Dear Burned-Out Pastor

Seven Steps Toward Long-Term Health

“Scotty, I understand. There was a time when the pressure I felt from church concerns was overwhelming and, unfortunately, daily. The stress was crushing — far beyond my ability to endure. I despaired of life. I assumed death wasn’t far off. The main attacks didn’t come from four-legged beasts in an arena, but two-legged ones roaming the world and church. I became so weak, and I burned within.”

I can’t overstate how much the honesty and vulnerability of “my friend” meant to me. The gift of “me too,” has been a vital part of my healing. His story gave me the needed permission to begin the process of diagnosis and care at a desperate point in my pastoral ministry. But why the quotation marks around the words “my friend”?

Some of you, no doubt, heard echoes from 2 Corinthians 1 and 11. In a most profound way, the apostle Paul became a very close friend of mine during my most disheartening, disillusioning, and despairing season of life and ministry. His second letter to the Corinthians became, and remains, a kiss from heaven and my GPS setting for gospel-sanity — an invaluable conduit of peace, healing, and hope. It’s an honor to be able to pass on his mercy and comfort to others in faith crises and heart depletion.

In 45 years of ordained ministry, I’ve never walked with as many weary leaders. So, what do you do when darkness begins to hide the lovely face, voice, and hand of Jesus? Here’s a bit of my story, and what I learned from Paul.

Severe Mercy Is Still Mercy

After experiencing eleven years of a church planter’s grandest dreams, bad dreams became more the norm, and then nightmares. Paul talked about “fighting wild beasts in Ephesus” (1 Corinthians 15:32) — gladiator imagery describing intense relational conflicts and spiritual warfare.

Since I love the ocean, I’ll use aquatic imagery. I never encountered what might be likened to a great white shark attack: a cataclysmic church blowup or full-bore assault of evil. Some of my friends have. My experience was more like an occasional moray eel chomping down on one of my limbs, and a steady stream of piranhas nibbling away at my heart, joy, peace, and sleep. The cumulative effect left me burned out, used up, and running on empty.

“Severe mercy is still mercy, and hard providence is still directed by the heart of our loving Father.”

I remember praying, “Father, ceasing to exist looks really attractive right now — heaven or no heaven. I just want to stop feeling this way. I want to stop feeling anything.” I never had “a plan,” and I never put myself in a position to “easily die.” The brevity of this article won’t allow for all the details, but thankfully, I found the help I needed. Sometimes we have to cry “Uncle” so that we can cry “Abba.” Severe mercy is still mercy, and hard providence is still directed by the heart of our loving Father.

Triage Care

Gleaning from different portions of 2 Corinthians, here’s what I learned, and the advice I now share with other weary leaders. There’s usually a need for both triage and long-term care.

1. Tell a good friend what hurts.

Don’t suffer in silence, isolation, or pride. Gather your friends, and get a proper diagnosis.

Paul gave us this important gift: “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia” (2 Corinthians 1:8). He let others know just how difficult his situation had become.

Who knows how bad you are hurting? Some of us fear being labeled “soft” or “whiny.” Some of us fear losing our jobs. Some of us are too proud to be known and seek help. Some of us are clueless about how dangerously ill we have become. I needed medical, emotional, and spiritual care. Start with your most trusted friends. My journey to health began with falling apart in front of a couple of old friends.

2. Be more honest about your pain.

Resist the temptation to minimize your suffering or discount your pain by reading Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, or by comparing your suffering to the suffering of others. The gospel makes us more human, not superhuman. Listen to Paul: “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8–9). If this sounds like your trauma, pain, and weariness speaking, take it seriously — period.

When I experienced burnout, our church was doing great. But I wasn’t aware of how much backed-up pain, emotional exhaustion, and spiritual depletion I was carrying. It’s not just our bodies, but also our hearts and minds that keep score.

3. Surrender any sense of self-sufficiency.

Take your turn on the mat, like the paralyzed man with mobile friends, and let others carry you to Jesus (Mark 2:1–5). Get over the myth and cult of self-sufficiency.

I love this. I needed this. “That was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us . . . [as you] help us by prayer” (2 Corinthians 1:9–11). No one better modeled an aversion to self-reliance, and a constant surrender to praying friends, than my spiritual father, Jack Miller. In time, I followed his example.

When in triage mode, there’s no need (or time) to start with the most gifted counselor. Who are your praying friends? Who’s in the gospel-posse you’re walking with? Get on the mat and let them carry you to Jesus. Humble yourself.

I was far better at caring for others than letting others care for me. That wasn’t nobility; it was stupidity. Self-reliance and the gospel are antithetical. Grace always runs downhill, and sometimes through unexpected means. “Our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn — fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Corinthians 7:5–6). Learn to receive comfort from whomever the Lord sends.

Long-Term Care

After my “bleeding” stopped, and I began walking again with the help of good counseling, mutual burden-bearing friendships, and the appropriate medical care, here are some of the long-term measures I put in place — disciplines and delights that remain with me today.

1. Spend more time looking at Jesus.

Spend more time than you ever have before beholding and contemplating the beauty of Jesus. Don’t just appreciate Paul’s spirituality; practice it. “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Leading up to my burnout, I replaced abiding in Jesus with working for Jesus.

“Leading up to my burnout, I replaced abiding in Jesus with working for Jesus.”

Satan’s main goal is to rob us of intimacy with Jesus. “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). Communing with Jesus and adoring him must always take precedent over the demands of a job description, people’s expectations, and the tyranny of the urgent. This conviction led me to transition out of being lead pastor at least a decade before I had originally planned. I have zero regrets.

Jesus is true, good, and beautiful. Often, the convergence of prolonged spiritual attack, relational conflicts, and mental/emotional stress first robs us of Jesus’s beauty. Then we lose our sense of his goodness. Finally, we can begin to question the truth of the gospel, and the trustworthiness of Jesus.

2. Prepare yourself for the pain of the not-yet.

Develop a greater appreciation for the “already and not yet” of life and ministry between the resurrection and return of Jesus. Consider Paul’s wisdom: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:8–10).

The ministry of the gospel, this side of life in the new heaven and new earth, will include incredible blessing, and unimaginable difficulty. If you stay in any church or ministry long enough, you will be both disappointed and disappointing. Because we enjoyed a nearly eleven-year gospel renewal when we planted Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, I was naive to assume it would never be different.

3. Receive your weaknesses.

Learn to accept and delight in your weaknesses. Don’t wait for broken-downness to start living in gospel-brokenness. We matter, but we’re not the point.

We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

I have never been more aware of my weaknesses, brokenness, and limitations. Hallelujah! I now live and minister with much less stress, even though my schedule is just as full as when I was a young church planter. Your competency is not your sufficiency.

4. Visit the home to come.

Become a curious, childlike explorer of the hope of heaven, and the fullness of the new creation we will enjoy forever when Jesus returns.

Following Paul’s example, I have never spent as much time meditating on heaven and groaning for our coming life in the new heaven and new earth. “In this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling. . . . He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. . . . If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:2, 5, 17; see also Revelation 21:1–22:6).

Nothing helped me overcome my spiritual depression, deep shame, and emotional pain of ministry more than connecting my head and heart with the glorious hope of heaven.