it needs a deliberate fix. Pastors who resign their calls need responsible pastoral care for their sins but also for their hurts and their wants. There is abundant forgiveness in the shed blood of Jesus, and there is lavish healing in His abiding love, and it’s for pastors as well. There is divine strength in the Holy Spirit, the Comforter who provides consolation within the company of fellow sinner-saints in the church, and it needs to be extended to these wounded soldiers.
The second form of capitulation is the exact opposite on the outside, namely hyperactivity. This happens when, instead of throwing in the towel, a man resolves to stick with it. He’s already confused, mind you; he’s already disillusioned and he’s desperate, and when he capitulates on faithful ministry by turning to hyperactivity, then exponentially greater harm can come to the church because his problem is largely invisible. He’s still there going through the motions, but he’s not there in reality. Inwardly, something has died in him. He might look busy—busier than ever, in fact—and yet all that busyness masks a deep spiritual void inside. It provides a toehold for Satan, the father of lies.
The hyperactive pastor has the same perpetual dread of failure as the man who’s given up on ministry. Inwardly, he’s convinced that he’s driving himself toward greater achievement, but in reality, he’s driving himself into the ground. Worse, he’s setting himself up for spectacular disaster—and we’ve seen all too many clergy in America who built these elaborate spiritual fiefdoms for themselves. They’ve attracted thousands of followers only to see their ministries unravel or crash and burn in very public moral or ethical failures. For every wounded soul who’s given up on ministry and left his calling, there’s not only cleansing and healing, but there’s a whole new life ahead.
Make an honest assessment
And so . . . take an honest look at your life and ministry, and then take action. If you’re in the early stages of depletion, seek intervention. If you come to the later stages, seek comprehensive treatment involving body, mind, and spirit. Seek medical care to tackle physical conditions that impact you mentally and spiritually. And then an assessment by a mental health professional will help you address symptoms of anxiety or depression, [which are] very, very common among us pastors. But remember this: Every pastor needs a pastor.
Recovery is possible
It’s been my privilege over the years to speak Christ’s healing word to many bruised and broken pastors—men who’ve lived for months or years in quiet, lonely desperation. Now, a lot of these men were greatly helped by counseling from a licensed therapist, but no counselor could give the aid and comfort that I was able to provide.
As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by his authority, I was given to forgive them all their sins, to deliver balm and comfort for their wounds in Christ’s shed blood, to intercede for them before the Father’s throne of grace, and then to bless them with the peace and consolation that only God can give in the name of the holy Trinity. And when I did that, before my own eyes I saw transformation begin as these men moved, incrementally, from grief to comfort; from fear to confidence; and then from despair to hope.
When you seek out pastoral help, you’ll immensely benefit not just your calling and your congregation, but if you’re married, your wife and family will notice the difference too.
What I want to tell you [is that] the life you save may be your own.
Being a pastor has never been easy. The joys and sorrows mingle, and sometimes it seems there’s no end to conflict—particularly in the past year. Learn more from Harold Senkbeil about pastoral burnout and care in the Mobile Ed course Church Leadership and Strategy for the Care of Souls.
- 3 Simple Reminders to Avoid Pastoral Burnout
- Pastor, Are You Burned Out? 10 Telltale Signs—and What to Do about It
- Fighting Spiritual Fatigue with True Soul Rest
- Soul Rest: Reclaim Your Life. Return to Sabbath by Curtis Zackery
- Small Preaching: 25 Little Things You Can Do Now to Make You a Better Preacher by Jonathan T. Pennington
- Preaching Points: 55 Tips for Improving Your Pulpit Ministry by Scott M. Gibson
- The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart by Harold L. Senkbeil