Twelve Ways Pastors Went from Burnout to Vision

There are few vocations that can engender burnout like the pastorate. The demands on a pastor’s time, emotions, and energy can be overwhelming. When I was a pastor, I often felt at least the symptoms of burnout.

I recently spoke with 17 pastors who had experienced burnout, or who felt they came precariously close to burnout. The good news about these pastors is that they moved out of burnout; and now they are re-engaging in exciting and visionary ministries.

So I asked them the obvious question. What did you do to reverse the dark spiral of burnout? The question was open-ended, so they could respond with as many answers as they desired. When it was all said and done, I tabulated twelve different responses from the 17 pastors. Obviously, many of them gave similar answers.

Here are the twelve responses ranked in order of frequency. Each answer has a representative quote from one of the pastors.

  1. Spent more time in prayer and the Word. “Slowly over time, I spent less and less time in the Bible and in prayer. I succumbed to the tyranny of the urgent. When I committed to reversing that pattern, my life and leadership began to renew.”
  2. Dreamed again. “When I first arrived at this church, I had great visions and excitement. But I got caught up in negativity and trivial things, and I lost my vision. But recently I asked God to restore my dream and vision for my church, and He’s already answering that prayer.”
  3. Stopped comparing. “One of the most freeing things of my ministry was to stop comparing myself to other pastors, and my church to other churches. I finally got it that God doesn’t love pastors of larger churches more than He loves me.”
  4. Developed relationships with non-Christians. “I got so busy doing church that I started neglecting engaging people in the world. Now I make certain that I’m in some type of ongoing relationship with a non-Christian.”
  5. Moved my focus from the negative to the positive. “I don’t know why I let the critics dominate my time and thoughts. When I stopped letting them control me, and when I started spending more time with positive and great people in the church, my entire emotional state improved dramatically.”
  6. Learned to have fun. “I realized that there is a difference between taking my ministry seriously and taking myself too seriously. I have learned to lighten up and laugh more. As a result, I find myself rejoicing in the Lord more.”
  7. Ended draining relationships. “There was this church member that made an appointment with me almost every week. He was so negative and so draining of my emotional energy. I knew he had his own emotional problems, but I knew I wasn’t equipped to deal with them. When I finally got the courage to end our counseling relationship and refer him to a professional, I felt like a weight had been lifted off me.”
  8. Expressed gratitude regularly. “One of the ways I dealt with my impending burnout was to commit to handwrite five letters of gratitude a week. It was amazing to see how my vision began to restore when I took the focus off me and expressed gratitude to others.”
  9. Spent more time doing things that energized me. “I tend to be a prideful person, so I don’t like to admit that I am not very good at something. Well, I’m a poor administrator, so administrative work drains me. When I finally got the courage to admit I wasn’t very good at it, I had a lay volunteer step right in and take much of the work off me. He told me that everyone knew I was a lousy administrator, and that he was thankful I finally admitted it. I am now spending time doing those things that I enjoy and give me energy.”
  10. Got in better physical shape. “In my busyness, I started eating more, exercising less, and sleeping fitfully. I stayed tired and depressed. But when I got into an exercise routine and ate better, my whole outlook changed.”
  11. Made a commitment to have a greater servant spirit. “I had trouble admitting that I had an ego problem. I always wanted things my way. God got to me and showed me that my calling in life is to serve others. It is absolutely amazing to see my leadership passion restored as I put myself last to the needs of others.”
  12. Began to pray for my community. “Burnout can be the result of looking inwardly too much. I asked God to give me a greater vision for our church’s community. Shortly after I prayed that prayer, I became burdened for the elementary school near our church. Now I’m praying for specific direction to serve the school. I know God will answer that prayer as well.”

How about you? Have you experienced burnout or near burnout in ministry? What steps did you take? Do you identify with these twelve steps taken by other pastors?


  1. David Highfield says

    I enlisted the help of a Sulpician Priest as a Spiritual Director. He was very grace-full. With his help, God renewed my call to ordained ministry and I served with enthusiasm until retirement.

  2. guy says

    Probably as important as anything in this is taking a Sabbatical. I believe the greatest contributing factor of burnout, immorality and short pastoral tenures is the failure of churches and pastors to recognize the importance of giving sabbaticals. Our church gives ALL pastors a 2-6 month Sabbatical every five years.

      • John says

        Many churches probably will never offer it and/or pastors are too afraid to ask for one. In general, too many churches just don’t get how to care for pastors in significant ways.

      • Thom Rainer says

        Guy –

        If I had a larger sample, I’m certain sabbaticals would be on the list. The tough reality though is that relatively few churches have ever offered their pastors a sabbatical.

        • Ken says

          The church I serve graciously gave me a 3 month sabbatical . I took 2 months of it and returned to discover that of the 12 deacons who recommended it to the church, 4 of them had obviously changed their minds and left the church because I accepted the sabbatical leave.

  3. says

    A couple of years ago I was dangerously close to flaming out-my church gave me a 4 week paid sabbatical. Now, because the church is unable to raise my salary ( our community is still economically challenged) I am to take a sabbatical each year as well as 3 weeks of vacation.

  4. Scott Dakin says

    this is very helpful Thom, a good checklist for my own life. I agree on the sabbatical and even the getaway – one day a month solitary place with the Lord…

  5. says

    Thanks for this very concise and practical blog. Several points spoke directly to me. I especially liked your advice about ending draining relationships. Very timely advice. Thanks. Paul

  6. Been there, doing that says

    This goes for para-church ministry CEOs as well. After two decades of change management, completing an MA concurrently with a lawsuit and organizational dysfunction, I suggested a sabbatical, but it was not seriously considered. Then I started the road to stress and anxiety attacks. Through a serious board lack of proper response to staff issues I was close to burnout and the choice became clear for me. I stepped away. Sabbaticals are critical to the health of an organization and the leader. Your list is a very good constant check list of needed reality checks and keeping oneself on track. Accountability with a peer mentor would have helped me realize the seriousness of my condition. God is good – all the time – and is seeing me through to further service. Thank You.

  7. John says

    Thanks for these very helpful comments. I am able to relate to them as well. One further one I’d add is to readjust your expectations. The demands of the ministry are beyond any man and while we should be faithful in our task using our gifts to the best of our ability ultimately there are limits. Guilt over what we haven’t been able to do can be overwhelming. Unrealistic expectations of others (our expectations of them and their expectations of us!) as well as our own unrealistic expectations of ourselves can lead to burnout.

  8. Michael Fields says

    Dear Thom,

    As a Pastor for over 20 years, I have come to the place of burnout now. I really appreciate your thoroughness and great insight to helping Pastors. Only the LORD knows how much, we, as God’s ministers need a “break”. I am coming through a “tough time” now. I guard my wife and children as much as possible, but I leave myself open to attacks. I will take your godly sound advice and implement them into my life beginning today. May the LORD protect and help each of His pastors.

  9. Ken says

    I left the ministry after 31 years. I would have preferred to turn the situation around, but I was an associate pastor, so I had little freedom to make the kinds of changes to the structure that would have made a difference. I’ve found that most of the books and articles written about pastoral burnout seem to address senior pastors, who generally have more influence over their schedules and working conditions than associates do.

      • Ken says

        Thanks for the prayers! Means a lot. Here’s the rest of the story. Though ultimately I felt I needed to resign from my last church after 19 years there, the leaders stepped up in a huge way when I opened up about my burnout . They insisted I do nothing but rest and recover until I made a decision. To take all financial pressure off of deciding whether I would come back ,they told me that the church would pay my full salary and health insurance for the rest of the year (9 months!) regardless of my decision. When I resigned, they paid for coaching/testing so I could choose my next career wisely. Two years later, I’m working as a freelance editor and writer, mostly for Christian organizations. Playing guitar on the worship team at a great church. Loving it all! Thanks again for your kind response.

  10. Greg Jordan says

    I heard junior Hill say once that every pastor will face three things if they last in the ministry, isolation, frustration and intimidation. These are so true, they act as catalyst for burnout. As Jethro told Moses, ” you cannot do this work alone, you must enlist men to help.” I have burned out by trying to handle every complaint, I have felt isolated because of trust or hurt and I have felt intimidated by by those critics who constantly wait to attack. I prayerfully sought God for guidance to get through these and still do daily. He is restoring my vision.

  11. Larry Boulton says

    Thanks, guys for the comments. I found it especially interesting as to the idea of a sabbatical, which, by the way, is recommended by our denomination once every seven years, I believe. I attend a small church plant where I’m a layman and a board member as well as the church treasurer as well as whatever needs to be done by a layman. I can’t wait for our next board meeting to plant the thought of a sabbatical so that we can start setting aside funds for this. (That’s my budgeting prowess coming through from my old career).

    • David Highfield says

      A colleague applied for and received a grant from the Lilly Foundation that provided funds for her to take a 12 week Sabbath leave. In addition to continuing her salary, the grant also included funds to pay the pastors who are providing ministry at the church during her leave! Something to consider.

  12. Kay says

    I am so thankful for such an article. It applies evenly to Pastors, Associates, Ministry Leaders and ANY ministry worker in the church. I am grateful for the reference to The Lilly Foundation. This will assist small churches and those with lower budgets to care for their pastors more effectively. I will certainly use your list to keep myself on track. We must all be mindful to care for those who lead the church. They are our blessing and it is our duty to ensure they are well cared for.

  13. Jeff Glenn says

    Thom, “bivo pastors” like me can become burn out in more than one area of ministry…like me.

  14. Greg says

    I found myself in each point. The key is realizing that you are burnt out. Too many time we believe we would be less if we admitted it. Thanks for the encouragement right when I needed it.

  15. J.A.Sena says

    My name is J.A.Sena, I am 36 years old, I´m brazilian and I live in Brazil, married with Vivian, and we have two children: (3y/o and 1 y/o). Since 2003 I am pastoring in my town. I am currently diagnosed with burnout syndrome. The first symptoms began years ago with a deep sadness after Sunday services. With the passage of time these sorrows were stretching for Mondays and the rest of the week. Then I started to suffer, moreover, shortness of breath, cardiac arrhythmias, seizures anxieties and irritations, thoughts of escape and death, disturbing dreams and attitudes of isolating people. My church gave me a sabattic year to start in 2014. Do you know a good place for me to recover?

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