Overcoming Burnout

Pastor Burnout

There isn’t a simple three-step plan for overcoming burnout that works for every person. In order to experience burnout recovery you will need to develop a unique plan of action that focuses on your symptoms and causes of stress.

In order to do that you will first need to understand your own causes of burnout. Once you know what is causing your burnout, you will be able to develop a plan of action to fight the enemy with which you are burdened.

Below are a number of action steps for overcoming burnout. You will not need to use every one in your plan. You just need to choose the ones that fit your situation.

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Use this page in conjunction with
the page on burnout recovery.

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Spiritual Principles for Overcoming Burnout

These principles for overcoming burnout focus on the spiritual causes and symptoms of burnout. Some or all of these principles will help you begin to develop your plan of action.

  • Forgiveness: Anger and bitterness are often roots of burnout. You need to forgive yourself and others. Set yourself free from this burden. If you are having trouble forgiving yourself, I recommend the book, He Restores by William Baldwin. Conflict is often a source of frustration and therefore burnout. You will need to ask God for help forgiving others who have hurt you or your church. My measure of whether I have forgiven someone is if I can walk across the room and greet that person genuinely and warmly. If I can do that, I think I’m over the offense.
  • Hope: A lack of hope drives burnout. When you don’t believe your circumstances will get any better, you are losing hope. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of burnout to recover, but it is probably the most important. A lack of hope leads to a dark place, a hole that has no ladder to get out. Many people leave their current positions solely because they have no hope. But a lack of hope follows you wherever you go. Changing jobs is not the solution. Hope returns gradually as we begin to understand and live by the knowledge of God’s sovereignty and grace. We reestablish hope as we connect with God’s care for us, his control over everything, and his compassion that is at work in our lives.
  • Peace: Peace comes in two forms: the reduction of conflict between ourselves and others, and the internal peace that comes from the process God provides in Philippians 4:4-7. Paul declares there that the peace of God comes by rejoicing in God’s goodness, our willingness to forgive others, and interrupting the cycle of worry by praying about everything with thanksgiving.
  • Purity: The cycle of impurity drives a person deep into despair and burnout. First, we do something that is inappropriate. Then we feel guilty about it. We feel so guilty that we fall into despair. We then search for something to make us feel better. Then we fall again because that which is inappropriate is the only thing that makes us feel better. And the cycle continues until the passion is in complete control. You can break this cycle by analyzing your situation. See, "Analyze," below.
  • Rest: Getting adequate rest will help you regain perspective on your situation. It will prepare you to fight the weekly fight you face. And it will break the cycle of discouragement. Be sure to take at least one day off each week. Two extra days off each month. And at least three weeks of vacation each year. A three month sabbatical is also appropriate every five to seven years. You must break the cycle of conflict, stress and frustration. That is best done with adequate rest.
  • Discipline: It’s difficult to say whether a lack of spiritual disciplines leads to burnout or whether burnout leads to a lack of spiritual disciplines. It’s probably a cycle that works back and forth. To help put the brakes on burnout, you need to develop some basic spiritual disciplines. Overcoming burnout is difficult and applying disciplines is just plain hard. So I suggest you start small. Carry around a three by five card with two or three verses on it. Read the card several times a day. Pray in small chunks. Maintain your purity. Find a confidential spiritual partner. And pray the Psalms.
  • Analyze: Analyzing your situation is an invaluable tool for burnout recovery. When do you struggle the most with impurity? How do you feel just before you fall? Where are you when you struggle with impure thoughts and actions? Do you struggle the most when you are angry, at home, when your wife and children are gone? Avoid the situations that lead to impurity.
  • Rhythm: Your life needs to have a rhythm to it. Each day needs to have consistency. Each week and day needs to include time off, prayer, and scripture reading. And each year needs to include periods of time away. Without rhythm, you will struggle in your spiritual life.

Physical Principles for Overcoming Burnout

These principles for overcoming burnout focus on your body: physical causes and symptoms of burnout. You will probably not need to focus on every one of these principles. Just choose the ones that relate to your unique symptoms and burnout causes.

  • Exercise: Pastors are known for many things, including their love of pot-luck dinners. And the running joke is the battle that pastors constantly fight with their weight. Exercise does at least two things. First, it helps you control your weight. The constant struggle with weight gain saps strength and puts pressure on a person’s mood. When you are frustrated with your inability to have control over this aspect of life, you will inevitably develop a poor self-concept. And this can lead to burnout. Second, it releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. Both these things are helpful in overcoming burnout.
  • Chemical Imbalance: I don’t want to use the word, “depression,” because many pastors resist the idea that they can be depressed. Unfortunately, if you are experiencing burnout, you are most likely battling depression as well. For lack of a better way of explaining it, depression is the twin sibling of burnout. They are not the same person, but they are very closely related and resemble each other in so many ways. So, if you prefer, call it a chemical imbalance in your brain and go see a doctor. He or she will make a diagnosis (don’t try this at home), and prescribe a treatment that will help you get back on track.
  • Gland Issues: Burnout and depression can be caused by gland problems. Your burnout may be as “simple” as getting your body back on track by correcting imbalances in your glands. Your doctor will most likely do some blood tests to determine if your glands are working correctly before she prescribes antidepressants. If she doesn’t, ask her if blood tests would be helpful.
  • Illness: Get a physical from you doctor. Burnout can actually be a symptom for many types of illness. Don’t assume you know the source of your burnout. Get a doctor’s opinion before you arrive at conclusions.
  • Lack of Sleep: It has been said that most depressive attitudes and feelings can be eliminated by a good night’s sleep. There is good credence to this thought. If you feel like you are in a depressive state, get some extra sleep. Go to bed early. Sleep in an hour or two longer than you usually do. Do this for two or three days and see if your mood improves. If it doesn’t, then you will need to seek a professional opinion.
  • Overweight: I discussed above the need for exercise. But weight issues go beyond the need for exercise. Being overweight shows a lack of control and creates frustration for you. Burnout is generally caused in part by extended frustration. You don’t need more frustration. Whatever you need to do to bring this area under control, do it. That may mean exercise, it might mean a diet. What it doesn’t mean is that you need to look like you did when you got married. But losing 10 pounds will help, and eating better (more fruits and vegetables) will help you feel better too.
  • Allergies: Allergies can put extra stress on your body. This is something only your doctor can determine. Tell your doctor your symptoms and ask if illness or allergies might be the source of your burnout.

Pastor Burnout Workbook

Mental Principles for Recovery

The following principles for overcoming burnout relate to your state of mind or mental issues. Again, not all of them will apply to your situation. Choose the ones that are causes and symptoms of your burnout.

  • Do what you do best: Working/living in a role that does not harmonize with your talents and/or personality increases the stress on your body. This frustration leads to burnout and depression. For overcoming burnout, you may need to change the role or job you are currently functioning in.
  • Reduce Conflict: Conflict wears on a person like few other issues. Conflict takes a severe toll on a person because it takes so much energy to deal with. As pastors, we believe that conflict is contrary to everything we see in the Bible. So why do so many Christians engage in carnal activities such as gossip, anger, division, false accusations, resistance, and disrespect? The frustration that comes with constantly dealing with conflict reduces a person’s ability for overcoming burnout.
  • Break away from your stress regularly: God created the earth in six days and then rested on the seventh. Do you think you should be any different? Get away from your stress at least one day per week. Get out and do something completely different than what you do the rest of the week. In addition to weekly breaks, take at least two days off each month and a few weeks off each year. Only in this way will you break the cycle of stress and overcoming burnout.
  • Be thankful: Overcoming burnout requires us to concentrate on the good things in your life. When you constantly think about negative things in your life, your mood will change for the worse. Prolonged negative thoughts will lead to burnout. Make a list of the good things in your life, whether the list is in your mind or on paper. This will help you see that you are not as bad off as you think.
  • Pray and meditate: Prayer and meditation are activities that will improve your mood. They release stress from your body and focus your mind on good things. While burnout makes it difficult to concentrate on anything for prolonged periods of time, prayer and meditation of any length of time will help.
  • Reduce stress: This aspect of overcoming burnout is obviously easier said than done. But if you can reduce your stress in any way, do it. Get your finances in order, finish some of the tasks on your "to do" list, take a vacation, start a hobby, learn to play an instrument, join a club, write in a journal. If it reduces stress in your life, do it if you can. In this way you will be overcoming stress.
  • See a counselor: Many people, especially pastors, resist the idea that they need to see a counselor. They believe that since they counsel others, they don’t need to see a therapist. Some think that it is a sign of weakness. While others are afraid that people will find out and lose faith in them. But when burnout hounds a person, getting a second perspective will help one in overcoming burnout because they will see things that you don’t. And they have experience in dealing with burnout and depression (the hidden sibling of burnout.
  • Deal with your anger: Anger is one symptom of burnout that will damage relationships quicker than most other things. You may need to seek help from a professional to assist you in diagnosing the source of your anger. Prayer and meditation can help. Exercises in anger management will also help. Whatever it takes, break the cycle of anger, for your sake, and for the sake of those you love.

I’ll be the first to admit that these helps are not perfect. Some may even be overly optimistic. But if you find that these ideas don’t help, or are overly simplistic, you are most likely in a deep burnout as well as depression. Get help from your doctor!

If you need more help in overcoming burnout, try some of these books.

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Use this page in conjunction with
the page on burnout recovery.

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