9 Action Steps for Burned Out Pastors

Steps toward healing and recovery from pastoral burnout

Surveys say that most pastors have felt like quitting in the past 12 months. If you feel like you’re about to crack wide open, drop in your tracks, or get a Pez dispenser full of Tums to keep your stomach calm…You may be feeling as though God is angry with you, and would push you to keep going, do more, try harder… and you’re dead wrong.

Pastor burnout - 9 action steps you can take to recover and heal

Give me a chance to prove it: Check out how God responded to an exhausted prophet.

We join Elijah right after a busy season of ministry… and he’s under tremendous pressure.

1 Kings 19:2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”
3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there,
4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. 

Ever felt like that?  If that’s where you are, I want to draw some lessons out of how God responded to Elijah:

1. Get some rest.

5 Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”

Over time, physical exhaustion is guaranteed to impact your emotions, and can even throw you into depression. A few nights of staying up late to watch a movie, back to back with a few nights of poor sleep & stress… is a recipe for discouragement.  Even if you “used to be able to do that” — it’s no guarantee that you can now!

If you’re struggling with insomnia, do some research on sleep. Did you know blue-shifted light (from phones/TVs/computers) inhibits the production of melatonin, the hormone which makes you feel sleepy? Maybe your Netflix habit is behind your lack of sleep!

  • Shut off the screen before 7 at night.
  • Make your room very dark.
  • Kick the caffeine to the curb.
  • Try some essential oils.
  • If these things don’t work after a few nights, you might want to consult a health professional.

2. Eat some good food and get some more rest.

6 He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

Notice: God let him sleep again, (you’re going to need to sleep well for several nights in a row!) then fed him well.

You’re not going to make it back to the land of light and laughter by eating Oreos & Cheez-its.  When you’re bent double under the load, you’re going to need to eat and sleep well.

3. Do it again.

7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”

Notice: This is going to take more than one day (or week) of doing it right.  Sorry, but you can’t microwave your way out of this.

4. Get away and get alone.

8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

He got far away from the pressure and problems, to a place where no one was going to come looking for him. Maybe you need to:

I know — there’s too much to do. But if you are forced to quit by physical/emotional distress, then how many of those things on your list will get done?  (For more thoughts here, read Wayne Cordeiro’s excellent book Leading on Empty.)

5. Let God listen to you.

9 There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

Vent to God. Rant, rave and froth. Let there be spit on the inside of your windshield. Dump out your anger, rage and frustration. Feel free to tell him how much it stinks!

If you don’t think it’s OK to be honest with God about your doubts, questions, and frustrations, I would like to introduce you to a guy named David and a book called Psalms. Go read it.

6. Meditate on God’s person and power.

11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

Some pastors are out there shaking the earth.  But God is not always in the shaking of the earth, or the most spectacular fire.  Sometimes, God is in the little things… the quiet voice in the morning that tells you you’re His, and he’s pleased with you.

7. Let God listen to you some more.

13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

I find this remarkable. God asked the same question, and listened again. He didn’t berate Elijah. He just asked, and then listened.  Are you noticing that real healing and recovery from burnout isn’t something you can do instantly?

8. Let God give you a fresh vision.

15 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.
16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.
17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu.

Some time in your recharging process, God will begin to give you some action steps you can take.

It might be a program you could tweak, a helper you should recruit, some coaching you should get, or something in your life you should cut.

Be careful not to mix in your own “shoulds” with what God is telling you. More “I shoulds” just becomes more weight, pressure, and more unreachable expectations.

If you’re burned out as a pastor because you’re already overloaded, please understand that the voice of God is probably MORE likely to tell you to give something away, than to start something new. God didn’t put “one more program” on Elijah in this passage. In fact, he told him to give away some ministry, and to let someone else take over fighting his enemies!

The vision you get from the Lord might be to simplify, not to get more complex!

9. Remember you’re not alone — Get a coach or a sidekick!

18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel– all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”
19 So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat… Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him.

There are a lot of us out here. You’re not alone. Most of us have felt like quitting in the last 12 months. But we’re on the same side, in the same trenches.

  • Recruit some prayer support.
  • Be honest about the struggle.
  • Join a pastor’s Facebook group, mastermind group, or local fellowship.
  • Find a counselor.
  • Get a mentor or get some coaching.
  • Find a young man and share your wisdom & frustrations over coffee.

If this is helpful, share it! And tell me in the comments below which step you need to take TODAY.

(NOTE: I heard the idea for this outline first from Dr. Allan Brown at God’s Bible School and College. I have expanded it into this form, so he cannot be blamed for much of it.)

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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2 thoughts on “9 Action Steps for Burned Out Pastors

  1. I’ve seen/heard similar things from Jim Keaton and have even mentioned some of them myself. Good advice. One that might be added to the list above (though not found in your text) is to recognize that you have limits, that you just can’t get everything done, and that you MUST take care of the rest and nutrition if you’re going to carry on. We don’t like things to fall through the cracks, but it’s better than cracking ourselves and falling apart.