Preventing Pastoral Burnout

By Dick Loizeaux

Recently I had a heart attack on the side of a mountain 1000 miles away from home. It came as a surprise since I didn’t have high blood pressure or a cholesterol problem. But it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Later, when I talked to the doctor, we identified clear symptoms of coronary heart disease as early as 7 months before the attack. See, I knew something wasn’t quite right but was too busy with “important” ministry to deal with it. I figured I’d push through the issues and deal with them as soon as my ministry schedule was less demanding.

There is a medical term for that kind of behavior.

But too often we pastors act the same way when it comes to burnout. We know we aren’t functioning quite right but don’t have time to deal with it so figure we’ll push through it and deal with it later. We will start sabbathing - later. We will schedule balance and margin into our lives - later. We will be more rigorous taking our day off - later. We will eat right and exercise - later. We will invest in things that replenish us – later. And then when we crash and burn we are surprised.

There is a spiritual term for that kind of behavior.

So how can you and I spot the warning signs of approaching burnout? There is a good acrostic memory device to determine if you are having a stroke: F.A.S.T.  – Face drooping; Arm weakness; Speech difficulty; Time to call 911.  Got it?

Now let me give you an acrostic to determine if you are in danger of burnout. The word is D.A.N.G.E.R. 

D - Difficulty focusing. It is unusually hard to make decisions or follow though on tasks. Your mind wanders. 

A – Anger or Apathy. Either you are frustrated or angry all the time, or you just stop caring because you don’t have the emotional energy. Or you bounce between the two.

N – No energy. You are exhausted all the time. Even after a good night sleep you are still fatigued and lethargic. You are running on fumes. 

G – Gloomy. You feel down. Everything looks bleak. You struggle with anxiety more than usual, maybe even a little paranoia. You have trouble trusting. All that worry and fear may create physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches or insomnia.

E – Excuses. You are making excuses all the time. Excuses for not getting things done, for making mistakes, for not feeling well, or for losing your temper.

R – Retreating. You are frequently retreating into daydreams, escapist entertainment, addictive behaviors, or withdrawal from people in order to ease the pain. But none of those things help. 

Of course, some of those symptoms can be caused by medical or psychological conditions that require professional treatment, so take that into account. And just one symptom does not mean you are burned out. It is when you have 3 or more of the symptoms you should be concerned.  

So now you know the six D.A.N.G.E.R. signs that you are heading toward burnout. Discuss them with your spouse and your accountability partner. Ask them to let you know whenever they think they spot them. 

If you find some of the symptoms, then, still talking to your souse or accountability partner, evaluate the five common causes to see which apply to you. Five things that “Un-dermine” your health: 

1. Unbalanced schedule
Do you take too few days off, too few real Sabbaths, too short vacations?
Do you fail to spend enough evenings at home?
Are you failing to schedule margin into your life?
Do you fail to say “No” when you need to?
Are you failing to build rhythms into your life? 

2. Unregulated emotional drain
Do you spend too much time with very draining people and problems and too little time with replenishing people and activities?
Are you failing to deal with critics and resolve conflicts?
Do you have unhealed wounds or unresolved anger?
Are you struggling with perfectionism or esteem issues? Unrealistic expectations?
Are you hiding sin? 

3. Unhealthy lifestyle
Do you eat too much? Do you eat too much of the wrong kinds of food?
Do you sit too much?
Do you neglect regular exercise? 

4. Uncontrolled escapism
Do you try to medicate the pain or fatigue with behaviors that may temporarily mask the symptoms but create worse problems? Things such as excessive escapist entertainment, addictive behaviors, impure fantasies, emotional withdrawal, or dependence on mood altering medications?

5. Undernourished Intimacy
Are you failing to guard your time with the Lord in prayer, worship and devotion?
Are you letting your marital intimacy grow cold?
Are you failing to maintain close, loving, replenishing relationships with family and friends? 

Now that you have spotted the DANGER signs, and identified the causes, the questions are:

  1. What are you going to do about it?
  2. When will you start?
  3. Who will hold you accountable?
  4. How will you measure success?How will you celebrate progress? 

I had lots of good ministry excuses why I would eat right, exercise, and take time off – later.
There is a spiritual term for that kind of behavior.

“As a dog goes back to its vomit, so a fool repeats his stupidity.” (Prov. 26:11 GW)



Church Planting Articles, Dick Loizeaux