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Recovering From Ministry Meltdown

What to do when the physical, psychological, and spiritual resources needed to fuel your ministry are gone.

By Larry E. Hazelbaker

“But we will not boast beyond our measure, but within the measure of the spherewhich God apportioned to us as a measure, to reach even as far as you. For we are not overextending ourselves,as if we did not reach to you, for we were the first to come even as far as you in the gospel of Christ; not boasting beyond our measure, that is, in other men’s labors, but with the hope that as your faith grows, we shall be, within our sphere, enlarged even more by you” (2 Corinthians 10:13–15, NASB, italics added).1

“Amen,” I said as I opened my eyes and refocused on the room around me. My office is not fancy. Experience has taught me that those coming to pour out their hearts do not care whether or not my walls display the latest oils by Thomas Kinkade, or even have paint on them at all. I took a few deep breaths, pulled a pen from my shirt pocket, and welcomed my afternoon appointment.

He entered the room and sank deeply into the chair in front of me. He choked back tears as he whimpered in shame, “Larry, what has happened to me?” I stared, quietly, hoping my silence would invite him to elaborate.

His demeanor was that of an exhausted man, and his body language told his story almost redundantly as he proceeded to verbalize what I could already see.

“I have no strength,” he said with a defeated tone. “But more than that, even scarier than that, I have no compassion for people anymore. I have no desire to help or listen to them, or to intercede or interfere for them. I want to leave the ministry.

“I was sure God called me, but now I think I must have misunderstood. I think I am ready to pursue other avenues in life. You know, reinvent myself. And yet, saying the words makes me feel selfish and guilty.”

I listened intently to what, unfortunately, is a much too common story. He began to weep as though mourning the loss of his drive and inspiration while continuing to sputter the details and anecdotes that led him to his conclusion, and, ultimately, to me.

As I witnessed this near meltdown of a man with 35 years invested in the ministry, I jotted down one single word on my legal pad: Burnout.

Common among many, burnout leaves people feeling spent. Teachers, students, blue-collar workers, parents, kids, athletes, entertainers, and ministers can all experience burnout.

Definition

Burnout is a gradual process of desensitization that inevitably wears down an individual until they have no motivation. Burnout happens so slowly that the person affected does not realize it is occurring. It is a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.2

Generally there is one cause of burnout. I scribbled a second word in my notes: Demands.

Demands and responsibilities are a necessary and important part of life. They drive, motivate, and make people accountable for productivity. An undemanding life would be dull and unfulfilling. It is important that pastors carefully identify which demands are healthy and which are detrimental to the health of their relationships, careers, lifestyles, and ministerial callings. Demands that act as realistic benchmarks or motivational incentives introduce a certain amount of exhilaration and, in fact, prevent burnout. The key to having a balanced life is to keep its demands within our reach.2

My pastor-friend was on the brink of accepting failure. I witnessed evidence of a total depletion of the energy and coping mechanisms reserved for perseverance. The physical, psychological, and spiritual resources needed to fuel his ministry were gone.

Externally Imposed Unrealistic Expectations

Pressure is a reality, especially in ministry where many people equate unrealistic feats to enormous acts of faith. Ministers feel pressured to produce. Spearheading building programs, multiplying conversions, growing congregations, increasing offerings, or developing internal and external church ministries can all become draining and unattainable objectives.

In ministry, there are many opportunities to pressure and be pressured. On one occasion, I met with a pastor who was being pressured by his church to meet unimaginable goals. This pastor was being pressured to build an annex onto the church. I saw in his eyes a false look of determination as he tried to disguise great fear and uncertainty. “We can do it,” I heard him say as he tried to convince himself. He was so desperate to perform he dismissed the possibility that he could not only fail, but also, perhaps, financially destroy the church. I tried to be his voice of reason and counter the pushes and shoves he was receiving from others. I cautioned him to be sure the goal was within his reach. Pastors should trust God for the unreachable, but they should also fervently pray for a revelation of God’s participation in their chosen ambitions. Jesus must be nearby when a pastor decides to step out of the boat. Be sure of His presence in your choice.

In 2003, I conducted a survey and learned that 37 percent of the ministers who participated reported feeling the discomfort of external pressure placed on them by their congregations and church boards. When asked to describe what “external pressure” meant, more than 52 percent stated that successful ministry was measured by how many people attended church, financial fluctuation, and how many individuals were baptized.

Pastors believe God is their boss, but God is not the one signing their paychecks or keeping the financial records. To avoid undue pressure, ministers should thoroughly investigate the opportunities before them. Many ministers accept pastorates without doing vital research. They accept positions for many reasons and often fail to consider the church’s expectations before agreeing to the responsibilities of them. Subsequently, they risk taking a high-pressure job and fail to consider the potential hardships it will cause them and their families.

It is critical that a pastor consider the expectations before accepting a responsibility. If a situation poses unrealistic expectations, it is wise to decline it if the opportunity appears to be a promotion. Often, “the next step up” is made by people wearing blindfolds, who do not realize that the next step will take them to the bottom of a canyon. What appears to be a promotion is sometimes a death trap in disguise.

Self-Imposed Unrealistic Expectations

External pressure is often self-imposed. While a pastor’s stress may result from his circumstances, he must also take ownership of what he allows others to do to him. Ministers, who are by nature compassionate and people pleasers, may struggle intensely with the pressures they face. They seem to forget that they are allowed to say no and to work within the parameters of their ability. They need to consult with their families and examine their personal status before they obligate themselves to more than they can handle.

Many ministers set impossible goals for themselves. They impose unrealistic expectations on themselves in the church, their homes, and their relationships. They feel they must be all things to all people to make church work.

Pastors must protect themselves from potential disasters caused by unrealistic demands and expectations. They must depend on the Holy Spirit to help them know God’s will and understand that His way is not always the hardest way. God’s way will not always be easy, but there is not always a mountain to be moved, either.

God wants His servants to be fresh in mind and spirit. He wants pastors to maintain the same drive and motivation they had when they first felt His call on their lives, so they can continue to be an example and a catalyst of change for those in need. To ensure that kind of newness each day, pastors must identify what is God’s next steps plan for their future and be certain it matches what is expected of them in church, family, friendships, and work.

The line between external pressure and self-imposed demands is sometimes blurry. Pastors must work to avoid unnecessary stress, whether from internal or external sources. In many cases, avoiding stress is as easy as being introspective and self-questioning. Pastors must accept their boundaries and introduce margin into their lives to effectively meet the goals laid before them by God. Then, they can finish strong, rather than fizzle out.

Recognizing Symptoms

Burnout is often accompanied by denial, which is the estrangement from one’s own feelings. Stress, hostility, neglected needs, guilt, and low self-esteem also appear to be characteristics. People suffering from these symptoms are more at risk when they are nurturing others or anticipating the needs of others. Pastors, therefore, tend to be perfect candidates for burnout. They often see themselves as somewhat alone. They may feel powerless to change anything they are doing because of this aloneness. Ministers who suffer burnout tend to be perfectionists and seem to struggle with their own power, autonomy, and identity.

Recovering From Burnout

Overcoming negative emotions

Negative emotions stem from a person’s perceptions of what is expected from him. Disappointment, discouragement, despair, despondency, embarrassment, and even depression can follow a meltdown. Pastors are people. They will make some bad choices and decisions. In ministry, bad choices and decisions are sometimes interpreted as not being led by the Holy Spirit or a lack of wisdom. Both are perceived as ministry killers.

A minister is not immune to bad choices. For a pastor to beat himself up or allow others to is evidence of trying to please men. Pastors will occasionally become overburdened. Whenever ministers try to do well, there is also the potential for failure. Learn from negative experiences. Many individuals pay money to learn what others have already learned from making a decision that turned out wrong — not necessarily bad — just wrong.

To see things objectively, a pastor may need to seek help from an unbiased person — someone who does not know him and has no investment in his cause. A good Christian counselor can help if the pastor will admit he needs help. Counseling provides a safe environment, especially if the counselor is a professional. Counselors are bound by ethical guidelines that discourage any disclosure of a counselee’s situation. Thus, a pastor has nothing to hide — no pretending, facade, masks, or lies. The gift of being honest and true, with nothing to prove to anyone, is a beautiful gift a pastor can give himself. A counselor can help a minister find where he left the reality path. This is the road to emotional, physical, and spiritual healing.

Confronting past mistakes

Mistakes provide the steps and tools for learning. God does not allow His servants to go through or endure painful situations without providing them the ability to overcome and be victorious. God will reveal why He allowed the situation. The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord (Psalm 37:23, KJV). Pastors can take comfort in knowing they are where God wants them to be based on their decisions, right or wrong. Mistakes are some of the rungs on the ladder that pastors climb. Tests are part of a pastor’s testimony. The value of ministry is directly related to the effort given to it. Sometimes, the effort is pleasant and exhilarating; at other times, it includes pain and suffering. Either way, if pastors endure, God will reward them. It is both strange and wonderful to know that the reward is often related to something one must endure. What is endured is seldom pleasurable.

I have found comfort in reading Genesis 1:26–31 about God’s excitement when He made man: “God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Genesis 6:5,6 says, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth. The Lord was grieved that He had made man on the earth.” When I have failed as a parent, God reminds me that He had kids too — Adam and Eve. He not only walked and talked with them but He also created them. They made a bad choice. But God, in the end, will make all things good.

Renewing your call

One feeling that seems to accompany failure is inferiority. Feelings of inferiority are not necessarily bad if they prompt one to improve. The danger for pastors is when they allow feelings of inferiority to become an inferiority complex. An inferiority complex drives one to internalize his feelings. It weakens a person and creates the perception that he is not measuring up.

Pastors should not measure themselves by someone else’s definition of success. God does not place pastors in a situation where they have no opportunity for victory. God prepares His servants for every work that He has called them to do. Pastors need to remember that God’s mercy and grace will accompany them as long as they operate within their sphere of gifts and talents.

When a pastor allows others to drive him out of his sphere, they are usually the first to criticize him when he fails. Then they want the pastor to wear a big “S” (for shame) or “F” (for failure) monogrammed on his suit so he can be constantly reminded of his failures. Outside the pastor’s sphere of ability lies the potential for failure. If a pastor’s friends will not allow him to make mistakes, he needs new friends who will.

Maintaining a devotional life

The song, “No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus,” is an incredible reality. A pastor can pour his heart out to his friends, family, and even counselors, but no one will ever accept him for who and what he really is except Jesus. When a pastor gets alone with Jesus and invites the Holy Spirit into the room, he has opportunity to be refreshed and renewed.

Speaking in tongues has always contributed to my renewal. An extremely helpful benefit to speaking in tongues is personal edification. Paul wrote, “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself” (1 Corinthians 14:4). Speaking in tongues not only connects one with God spiritually, but it also has physical and emotional benefits as well. Speaking in tongues is an expressive form of worship that is also therapeutic. It brings one into the presence of God, and, in the process, the Holy Spirit refreshes and renews the speaker’s mind, soul, and body. It is good to have time alone with God and to speak in tongues.

Reading the Word of God also provides great personal benefits. “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). If reading the Bible provides one with a much better and healthier perspective on life, why would anyone choose not to read it?

Renewing your inner spiritual/biblical life through continuing education

One negative self-perception that encourages low self-esteem and fuels depression is that of being unlearned or ignorant. This perception is reinforced when one fails at something or begins to show signs of burnout. Learning reinforces self-worth because knowledge aids in making better decisions and wiser choices.

Wisdom seems to accompany knowledge. Pastors must study. To rely on the verse, “For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say” (Luke 12:12, KJV), for daily ministry is an unrealistic expectation. I have learned through my personal experience and the experiences of others that the Holy Spirit can give a word of wisdom, knowledge, or discernment when He wants to address a particular issue at a particular time. But God also expects a pastor to “do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Those who choose to be lazy and do not apply themselves to learning tend to “study to show themselves.” This will only add to the misery of burnout.

Engaging in education stimulates the brain and produces a cognitively functioning human being who can dialogue on many subjects. Problems can arise, though, when education is used to overcompensate for inferiority complexes. The result is usually a superiority complex. This person learns for the sole purpose of bringing recognition to himself.

Many opportunities exist for learning new things. The American Association of Christian Counselors offers tremendous resources for Christian counselors and ministers. Assemblies of God institutions have distance education and accelerated programs that can provide resources to help. Educational experiences can greatly help a minister feel more at ease while dealing with burnout. Interestingly, one of the ministries of the church is that of a teacher (2 Timothy 1:11). A teacher is needed to instruct those willing to learn.

Managing time and organization to reduce stress

It is essential that a pastor learn to manage his life. Managing one’s life takes discipline and structure. Words like boundaries, parameters, and margins are good. Pastors must have boundaries. One boundary is realizing that a pastor cannot operate 24/7. A pastor cannot allow himself to believe the false perception that God will overlook the careless management of His resources. One of those resources is a pastor’s health.

Planning can be learned. Many ministers have said to me, “I am not a detail person; I hire people to do that for me.” A pastor can hire a “detail” person, but ultimately, the responsibility is his. To whatever extent a pastor defers details is usually the extent that something goes dreadfully wrong. “It’s the little foxes that spoil the vine” (Song of Solomon 2:15). The devil truly is in the details.

There is a management method called management by objective. The method requires setting a goal and establishing objectives to accomplish the goal. It is an easy method that assures goal completion. Implementing good time management and organizational skills lowers stress levels. Creating a blueprint with flowcharts, timelines, and structure shows how a goal can be achieved. If a pastor does not know how to create these charts, he needs to learn how.

Maintaining physical health

Taking care of one’s body can be a difficult task, especially when a person enjoys certain kinds of food. A disposition toward food and a disinterest in exercise can make a pastor vulnerable to sickness and disease. A pastor must give proper attention to his physical health. A friend of mine who is a doctor told me years ago that I needed to take better care of myself. I can honestly say I have been trying. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which we have of God, and ye are not your own. For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body … which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:19,20, KJV).

Pastors benefit from regular exercise. Keep a Sabbath; it is important to have a day of rest. Some pastors do not allow themselves the rest they need until a serious health problem forces them to rest. Do not buy into the philosophy that God protects pastors from illnesses because they are doing His work. Ministers need to live by the laws of the universe that God put into place. Exercise and rest are important. Sometimes we forget “we have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Building healthy accountability relationships

Scripture warns Christians to be careful with whom they associate. How many times have pastors used the Scripture, “Evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Corinthians 15:33, KJV), to help their congregation and family? The same words apply to ministers. A similar saying is: Tell me who you hang with and I will tell you what kind of person you are.

People seem to move or gravitate toward others with whom they share common interests. By engaging in some introspection, a pastor can find the areas where he allows “perceived” friends to reinforce unrealistic expectations on him.

A pastor can benefit from an accountability group. The group should include some people who do not know him personally because they will tend to be more objective in their perceptions. There is often more freedom and safety among strangers than friends when it comes to accountability. An accountability group or partner who does not know a minister will usually be honest and tell him what he needs to hear rather than what he wants to hear.

Paul asked the Galatians, “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16). Sadly, when a person asks his friends to tell him the truth, and they do, the friendship usually begins to wane. Therefore, it is better to ask others, counselors or consultants, what their perceptions are. Both parties will eventually discover the truth.

If a pastor has unhealthy relationships with individuals who are always encouraging him to set unrealistic goals, he needs to find new friends. Similarly, if he surrounds himself with people who are sick, he may become sick as well. Again, find a new group of friends.

God did not intend pastors to live a life of misery in ministry. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul explains why he does ministry. Verse 22 says: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” Pastors cannot do some things because God did not gift them to do those things. Remember, however, that a pastor can do all things the Father (not others) requires him to do through Christ Jesus who gives him strength (Philippians 4:13).

Pastors can live in God’s grace and mercy even when they do not measure up to unrealistic self- or externally-imposed expectations. They can say with Paul: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians (9:25–27). The one who runs aimlessly and beats the air will most likely suffer burnout.

May God bless your life with the resources needed to accomplish His expectations as you embark on the journey to do His will.

Richard L. Dresselhaus

LARRY E. HAZELBAKER, Ph.D., an Assemblies of God minister, is professor of psychology and chairperson of the behavioral and social sciences department at Southeastern University, Lakeland, Florida. He is also founder and president of Harbor Institute, Inc., a nonprofit organization that ministers to ministers and their families.

Notes

1. Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)

2. D.A. Girdino, G.S. Everly, and D.E. Dusek, Controlling Stress and Tension (Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon, 1996).

3. S. Hutman, J. Jaffe, R. Segal, G. Kemp, and L. Dumke, Burnout: Signs, Symptoms and Prevention http://www.helpguide.org/mental/burnout_signs_symptoms.htm (2005).

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