Stress is the fountainhead of burnout in ministry and burnout is the unbridled result of unrest. Burnout is a term that is broad and complex. It is broad because of the amount of information that has been written about it. Burnout is complex because it manifests itself in the physical, emotional, and spiritual layers of the whole person. In The Dictionary of Pastoral Care burnout it is defined as “A syndrome, often occurring among individuals in helping professions, involving emotional and physical exhaustion, depersonalization, and a feeling of reduced personal accomplishment.” The causes of burnout are from various external and internal stressors that press upon the person causing a depletion in energy. This stress and stressors are unique in the way they display themselves in the context of pastoral ministry. Stress in healthy doses is good for motivation and completion work. It can push us to find solutions or compel us to complete goals. Healthy pastors seem to know how to manage stress without withering up and burning out. Stress is often necessary for pastors to act and accomplish their God-given tasks. However, too much stress can cause distress and the health of the leader can be compromised.
Any approach to resolving this issue must not be one-dimensional. Stress affects every system of the body; it is holistic. The goal of this post is for you to see the need to take responsibility for the self-care of your entire being. Stress affects pastors physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. Therefore, any solution for dealing with stress must address all these areas. The priority is the health of the inner life, but we must also consider that we are not merely souls devoid of minds, feelings, relationships, or a body. We need rest in every part of us and we must take responsibility for the rest we need. I will address each of these four areas with four questions and then hope to give some encouragement to each of you.
First, how is your heart? Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart for out of it flow the issues of life.” The rest which can transcend every other facet of your being is God’s Shalom. This kind of God-rest is only acquired as we spend quiet unhurried time with God in heartfelt prayer and meditation on the Word. As pastors, we feed others regularly, let us not starve ourselves as we feed God’s sheep. We need to nurture our souls daily and weekly so as to serve our people from rest and stillness. In his book, Keeping the Heart, the old puritan preacher John Flavel writes of the centrality of the keeping the heart. He wrote, “The heart of man is his worst part before it be regenerate, and the best afterwards: it is the seat of principles, and the fountain of actions. The eye of God is, and the eye of the Christian ought to be, principally fixed upon it. The greatest difficulty in conversion, is, to keep the heart with God.” (Flavel, Loci, 165) It is a good word from an old soul who knew the priority of keeping the heart.
Second, what is the stability of your emotional health? Emotional health is closely linked with burnout because it functions as an antidote for emotional fatigue. In The Journal of Religion and Health Paul E. Johnson defines emotional health. He writes, “Emotional health is a dynamic and resilient spirit, to take what comes in faith and courage, and respond to each situation creatively and responsibly.” If one is to be emotionally healthy in ministry and avoid burnout, he must cultivate emotional intelligence. In the book, Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving, authors Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie define emotional intelligence as “…the ability to proactively manage your own emotions and to appropriately respond to the emotions of others.” Proverbs 23:7a says, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he…” The pastors heart is constantly speaking to himself. The pastor who listens to this inner dialogue will know if he is right with God and men. Our thoughts influence the way we feel and how we feel influences the way we act. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap character; sow character and you reap a destiny.” These words remind us that the one whose emotional health is poor will think poorly, feel poorly, acting poorly, and end poorly. It is a downward emotional spiral that must be confronted, confessed, and reengage with the truth of God’s Word and in the context of Spirit-filled accountability.
Third, and closely connected to emotional health, how is your intimacy with those closest to you? Intimacy is a litmus test for a pastors holistic health. When intimacy is lacking isolation will prevail and sin is close behind. Pastors must work hard to nurture honest healthy relationships with both family and friends. It is my prayer that you will not approach ministry as a “lone-ranger”. Rather, do life together with others and discover the joy of being known and knowing others intimately. In their book, Preventing Ministry Failure, Michael Todd Wilson and Brad Hoffman write of intimacy. They explain that Intimacy can be defined as “any relationship where we know another fully and where we also are fully known.” Genuine biblical intimacy manifests itself in several ways. In their book, Preventing Ministry Failure, Michael Todd Wilson and Brad Hoffman write, “In God’s economy there are three primary venues for genuine biblical intimacy: with God, with others, and with a spouse.” An intimate relationship is marked by empathy and compassion. Those with whom we enter these sacred relationships know the real us that exists below the mask we wear when we are onstage in ministry. They know our hurts, our struggles, our private victories and the things at the top of our prayer list.” We need these kind of people in our lives all the time.
Fourth, do you want to serve the Lord with vigor and longevity on planet earth? Strange question isn’t it. I have witnessed many church leaders in poor health who could have experienced a better quality and quantity of kingdom work on earth, if only they would not have neglected their physical needs. I have also known pastors who could have had decades of more effective work if they could have made a few lifestyle changes. The simple practices of adequate sleep, proper nutrition, sufficient water intake, and balanced exercise can add energy and longevity to a pastors tenure on earth. We pastors must adhere to the Word of God on this matter. I Cor. 6:19-20 (NLT) says, “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, 20 for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body.” If your body is not your own, then you must not destroy it through foolish stewardship. There are too many lost souls to reach to live careless. Our tendency as evangelicals is to emphasize only the spiritual to the neglect of the physical. This is a form of Gnosticism revisited. The better approach is to view ourselves as a body and spirit, but the with the priority being on the inner life. In his book, Earthen Vessels, Matthew Lee Anderson writes, “What is to say about the physical body? More than most evangelicals seem to realize…We are apparently more comfortable talking about the body of Christ than the body we walk around in.” It is time to take your whole self seriously. You must prayerfully consider your care for the temple of the Holy Spirit that God has entrusted to you.
 Rodney J. Hunter and Nancy J. Ramsay. Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 112.
 Alan G. Palmer, “Clergy Stress, Causes and Suggested Coping Strategies.” The Churchman Journal, Vol. 112, No. 2, (1998), 163-172.
 Paul E. Johnson, “The Emotional Health of Clergy, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1970): 50-59.
 Ibid., 50-59.
 Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie. Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2013), 103.
 Michael Todd Wilson & Brad Hoffman, Preventing Ministry Failure, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2007), 35
 Matthew Lee Anderson, Earthen Vessels. (Minneapolis: Baker Publishing, 2011), 36-37.