How You Can Help
I want us to think about how we can help our pastors to avoid burning out. Burnout is not unique to pastors, but it seems that in the last few years (particularly with the COVID-19 pandemic) more pastors than ever are transitioning out of ministry because they are burnt out. Others who remain are tired and barely hanging on. A friend who is a pastor recently wrote this to me:
I always thought energy and optimism were my secret power—the thing that kept me from burnout. But here I am, struggling to function and on four weeks of medical leave to recover from it all. I’m not fully aware of what caused it. I think it’s just the collective toll of a thousand difficulties and disappointments.
There are a number of causes for pastoral burnout. The factors at play are deeper, broader, and more complex than just how we as congregation members relate to our pastors. Nevertheless, I do think having a congregation that is intentionally supportive of their pastor can help alleviate some of the main causes of pastoral burnout.
I want to offer four very simple suggestions that we, as congregation members, can implement to help our pastors avoid burnout.
1. Pray for him.
I find it striking that the apostle Paul—a contender for the title of Christian-Least-Likely-to-Burnout—continually craved the prayers of his congregations. He, more than anyone, knew the power of God, and so he told the Corinthians that they “must help us by prayer” (2 Cor. 1:11). Prayer for those in Christian leadership is not an optional extra.
Often, Paul asks for prayer regarding his proclamation of the gospel, namely that he would proclaim the gospel boldly (Eph. 6:18–20), clearly (Col. 4:4), and effectively (2 Thess. 3:2). This is a reminder that we can pray positively for our pastor—not just that they might endure the pressures and stresses they face but that they might diligently, boldly, and faithfully execute their ministries. However, Paul can also issue a general request to the Thessalonian church to simply “pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25).
These examples should prompt us to pray for our pastors. It doesn’t take much to imagine what we could pray for them. In many ways, the prayers we pray for them are the same as the prayers we pray for ourselves.
I think we should also tell him that we are praying for him. Paul will frequently begin his letters with reports of his prayers for the church he is writing to. You can imagine the wonderful encouragement it would have been to know that he was praying for them. The same is true for our pastor. Telling him that you are praying for him can be a wonderfully motivating and encouraging thing. One of the benefits of praying earnestly and regularly for your pastor is that you will be much less likely to grumble about or to him. You will be more likely to encourage him.
2. Encourage him.
We can help our pastor by encouraging him, and we can think about encouragement positively and negatively. All too often we reduce encouragement to a quick “Thanks for the sermon, pastor” at the door. Paul reminds the Galatians that those who have been taught should “share all good things with the one who teaches” (Gal. 6:6). In its context, the command includes material support, but it also establishes a broader principle of supplying everything the pastor needs to keep going, including encouragement. Thoughtful, intentional encouragement of your pastor is a powerful way of loving him and helping him to persevere in his role. It should be the overflow of a thankful heart, saying to the pastor what we have been praying for him.
Sadly, rather than encouragement, our hearts tend all too quickly to criticism. There is a place for pastors to be held to account. The New Testament makes that clear (1 Tim. 5:19–22), and sadly, too many pastors have been allowed to continue for too long without being challenged. However, those are (thankfully) the exceptions rather than the norm. I am talking here about the more mundane things that our pastors do that annoy us. Grumbling against our pastor or even grumbling to our pastor is ruled out by Scripture. James reminds his readers not to “grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:9). Paul tells the Philippians that they should “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:14–15). Biblically obedient Christians must not complain or grumble against their leaders. Remember that you are not unique and that the pastor is caring for a whole congregation and seeking to reach the lost. We often get frustrated that we are not being “supported” or “cared for” as if we are the only people in the church.
3. Forgive him.
In this post I am not going to consider what happens when things go really wrong—when a pastor (as, sadly, this does happen) is actually guilty of a “major” sin that needs to be reported to police and/or denominational authorities. But there are times when a pastor does the wrong thing—maybe snaps at you because he is tired or forgets to visit you when he has promised. How do we react in that situation?
Loving one another is a command that applies across our congregation and includes our pastor.
Proverbs reminds us that “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). The pressures of the job mean that pastors—who are human—behave less than perfectly. You have probably spoken with your pastor when he has been distracted or tired. Sometimes pastors are not great administrators, and it can be frustrating when an email or text message goes unanswered. The choice we face is to gossip or complain (which are ruled out by Scripture), or to lovingly speak with our pastor (which can help in certain circumstances), or to lovingly overlook the offense (which is often the best course of action).
4. Love him.
The fourth thing we can do—in a sense, this is the most basic and fundamental—is to love him. Love is one of the most basic commands in the New Testament, and yet it is so easy to overlook. The command to love is expressed in the strongest terms possible. Paul states that if I “have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2). Peter tells his readers to “love one another earnestly” (1 Peter 1:22). Loving one another is a command that applies across our congregation and includes our pastor. We are to love him. What does it mean for us to love him? Very simply, it means that we are to put his needs above our own.
What that will look like will differ in different circumstances. We are to help him love his family (if he has one). We are to be as generous as we can with pay (and trust him to give away what he does not need). We are not to be demanding. There are lots of things your pastor could do better. His preaching could be more inspiring. His pastoral visitation could be more focused. But a thankful heart that concentrates on what he is good at and how the Lord is using him will stop you from being so demanding.
Help him find rest. Particularly as we think about burnout, it is important that your pastor rests. Many pastors are so diligent and push themselves so hard that they are in danger of damaging their health. Encouraging him to take his day off and making sure you don’t make demands him of on his day off are practical ways that you can support your pastor.
Encourage your pastor to take time to study, to go to conferences or retreats, to spend time with other pastors, etc. Many pastors feel intensely lonely. They carry a number of significant pastoral issues, but it would be inappropriate for them to discuss them with anyone in the church. We need to be generous in encouraging them to seek refreshment in conferences, retreats, or catch-ups with other pastors. This is not indulgent. It is key for him to keep going and to be selfish about it. You will benefit from it.
There is more we could say—much more. These are four very simple stances that we can take towards our pastor to make sure that we are not contributing to his burnout.
Peter Orr is the author of Fight for Your Pastor.
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