by Tres Adames (M.Div. ’10)
I’ve counseled a lot of pastors over the years, which is a privilege, but can also be heartbreaking. Pastors are human, and they struggle with the same pressures that everyone does. Yet there can be an unspoken expectation that pastors have to be perfect.
1 Timothy 3:2 indicates that a leader should be “above reproach” and “must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation.” Paul sets the standard high, and we are wise to follow his instruction, but we tend to drain all grace out of these guidelines. Apart from Christ, the New Testament doesn’t present spiritual leaders as flawless, even after they receive the Holy Spirit. Paul lost his temper and got into a disagreement with Barnabas that became so intense that they split ways (Acts 15:36-41). Peter turned away from those who needed the gospel in order to appease the in-crowd (Galatians 2:11-14). External pressure proved to be too much and they caved in. These examples are not an excuse for sin, but we need to be aware of external pressure so that we don’t give into internal temptation to sin. With all of the pressure to perform, some pastors succumb to stress, burnout, and even scandal.
It’s easy to become absorbed in a frenzy of activity. Leaders often take on too many responsibilities, or other people’s problems overwhelm them. A lot of ministers absorb the anxiety and stress from their congregants and staff. They say “yes” to too much and overstep their own limits. When the focus is on taking care of other people, time with God and family can fall by the wayside. How do we prevent burnout?
Here are three tactics that I suggest for pastors and ministers that are feeling the strain:
Find time for rest. While we don’t have to follow a strict observance of the Sabbath, the general principle is still beneficial and restorative. In the words of Christ: “’The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’” (Mark 2:27). I suggest resting daily, weekly, and every few months.
- Have a daily sabbath time, where you cut off all work at a certain time in the evening.
- Also, take whole days off every week. You want at least one day off, but ideally two days off in a row. Two sleeps in a row, without having to wake up to work, can really help you recover from the week.
- Take a vacation every few months. Get out of the house and get away.
- If you can’t get out of town, at least plan a “staycation”, where you stay at a nearby hotel or someone’s home to get away from the distraction of work. Create space in your life so you can breathe.
2. Nourish Your Spiritual Life
Focus on feeding your soul. Do this by connecting with God, connecting with family, and connecting with close friends.
- Have alone time with God on a regular basis. Implement silence with prayer so that you have time to listen for God’s voice.
- Make your family a priority. Carve out time to date your spouse as well as other times to spend with the kids as a family. These don’t have to be expensive outings. A trip to the park is sufficient for family day. An evening drive to get ice cream can be a memorable date. The point is to intentionally connect with your spouse and your kids. This reflects the passage we mentioned earlier where Paul makes the point that “if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?” (1 Timothy 3:5).
- Develop deeper friendships with two or three other believers. It’s great if you have friends within your congregation, but it can be beneficial to have friends outside of the church who are detached from the nitty-gritty of what’s going on. Connecting with your loved ones in meaningful ways will go far in feeling less alone.
3. Set Limits
Finally, you want to set boundaries. Get over the messiah complex—you cannot do it all.
- Become accustomed to saying “no.”
- Don’t be afraid to delegate and ask others to take over certain responsibilities. This means letting go.
- Consider getting a personal assistant to answer emails and to screen phone calls.
- When you counsel your parishioners, don’t get overly involved in their problems. Only meet with them for two or three sessions, then refer them out to a Christian counselor or a trained lay counselor in your church.
What should you do if you are on the edge?
- Get away. An emergency sabbatical is better than just quitting on the fly. What your soul may be wanting and needing is a break.
- Get some counseling. Find a Christian counselor who has experience working with pastors. Online counseling may be an option if you live in a small community, and you don’t have a counselor close by.
- Don’t make any major decisions until you are able to step back, get some rest, and hear from God.
- More than anything, be prayerful.
- Gain some wisdom from other leaders you respect.
Take good care of yourself, so that you can more effectively tend to God’s people.
Tres Adames is Board Certified Pastoral Counselor and an alumnus of Wesley Biblical Seminary (M.Div. ’10). He is the founder and director of Arizona Christian Counseling in Phoenix, Arizona where he has been counseling for the past 5 years.