The #1 reason pastors burn out and how you can avoid it

ministry burnoutBurnout: the condition of someone who has become very physically and emotionally tired after doing a difficult job for a long time. (

Can you relate to any of that? Do you ever wonder how much longer you can keep going in ministry? Here’s a little secret: pastors burn out not because of hard work but because of overfunctioning.

Overfunctioning: persistently taking on more responsibility than is genuinely yours.

As Rabbi Edwin Friedman says, “Stress comes less from overwork than from taking responsibility for the problems of others.”

I first heard that quote over 20 years ago and it ultimately changed my ministry and my life. You’ve heard that quote from me before and you’ll hear it again – it’s that important.. Most of us in ministry are born and bred to take responsibility for others. The thing is that it doesn’t truly help others and it doesn’t help us. Instead, it leads to burnout in us and stunted growth in others.

What to do instead? Here are my five tips.

  1. Redefine your “job.” As a pastor, I changed my own job description from “helping others” to “helping others grow.” There’s a big difference. When you help others grow, you may actually “help” them less. You insist they take responsibility for themselves. You provide more challenge. You also create an inherent boundary of what is and what is NOT your job.
  2. Lower your standards. I see pastors wearing themselves out by doing things others ought to be doing, whether it’s planning worship, leading the youth group, proofreading, being in charge of music. None of these tasks are detrimental in themselves. But if you persistently do them because others can’t perform to your standards, or there just isn’t anyone to do it, it is a warning sign to let go. While I’m all for excellence in ministry, when all the excellence rests on the back of the pastor, it’s not good for anyone.
  3. Take a breath before you say yes. Simply pause and ask yourself, “Is this my responsibility?” You may need to make a split-second discernment, and you won’t always get it “right.” It’s a spiritual practice. What is yours and what is the responsibility of others? Should you say yes or should you say no? If you ask yourself the question, you’ll overfunction less.
  4. Let your church’s future be its responsibility. Of course, the role of pastor is important. Solid leadership is essential. However, you can’t 100% ensure your church’s golden future, even if you stay there the rest of your life. You don’t have that kind of power. This is the biggest burnout position for pastors. Denominations want you to take this responsibility on. So does your church: “Pastor, if you only [preached longer/shorter/visited more/attracted younger people….]’ Do your best, then let go.
  5. Be willing to feel a little guilty. Overfunctioning pastors who step it down a little feel guilty. This is a good sign! Just because you feel guilty doesn’t mean you are doing the wrong thing. Just because others criticize you for not doing enough doesn’t mean you aren’t working hard enough. Treat it like thoughts during meditation–let it pass through your brain and let it go. Don’t get defensive. One caveat: If you overfunction less, others won’t step up immediately. Be prepared for some lag time, and some pushback. (“Pastor, why aren’t you [fill in the blank] any more?”) That’s all right. In fact, if you get some criticism  about it, you’re probably on the right track.

Questions for reflection: What is one area you might be overfunctioning? How could you step back a little?




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