“If you can avoid entering the ministry, do so! If you can do something else, do it!” This (or similar) advice has been given to many young men considering the call to pastoral ministry. Why? Perhaps it’s because one-third of all pastors “burn out” within five years of embarking on pastoral ministry, and close to one-half of all pastors eventually leave the ministry due to burnout.
Christopher Ash defines burnout as “being under constant pressure and stress over a long period, causing you to become exhausted, demotivated, and in a state of struggle to concentrate and to perform.” He adds, “We push ourselves so many times, over such a long period of time, that eventually the system simply begins to shut down. We burn out.”
The rate at which pastors leave the ministry due to burnout is downright alarming. Equally troubling is the fact that most churches have absolutely no clue what their pastors are experiencing, and (even if they did) they are unprepared to deal with it. The starting point for helping a struggling pastor is being able to recognize the marks of burnout – both spiritual and physical. Here are some of the most common ones:
Denial. Oftentimes, a pastor struggling with burnout will become increasingly blind to his own sin and self-righteousness. He will become overly sensitive and defensive when criticized. Paul Tripp warns, “You tell yourself again and again that you are not the problem – that ‘it is’ or ‘they are’ but not you. And you tell yourself that you don’t really need to change; it’s the people and circumstances around you that need to change.” In this condition, the pastor is blind to the problems in his own heart. Tripp adds a personal note from his own experience: “When others would question or confront him, without knowing that he was doing it, he would activate his inner lawyer and generate arguments in his defense.”
Disinterest. When burnout takes hold, motivation begins to wane. The desire to remain in ministry disappears, and anything other than ministry begins to look like freedom. Personal devotions become meaningless. Ministering to others becomes burdensome. Studying God’s Word becomes tedious. Describing his own struggle with burnout, Tripp says that he increasingly became “comfortable with the fantasies of doing something else, but he was afraid to speak a word of them to anyone else ... and it wasn’t too long before he thought about telling his team he wanted out.”
Sleeplessness. Another sign of burnout is that stress becomes overwhelming. Problems become insurmountable. People become constant irritants. Perhaps anger or anxiety begins to take over. The result is moodiness and restlessness. Sleep becomes increasingly difficult, as the mind obsesses over every issue, problem, or challenge. Once exhaustion sets in, the responsibilities of ministry become unbearable. On a personal note, John Piper acknowledges, “Nothing brought me closer to quitting than sleeplessness.”
Escapism. A failure to deal with stress will often result in mental exhaustion. In this state, the temptation is to look for an escape. Christopher Ash explains, “A need for comfort or the desire to get a quick buzz can lead to overeating, excess alcohol use, pornography, or even illicit sex.” Moral failures are at times closely related to mental and emotional exhaustion. Binge watching, internet surfing, excessive eating, etc., are all modes of escapism.
Restlessness. Because of burnout, the ability to focus and accomplish tasks begins to wane. Paying attention for more than five minutes is difficult. Every effort to read and pray feels like an exercise in futility. Even normal conversations become confusing and meaningless. Life as a whole seems unclear.
I realize this is a pretty depressing list, but it’s important. We can’t remedy what we can’t diagnose. The first step to overcoming burnout is being able to identity its causes and marks. Having done so, we’ll turn to the cure in the next article.
* Victor Jr. Arhin is a M.Div. student at Heritage College & Seminary in Cambridge, ON.
 Derek Prime & Alistair Begg, On Being a Pastor (Chicago: Moody, 2004), 19.
 Christopher Ash, Zeal Without Burnout (Norhaven: GoodBook, 2016), 16.
 Ash, Zeal Without Burnout, 119.
 Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 33.
 Tripp, Dangerous Calling, 34.
 Tripp, Dangerous Calling, 39.
 John Piper Ask Pastor John Ministry Burnout https://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/ask-pastor-john/avoiding-ministry-burnout.
 Ash, Zeal Without Burnout, 122.