What Causes Ministry Burnout?

Have you ever had one of those moments where what just happened wasn’t that big of a deal but it ended up being the final straw?

Several years ago, I sat in a meeting and learned that our department had to move our offices to a different part of the building. Granted, leadership wanted us to move during one of the busiest seasons of the year for our group but still…this wasn’t that big of an issue. However, since we’d already had a crazy few months and I’d just pulled an all-nighter the night before…I was done for the day. I had to leave the office, get some sleep, and regain my perspective.

That’s only one of the moments that, looking back, make me realize I was burning out in ministry.

Apparently, I’m not the only one since a quick search on “ministry burnout” turns up over 450,000 results. From Carey Nieuwhof to Ed Stetzer and others, more church leaders are openly discussing the issue of burnout (many with their own experiences).

Most of the resources I’ve found focus on the burnout of pastors. As the senior pastor is the key leader in a given church, if he burns out there’s a significant impact on the entire staff and congregation. Pastors also have the burden of “the buck stops here” which contributes to their potential for burnout.

However, there’s also the danger for church staff and even volunteers to burnout.

While there are unique challenges that only the senior pastor faces, I think there are several common issues that can lead to burnout for anyone working in ministry.

Here are several factors I’ve seen contribute to burnout:

  1. Spending time in the Word only for sermon preparation (or to develop a Bible study lesson) and not for one’s personal relationship with Christ
  2. Trying to please everyone (Spoiler alert: It’s not possible or practical.)
  3. Pressure and unrealistic expectations from others (the congregation, leadership, or both)
  4. A congregation resistant to change and/or only wanting to focus inward
  5. The temptation to put the senior pastor on a pedestal that’s not realistic or maintainable (thereby putting pressure on him to live up to that standard no matter what the cost)
  6. Loneliness and isolation – leaders not feeling they can trust anyone with their struggles or issues (sadly, many times for good reason having been betrayed by a confidant in the past)
  7. Lack of planning, structure, and organization which leads to last minute “fire drills” and unnecessarily long hours trying to “make it happen”
  8. Not being willing to accept momentary limits (and taking on excessive debt or pushing people to work excessive hours to push past those limits)
  9. Poor hiring decisions and/or unwillingness to correct a poor hiring decision
  10. Subconsciously thinking we have to do what only God can do
  11. Spiritually sounding motives fueled with guilt “If we don’t reach them…”
  12. Workaholic tendencies justified by “but I’m serving God” that leads to neglecting one’s family or even your own health
  13. Desire to be successful at all costs
  14. Feeling the need to compete with other pastors/churches
  15. Unclear vision
  16. Scattershot approach vs. laser focus, therefore doing too much with minimal results
  17. Not collaborating/learning from other churches who’ve “been there, done that”
  18. Leaders who refuse to delegate
  19. Pride – thinking it all rests on your shoulders
  20. Tying your spiritual right-standing with God to your performance at the church office

The reason I’m even bringing up this list is two-fold:

  1. To help you realize that if any of the above sounds a bit too familiar, you’re not alone and it’s possible to start changing the issue today. The path out of these destructive patterns may take a while to walk, but it does exist.
  2. To fix a problem, the first step is identifying the problem and the root cause(s). My goal is to help you stop and/or prevent burnout from progressing with you and at your church.

In my next post, I’ll take a deeper look into some of these causes and how to turn things around.

What other burnout causes would you add to this list?

Growing Church...Zero Burnout

Subscribe to get this new, free email course. You'll receive 9 practical lessons over a 4-week period.

Simply fill out the boxes to the right and click Subscribe to get started.

  • Steve Elliott

    Hi Deborah – you touched on ‘root causes’ and all too often we don’t get to the root cause of a problem or issue because we don’t ask enough of the right ‘why’ questions. This, I think, should be automatic after every service, training or event.

    • Thanks, Steve! It can hurt to get down to the root causes, plus asking those “why” questions takes time and emotional energy. If we’re already in fire-drill mode, it’s tough to get people to pause long enough to consider what’s really going on. I like your idea of asking questions / reviewing how things went after key moments.

  • Dave Jacobs

    Well I didn’t catch a spelling error but I did catch a great article with spot on content. I’m a pastoral coach with a focus on pastor of smaller churches, so I know what I’m looking for. Keep up the good work.

  • PlayaChristianChurch

    I never publish anything without having others proofread what I have written. Missing such a simple step really undermines credibility.

    • Hi! Well, I wasn’t sure if you were referring to something in the post so I checked for typos and found one. I value excellence but have realized I’m definitely not going to achieve perfection. 🙂 Thank you for your comment – it helped me find my mistake. Having others check our work is also a helpful burnout prevention tip since it lessens the pressure a bit.