Saturday, September 4, 2010

Pastors Burn Out If They Do Not Delegate

There are an increasing number of pastors experiencing burn-out. The number of pastors who enter this downward emotional spiral has been growing in recent years. Bob Wells has done extensive research on the health of American clergy. In a 2002 article in Pulpit and Pew, Wells concluded that "doctrinal and theological differences aside, North American churches have in common not only the Cross and a love of Christ, but also a pastorate whose health is fast becoming cause for concern." Pastors are not as healthy as they should be. This lack of health contributes to the higher burn-out rates currently being experienced by pastors.

One of the factors that lead to burn-out is loneliness. When pastors do not feel they have anyone with whom to share their burdens, they feel isolated and alone. Loneliness can lead to depression. When pastors feel depressed, they are more vulnerable to emotional fatigue, to the practice of unhealthy habits, and to increased levels of anxiety. These factors greatly decrease pastors' effectiveness in ministry. Pastors who feel ineffective in their ministries have increased negative emotions, which in turn increase the likelihood of burn-out. Therefore, systems must be put in place to help pastors overcome feelings of depression so they can be healthier individuals and more effective in their ministries. When such systems are not in place, pastors become trapped in a downward spiral that feeds upon itself until they become emotionally paralyzed in ministry and in their personal lives.

Unfortunately, loneliness and depression are just part of the problem. The general brokenness of modern society brings additional challenges to pastors who are seeking to bring healing to their communities. H. B. London, of Focus on the Family, writes, "Today's pastors face crises unknown to any other occupational groups. Contemporary parish ministry, without anyone intending to make it so, has become an emotional and spiritual H-bomb, ready to explode any second." Loneliness, depression, a compulsion to fix society, and the internal politics of local churches combine together to make pastoral ministry a difficult calling to fulfill. Yet God has called people to this important task and the call must be answered.

Bivocational pastors, who work outside jobs in addition to serving churches, are even more likely than fully-funded pastors to experience burn-out. As bivocational pastors are taught how to build pastoral leadership teams, they will be less prone to feelings of loneliness. As bivocational pastors learn to share the burdens of ministry with an entire team, they will no longer feel as overwhelmed. Building pastoral leadership teams can help pastors avoid feeling burned out.

Building pastoral leadership teams requires a willingness to delegate some duties to others. Delegation, the lifeline many ministers must grasp to avoid burn-out, will be a challenge for some bivocational pastors to practice. The very fact that bivocational pastors are willing to work two jobs to follow the call of God demonstrates their work ethic. They are the kind of people who get the job done, even if it means they must do it themselves. But this type A personality can be as much a curse as a blessing if not channeled in healthy ways.

Delegation is not just about passing off a list of tasks to others. Delegation means giving up control and sharing leadership with others. While some pastors may fear this, delegation actually helps pastors be more effective because it helps them see the blind spots in ministry which they have missed on their own. Raising up effective pastoral leadership teams makes the entire church more effective than what any individual leader, no matter how gifted, can do on his or her own.

Delegating menial tasks may be easier to do, but for delegation to really help, pastors must also be willing to delegate some of the preaching and pastoral care duties. Because these are two of the most time-consuming and emotionally-draining aspects of ministry, a failure to delegate a portion of these duties will result in pastors still not having time to rest. Alexander Strauch has written a number of excellent books to help pastors train deacons and elders in their churches to share the load of ministry. Strauch notes that "it is a highly significant but often overlooked fact that our Lord did not appoint one man to lead His church. He personally appointed and trained twelve men." These were not twelve men who helped with menial tasks but men Jesus sent out to preach, teach, and address the needs of people. Pastors need to follow the example of Jesus and recruit help in their preaching and pastoral care efforts. As pastors learn to give away part of their ministry to others, they will have less stress. Less stress will help them avoid burn-out and stay in their ministry positions longer.

When pastors are unhealthy, they tend to change churches more frequently in an attempt to relieve stress and/or rediscover joy in ministry. But if the pastors' work habits are the real problem, then they take those problems with them to the next church and experience those same difficulties all over again. What is needed to break these unhealthy patterns is for pastors to be willing to stay longer at each church they serve. As the pastors build relationships with others in the church, those relationships serve as bulwarks against loneliness, depression, and a dangerous "I can do it all myself" attitude. As the pastors become healthier, the churches become healthier. When churches become healthier, then pastors do not feel as overwhelmed. A pattern of health for both pastors and churches emerges when pastoral longevity is increased.

Pastoral burn-out is a real issue in modern church life, but it is an issue that can be addressed. It was this issue that prompted me to write my book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church. This book focuses on helping pastors learn to train up multiple leaders so they can delegate some of their preaching and pastoral care duties to them. It is my prayer that this book will help pastors avoid burn-out and have long and happy ministries in their churches.


  1. Thanks for this. A lot of need reminders about the importance of delegation.

  2. Jay Wolf, FBC, Montgomery ALSeptember 4, 2010 at 7:22 PM

    Excellent article, Terry!!!
    Well done, my brother- you hit the BULLSEYE!

  3. Looking for practical ways to put some of the principles in this blog post into action? Purchase my book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church. The first part of the book explains why bivocational ministry is biblical, normal and missional. The second part of the book explains how to mobilize the laity to do high level ministry in a team setting with the pastor so that the church can be effective in reaching its community for Christ.
    The book is published by Crossbooks and you can buy the book directly from them at:

    The book is also available on, Barnes and and a many other online bookstores.
    If you live in Central Vermont, you can purchase a copy at the Faith Community Church in Barre, VT.

  4. Jay and Randal, thanks for the kind words.