“Ministers wage war against forces of darkness that are powerful, active, and cunning;
we wage war against the evil one himself.”
tatistically — and tragically -- more than 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month. One resource documenting this states, “Pastors are put on a treadmill. They go from the ministry to a hospital visit to writing a sermon to meeting with congregation members. They just keep running until there’s no passion or energy left. They become exhausted and depleted.”
What is a pastor to do when feeling “exhausted and depleted”? Should pastors entering the ministry do so on the assumption that they will one day burn out and throw in the towel? Where can such tired ministers turn? Where can discouraged shepherds go for the shepherding of their own souls?
The issue of pastoral burnout must be understood in the context of five important factors, each of which is directly related to gospel ministry.
The Impossible Calling
In one sense, being a pastor is an impossible calling. Men who serve as ministers of the gospel have undertaken a task that is impossible left to the power of their own flesh. This weighty task is nothing less than doing spiritual work for the lasting welfare of human souls. A mere man cannot reach a dead soul or sanctify a saved one by his own talents and trained abilities. The power of God is required to achieve this work.
Nevertheless, God calls ministers to be a means of caring for the souls of His people. He calls us as pastors to be shepherds; He appoints us, by His sovereign plan and according to His ineffable wisdom, to do His work in His way for His glory and for the good of His sheep. This work is exhausting. No word more adequately describes pastoral ministry. It is hard, it is tireless, and it is never-ending. Not only does a pastor care for his people and their spiritual needs; he often finds himself overwhelmed with concern for the welfare of the souls in his charge.
The intensity of this work cannot be compared to that of any other vocation on earth because the pastor’s task is not an earthly one. Ministers wage war against forces of darkness that are powerful, active, and cunning; we wage war against the evil one himself. And when a shepherd of souls cares for God’s sheep, he is guaranteed to face many sufferings. He can relate to the apostle Paul, who depicted doing the work of ministry as enduring labor pains until Christ is formed in His people (Gal. 4:19).
Yet the impossible task given to the pastor — made possible by the Spirit’s power — is to labor for the souls of the lost, for the upbuilding of the saved, and for the strengthening of Christ’s church, all for the magnification of Christ in and through His people, who are being formed in His likeness. Who can be sufficient for such a strenuous and glorious task? The task humbles us and drives us repeatedly to our knees before God. It is there that we receive His grace to press on with renewed strength.
The Pastor’s Ultimate Need
Since the pastor’s task is utterly impossible in the strength of the flesh, how does a saved sinner, a weak man at best, take up this task and perform it well for the glory of the Savior? Experts and statisticians provide a host of data about what “successful” pastors do and what needs in the lives of such pastors have been met. But I propose that a pastor has one singular, ultimate need: The pastor must guard his own heart.
God’s Word stresses the importance of the heart over and over again. God implores us — and this is particularly important for ministers — to watch our hearts carefully. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” Jesus said that “from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness.” He continued, “All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man” (Mark 7:21-23). Jesus also proclaimed that every man’s “mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45). Paul tells Timothy, his young protégé in the faith, not to neglect the spiritual gift within him; to that end, Paul exhorts him, “Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that your progress will be evident to all. Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:15-16).
A pastor’s own ministry will be no better than his heart; indeed, a healthy ministry flows from his heart and will reflect the state of his heart. So the implication is clear — a pastor must guard his heart.
It is possible for a pastor to become so concerned with the hearts of those in his flock that he neglects his own heart. This is tragic. In Jeremiah 3:15, God calls His ministers “shepherds after My own heart.” They are first and foremost to be consumed with God in their hearts. That is the prerequisite for all God-honoring ministry, and it is also the ultimate guard of ministerial longevity. If a pastor is to endure in the ministry, he will only succeed by watching over and guarding and protecting his own heart at all costs. If a man sacrifices the health of his own soul for the sake of his flock, he will soon find that he has no ministry at all. The strength and longevity of a shepherd can only come from having his own spiritual needs met by God.
The Tragic Reality
Pastoral failure is all around us. The media latches onto this topic as fodder for juicy gossip; the public seem to glory in the downfall of well-known pastors. This is surely a tragic triumph of Satan.
Pastors have scores of reasons for leaving the ministry. Pastoral burnout soars. Unfaithfulness can be spotted all over the place as men fail sexually and prove themselves not to be “one-woman men” (see 1 Tim. 3:2). Statistics also indicate that men abandon full-time ministry because of discouragement, loneliness, moral failure, financial pressure, anger, burnout, physical health, marriage and family problems, overwork, and over-ambition. The list could go on of the innumerable factors that cause pastors to burn out and forsake the ministry of gospel work.
We must understand that when pastors fall into disqualifying sin, they are not falling all at once. The visible, public, scandalous sin that becomes evident is just one sin in a longer chain of sins that have been allowed to fester. Men don’t just quit ministry or fall into a major sin out of the blue. Just like oak trees, sin begins small but grows in strength and power over the course of time until it falls with a loud crash and brings a massive amount of damage.
Are the pressures of ministry simply too difficult to bear in the long term? The trials of ministry are a given for any pastor. We know that we will wage a tireless war against the devil, the flesh, the world — even our own sinful and selfish hearts. But the central question remains: If God provides the call to ministry and the means to persevere in the ministry, how does a pastor burn out while doing the Lord’s work? If God has called him, empowered him, and equipped him, how can a pastor fail to persevere in his calling?
The Indomitable Joy
George Whitefield once said, “Lord, I am weary in Thy work but not weary of Thy work!” How could a man who preached daily and even numerous times a day for decades say such a thing? Whitefield could affirm this because God had captured his soul and captivated him with Himself.
Ministers of the Lord who care for His people must be driven by an indomitable joy. This joy cannot be subdued or defeated. When God calls pastors to do His work, they must fight — daily! — for the unconquerable joy that is found in Christ. The problem arises when we do ministry and seek to find our unshakable joy within ministry itself -- in a particular program, in a building design, in a person, in a budget, in a sermon, or even in conversions. Pastoral burnout begins when a minister of the gospel takes his eyes off of Christ and places them on anything else. That is the tragedy and the root of the problem.
A man who serves in the ministry of the Lord can protect himself only by staking his confidence in the unsinkable joy and infinite beauties of Christ Himself. The minister of the Lord must love Christ above all else. He must anchor his heart to the warm tendernesses of Christ. He must fix his affections on Christ’s overwhelming compassion, constant protection, and everlasting salvation. One of the safeguards against pastoral burnout is for the shepherd to remember one very important (yet easily forgotten) essential: The pastoral ministry is a mercy ministry. It’s not deserved, and it’s certainly not a right. It is a privilege and an honor to be set apart by God’s sovereign grace to give loving, constant, affectionate, biblical soul care. The apostle Paul wrote, “Since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:1).
So what must ministers who care for God’s people constantly remember? They must remember that the ministry of the Lord’s work is a ministry entrusted to them by God’s wondrous mercy. Every pastor must find his unbeatable and unassailable joy in the person and work and glory and splendor of Christ. He must find his triumphant joy and deep-seated gladness in the presence of God and in the glory of Christ and not primarily in the work of the ministry that happens in the church.
This means that ministers must repeatedly seek out communion with God. The silver bullet to finding joy in Christ is not a sabbatical, as helpful as that may be. It’s not a rest from the preaching schedule, as profitable as that may be. It’s not delegating some ministerial duties, as prudent as that may be. The true and practical means of finding joy in God comes through enjoying the ravishment of communion with Him. We can guard ourselves from pastoral burnout by allowing Christ to ravish our own hearts so that the wonder of Christ’s love, the sufficiency of Christ’s propitiation, and the sweetness of Christ’s intercession utterly captures us. We should, with great regularity, approach the ocean of God’s grace with our tiptoes at the shore and gaze at the endless supply of grace that He has for us. This grace, which washes over every one of our sins, is the divine power that propels our continued service to Christ.
We obtain this communion with God through the discipline of meditating on Christ and His multifaceted glory and soul-ravishing beauty. The minister must discipline himself to know Christ so that he says, with the apostle Paul, “I want to know Him” (see Phil. 3:10). He should pray for God to give him the heart of David, who affirmed, “One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD” (Ps. 27:4). Oh that every minister would say with the psalmist, “I will meditate on Your precepts and regard Your ways. I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your Word” (Ps. 119:15-16).
The Nourishment for the Task
Let every pastor prepare his heart before he goes to prepare a sermon. Let every pastor fix his heart on Christ before the upcoming leadership meeting. Let every pastor commune with Christ before communing with the people of Christ. And chiefly, let every pastor be overcome and inundated with the love of Christ. Only when we as pastors are being changed by Him will we be able to channel His love and power into our ministry to the saints.
By God’s grace, after the undershepherd has done the allotted work given him by God’s sovereign decree, “when the Chief Shepherd appears, [he] will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:4). Truly all pastors must hold on to this promise: “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 5:10-11).