Roughly 1 out of 5 men who left the pastorate before age 65 listed burnout as the reason.[1] But what is burnout? How can it remove approximately one-fifth of pastors from the American pastorate? Leading psychologists define job burnout as, “a psychological syndrome that involves a prolonged response to stressors in the workplace.”[2] Three main stressors rise to the forefront: overworking, nonchalance towards job significance (i.e. underappreciation from others), and the feeling of inefficacy.[3]

One of the major difficulties of the above definition of “burnout” is the limited range of causation. Pastors that were interviewed listed reasons such as unbalanced time management, Satan, and marriage and family issues.[4] Plausibly anything can lead a person to burnout. This infinite amount of causation or “stressors”, in turn, multiplies the amount of “responses” to those stressors. Another major flaw in the above definition is the lack of moral recognition in the term “prolonged response.” Everyone responds to stressors. A lot of the time, people respond the same way to the same stressors (i.e. prolonged). So, defining burnout as a condition involving a “prolonged response” is insufficient. This definition begs the question what kind of prolonged response?

“Burnout” carries a negative connotation. Being in the state of burnout is not good. This is the reason psychologies address the issue of burnout. Burnout is better defined as prolonged negative responses to stressors. This term is wisely avoided by secular authors because the definition would have to turn epistemological; not many psychologists enjoy diving there.

“Negative” still caries foundational ambiguity. Why are these responses to stressors wrong? What standard do these responses violate? Certain questions can help identify what standard is broken. What is the greatest good? What makes life valuable? From a non-Theist perspective, one of the most valuable things a human can do is contribute to society. A decrease in productivity makes the wrong responses to stressors negative. However, is contribution a means or an end? People typically use contribution as a means to acquire power or notoriety or money or pleasure. Thus, wrong responses to stressors are negative because the person is now getting less cash, honor, pleasure, and authority (or preventing their superior from having them). A psychologist would then have to argue that more of those four things are positives.[5]

Ultimately these responses to stressors are not merely negative, they are sin: they violate God’s character. Pastoral burnout is a form of depression experienced by a pastor understanding his pastoral role marked with a heart treasuring sin, a particular pastoral task, human flourishing, people’s opinions, or worldly success above Christ. This affective issue effects the pastor cognitively and volitionally as well. The category “depression” is not the major depressive disorder which requires the nine different symptoms over a period of two weeks to diagnose.[6] Rather, depression here is an incessant turmoil experienced by a person cognitively, affectively, and volitionally with no apparent resolution.

A pastor identifies burnout by either preventively running self-diagnostics or identifying treasures behind sinful behaviors already present. If the burnout is already present, he can resolve it by replacing the sinful treasures, behaviors, or thoughts, with the treasures, behaviors, and thoughts God desires him to have revealed by his Word. This thesis will be established by analyzing secular scholarship regarding burnout, incorporating what current pastors are saying about the issue, and walking through the biblical counseling method developed in Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp’s book How People Change.[7]


Steve woke up one morning to his alarm clock unmotivated to get out of bed. He felt hopeless as he has felt the past few mornings. When he finally walked into his office, he was greeted by his secretary who made a remark about his tardiness. Annoyed, he closed his office door and sat at his desk. He just finished a sermon series the day before, and it seemed to be a flop. He browsed through the internet to find a new series that would really bring in the crowds. As soon as one caught his eye, the phone rang. It was his wife, informing him that his son was having trouble at school. He slammed the phone down after his wife finished nagging him to spend more time with his son. “I don’t have time for this!” he announced to himself.

As soon as he opened the door to go meet with the school principal, that deacon was out waiting for him. That deacon always thinks he knows how the church should be run. The deacon who is always waiting in line to criticize the pastor’s sermons. “Oh great! What do you want, John?” Steve slipped out.

Laying the Foundation

Stressors in the pastorate are ever present and numerous. Going on a seek and destroy mission for stressors cannot prevent burnout; however, because anything can lead to burnout if it is placed above Christ. Steve, in the story above, wants a good sermon. Good sermons are not inherently sinful; however, allowing a good sermon to rule the heart rather than allowing Jesus to rule the heart is sinful. Self-help books, adult coloring books, and other such things have inundated the Christian book store shelves in order to be “de-stressors.” Are these de-stressors sin? Is coloring or some other “mindless” activity sin? No. But even activities or books designed to combat stressors can lead to burnout if they are placed in priority over Christ. As Paul David Tripp says, “Whatever rules the heart will exercise an inescapable influence over the person’s life and behavior.”[8] People typically identify stressors easily because of their unpalatable nature. Unpleasant experiences are readily identifiable and the interpreting process begins. In other words, people usually question, “Why don’t I enjoy this experience?” The interpreting process typically does not occur so quickly with pleasant experiences. People sitting in a movie theater or on a Ferris wheel typically are not questioning, “Why am I enjoying this so much?” Rather, they are going along with the ride. John Flavel writes, “Prosperous providences are for the most part a dangerous state to the soul.”[9]

Pastors cannot simply pursue “stressors” to solve their problem with burnout. Stressors are not the problem. Psychologists attempting to resolve issues with burnout focusing on stressors have tried to change two things to resolve the problem: the individual and the work environment.[10] Though their research has garnered more accomplishment with trying to change the organization, both attempts of change have not brought much success.[11] However, “The Bible keeps the focus on us…we [wrongly] maintain that changes in situation, location, and relationship would allow us to respond differently.”[12] Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp explain that people’s response to their situations exegete their hearts more than their situation.[13] In other words, behaviors are not determined by environments or relationships, but by what the heart desires. This further moves the pastor away from the secular definition of job burnout. Stressors do need to be noted, yes, but not in priority over any other situation or “stimuli” under which the pastor acts contrary to the will of God.

Check out part 2

[1] North American Mission Board and Richard Dockins, Pastoral Protection Research Study (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Research, 2015), 10-11, Study included 734 pastors from 4 major protestant denominations.

[2] Maslach, Christina, Wilmar B. Schaufeli, and Michael P. Leiter. “Job Burnout.” Annual Review of Psychology 52, no. 1 (October 2003). 189.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bart Barber, John Hawkins, John Lehenbauer, interview emailed to author, Warner Robins, GA, September 3, 2018.

[5] The intention here is to show the ultimately futility in attempting to understand man without God. Trying to arrive at a definition of burnout without making moral assessments provides no motivation for the counselee to move forward in behavior change. Furthermore, arriving at a definition with the wrong moral assessments can induce behavior for poor motivations. Ancient philosophers attempted to arrive at the greatest good. People today dream, goal set, and behave in certain ways to attain what they have established as their greatest good. Sadly, secularizing this society has secularized the summum bonum. The pastor seeking to resolve burnout cannot do so if his greatest goal is to have anything other than conformity to Jesus Christ. Peter Kreeft narrates a great short chapter elaborating the importance of the greatest good. Cf. Peter Kreeft, The Best Things in Life: a Contemporary Socrates Looks at Power, Pleasure, Truth, and the Good Life (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 64-79.

[6] Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

[7] The heart of this method incorporates four main images: heat (the situation), thorns (the negative reaction/thought), cross (What Christ does/commands in that situation), and fruit (repentance and faith). Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change, 2nd ed. (Greensboro, N.C.: New Growth Press, 2008) 92-93.

[8] Paul David Tripp, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change, Resources for Changing Lives (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 2002), 68.

[9] John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006, 1963), 135.

[10] Maslach, Christina, Wilmar B. Schaufeli, and Michael P. Leiter. “Job Burnout.” Annual Review of Psychology 52, no. 1 (October 2003). 419.

[11] Ibid. 419-20.

[12] Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change, 2nd ed. (Greensboro, N.C.: New Growth Press, 2008) 113.

[13] Ibid.