Addressing the chronic stress that is burning many pastors out
This article originally appeared on MissioAlliance.org and is reposted here by permission.
The apostle Paul boasted in his weaknesses and cataloged the trials he had faced. He received 39 lashes and five times endured beatings with rods. He was stoned by a mob. He was shipwrecked and spent many nights in cold and hunger, alone.
Then, as if these were not enough, Paul said, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). That these words occur in a long line of Paul’s sufferings speaks volumes about the weight that ministry leaders carry. Ministry carries a gravity, an anxiety, a pressure that is difficult to explain.
When I sensed a calling into “ministry,” this is what compelled me—a story so true I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I was willing to suffer for it. God’s unsurpassable love compelled me.
We have the beautiful burden of walking with people through the most difficult times of their lives, the task of preaching and teaching regularly, the challenge of bringing people together when they are divided, the pain of losing beloved friends who no longer attend our church, and the joy of seeing God use it all for the sake of something bigger than ourselves. In all of this we feel the weight. At times it is self-induced, sometimes it’s culturally projected, and other times it is the conditions of our church.
Twenty-five years, two seminary degrees, three churches, and a few thousand people later, my calling into that beautiful story picked up a lot of weight. I’m sore in ways I never expected. It reminds me of the subtle shift that occurs when your knees start throbbing and a groan is released just from picking up one more heavy box. Your body gets sore. You don’t know how exactly, or when, but pain just starts to accumulate.
Leaders pick up a heavy weight in our souls, in our minds, in our relationships and even in our bodies. A chronic pain can start to settle in.
I ignored the signs of that weight taking a toll on me. One Sunday, a few years back, it was revealed to me in an embarrassing fashion.
A friend from out of town came, as a surprise, to hear me preach during one of our Sunday gatherings, except I never saw him. I received a text when I was sitting on my couch watching football after church: “Dan, so sorry I missed you. I came to hear you preach but you disappeared. Maybe next time. Great talk by the way.” Little did he know that for about six months I had been asking my wife every Sunday to warm up the car and meet me around back to pick me up. I had devised a plan that after I preached, I would immediately go through a back hallway, grab my jacket, and get in the car without needing to talk to too many people. I was tired. It seemed like a harmless habit (to me), but it was a way to avoid a part of my ministry that was really weighing on me.
I’ve spent a lot of time with ministry leaders coaching, consulting, having cups of coffee. Come to find out, we all have these types of warning signs that the weight is cracking us, draining us and placing too much torque on our souls. It’s time we pay attention.
Are We Alone?
A lot of theologizing has been done on why Jesus sweat blood in the garden. One thing I know we must do is not disconnect it from that full day of washing his friends’ feet, sharing a meal with them, having them fall asleep when he needed them, and then knowing he was going to be betrayed by someone he had invested in. One of the reasons Jesus was in anguish, fully God but also fully human, was he was carrying the weight alone. Everything is heavier when we are the only ones carrying it.
I suspect this is one of the reasons why 46% of pastors under the age of 45 say they are considering quitting full-time ministry, according to recent Barna research. This is a shocking stat. So many ministry leaders are emotionally worn-out as a result of the excessive and prolonged stress of leading through a global pandemic, polarizing presidential elections and tensions around racial injustice. Never before have so many expectations been placed upon pastors to be absolutely perfect or experience severe backlash.
However, it is common for ministry leaders to undervalue or undermine their own stories of pain in leading others. There is something about the culture of ministry that keeps us from talking about it. We often don’t have time to pause. Maybe we’re afraid we’ll unravel if we do. Maybe we carry an unconscious masochism that “we’re supposed to suffer.” Maybe we use spiritual-bypassing—“God is in control” or “It will work out for God’s glory”—to avoid addressing what really hurts. Eventually the weight will catch up with you. You are a human, not a machine.
Dan Allender has pointed out that “ministry leaders become the fulcrum of people’s emotional, relational, paternal and spiritual expectations. These expectations eventually crush them.” It’s a lot to carry, isn’t it? Even with a regular Sabbath, vacations and a therapist, I found my body and soul were never really getting the recovery they needed. “Our bodies were ‘not designed for the kinds of stressors that we face today,’ said Christina Maslach, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has spent her career studying burnout.” 
When pastors are under stress, their bodies undergo changes that include making higher than normal levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and epinephrine. These chemicals assist us in the short term—they give us the energy to power through difficult situations—but over time, they start harming our bodies. If this chronic strain continues, it can cause permanent damage to our health.
Where Do We Go?
So often when we are carrying a weight, when we realize suddenly it is very heavy, we just want to drop it on the ground. The weight can be isolating, and we just want to be done with it. I’m not sure that is the best first reaction. We must begin with exploration rather than extermination. Rather than just getting rid of our pain, let’s navigate our pain.
To navigate personally, I descended downward into these questions:
• Why am I so tired?
• Where am I weary?
• What is weighing me down?
• How is God speaking to me in my pain?
What I discovered at the bottom of the well of my soul was that God had been waiting for me the whole time. This is the invitation our gentle Savior makes to us, to come, to listen, to find healing amidst our hard calling. What I felt like was a death sentence was really a moment of rebirth. I invite you to consider not going at it alone.
© 2022 Missio Alliance—Writing Collectives—All rights reserved.