“If you’ve burned out as a pastor, it’s your own fault.”

That line hit me like a slap in the face. What? Who is this heartless and heavy-handed Job’s counselor? Instead of offering a cup of cold water in the name of the Lord, it felt like the writer was throwing the water into your face.

Clearly, he’d never experienced burnout himself… Oh wait, as I scrolled through his personal bio, it appears that, yes he did. That’s why he’s writing about it now.

Still, that opening line just didn’t sit well with me. At all.

Burnout in ministry is not a new phenomenon. We hear alarming statistics about pastors and leaders burning out and leaving the ministry, as well as stories of marriages failing (which typically leads to instant ministerial unemployment). Rebellious and bitter “ministry orphans” are another symptom of the typically over-committed leader who will eventually crash and burn. For most, burnout includes health crises, emotional emptiness, and spiritual barrenness.

Among the many causes for ministry burnout, there are three kinds of pastors that risk burning out, and also have a tendency to burn out other capable leaders around them.

1. The Co-Dependent Messiah

These are the classic types that people usually associate with ministry burnout. They care deeply about people, and truly desire to see discipleship and spiritual growth in those they are leading. Doesn’t have good boundaries for work, family, and self-care. Just can’t say “no” to the needs of the congregation. Can’t remember the last time they tucked their kids in at night.

Worst fear: Other leaders sharing the load and diminishing their Messianic role.

They approach ministry as if everything will fall apart without their constant involvement and oversight. They need to be needed. In essence, they have created a co-dependent relationship between themselves and “the ministry”.

2. The Driven Visionary

The classic entrepreneurial church-planting type. Strong leadership personality, holder of the vision, Type A personality, charismatic and gifted in rallying people around a cause. This type of leader tends to be driven, and hard-driving. In the common tongue, a “workaholic”. Didn’t realize/forgot that tucking their kids in at night was something ‘normal’ people do.

Worst fear: Not achieving stated visionary goals and/or not being seen as “successful”.

The smart ones recognize that they aren’t as “pastoral” in their gift-mix, so they hire associates to handle the care-giving aspects. But their example (workaholic) sets the pace for every other associate pastor and ministry leader as well. Type A leaders tend to be able to keep the pace they’ve set, but pastoral associates aren’t typically as driven, and burn out under the pressure and demands of the Driven Visionary. DV’s cause others to burn out long before they do. But even Driven Visionaries eventually crack under their self-imposed pressure (usually health or marriage crisis).

3. The Loyal Martyr

Dependable team-player type. Loves and is loyal to a fault to the leaders above him/her. Will go to the wall for fellow staff and leaders. Makes a great associate pastor or ministry leader. Like the Co-Dependent Messiah, has a hard time saying “no” (more out of loyalty to senior leaders than a Messiah complex).

Worst fear: Being accused of laziness or not being committed enough (“you’re doing this for Jesus, after all”).

Dark side: tends to never question if the pace and demands of ministry are realistic or not, until it’s too late. Enthusiastically agrees that “healthy life balance” is a priority for all Christians, but begins to notice that none of the church staff actually has a healthy balance (dissonance of values with reality). Not wanting to work flipping burgers when he/she has a Masters in Christian Ministry, the Loyal Martyr will continue to serve and self-console with “doing this for Jesus” even if nobody else fully appreciates their hard work.

After burnout, quickly and easily replaced by next up-and-coming eager beaver.

If these three all end up serving at the same ministry location, it’s a toxic brew that will leave its mark on the whole church, usually in the form of a revolving door in ministry: bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new leaders on their way in to replace the limping-and-disillusioned casualties on their way out.

We who identify ourselves as pastors and leaders need to ask ourselves hard questions (or, if we’re especially bold, ask those closest to us to evaluate us):

  1. How many hours do you work in a typical week? How many hours does your spouse think you work in a typical week?
  2. How many hours do you expect from other full-time staff? (If there’s a difference between your weekly hours and theirs, why?)
  3. When was the last time you tucked your kids in at bedtime? How often does this happen each week?
  4. What does “healthy life balance” actually look like? If it’s not measurable, you’ll never do it. Ask your spouse and children for input.
  5. Who holds you accountable to maintain that “healthy life balance”? Are you giving them the whole picture?
  6. Are you developing more leaders, and more important, are you letting them lead without looking over their shoulder all the time (micromanaging)?
  7. Do you feel supported in ministry by other staff, lay leaders (elders/board)? Have you allowed them the opportunity to support you?
  8. Do you have friends outside of the church? If so, do you have time to spend with them?
  9. Do you feel guilty spending time with people if it’s not “ministry-related”?
  10. Has there been steady turnover in the staff working under your leadership? How long has the average tenure of an associate pastor been in the last five years? Did they leave under a cloud of crisis?
  11. Who can tell you “no”? (If your answer is “Jesus”, that’s very spiritual of you, but you may need to widen that circle just a bit.)