Getting More Specific

Now that the foundation of the problem is laid, more specific situations that pastors regularly face can be analyzed. This section cannot be exhaustive. As aforementioned (Part 1), anything can plausibly lead to pastoral burnout. These experiences are common among pastors and can easily lead their affections away from Christ. This section will look at five common scenarios claimed to lead to burnout with minimal moral input.

Compassion Fatigue

Pastors counsel struggling people from all walks of life, visit sick and terribly ill in hospitals, and grieve with families at the end of loved one’s lives. Compassion fatigue is the emotional, cognitive, and physical consequences experienced by professionals providing direct services to survivors of trauma.[1] One state’s Department of Family and Protective Services claims “Empathy is a good trait…as long as you take care of yourself.”[2]  Which is why the term “fatigue” is used. Empathy is seen as a muscle that can be overworked and tired out. Pastors are constantly in positions where they are required to exercise empathy.

Unrepentant Sin

Biblical counselors have classically recognized the biblical correlation between depression and the extreme guilt from unrepentant sin. Jay Adams writes, “[David] believed depression was from God and considered it the punishment of God warning and leading him to repentance.”[3] Pastors living the double life have flourished in media in attempt to stain the image of the church. Pastors living in unrepentant sin are in a dangerous place; especially if they are attempting to cover it up.

Task Overload

A pastor juggles multiple responsibilities, especially if he has a family. His responsibilities outside his home most likely include end of life care, conducting funerals, counseling those in need, evangelizing, teaching two to three times a week, officiating weddings, meeting needs in the community, visiting the ill, prayer meetings, and a number of other things. Or, one task in particular, such as preaching or discipleship, can become extremely important to a pastor and he focuses the majority of his energy on it.

Opinion Overload

Seemingly everyone has a church model, an ideal sermon, and the perfect program, whether these come from within or outside of the church. Book authors, at least, are not typically in a pastor’s office convincing him to buy their particular method. Congregants, on the other hand, are in their pastor’s office. The pressure to conform and appease to all church member’s opinions is a constant struggle for pastors.


In the same vein, pastors are faced with a “numbers” society. More people, more money, more power is the crowning theme of many pastors. Even in denominations where discipleship is emphasized, the pastors are still inundated with demographics, church growth specialists, seminars, and other marketing strategies designed to make them successful. Some denominations require their pastors to send in their numbers on a regular basis.


Not all the situations above are in themselves sinful. Most of them are simply situations that pastors face. Thorns refers to how the pastor sinfully reacts, feels, and thinks in the midst of these situations.[4] Situations are not the cause of sin (nor the sin of burnout). Situations are merely the X-Ray that reveals what sin lies in the heart. This section will analyze the sinful progression the pastor takes in the five given scenarios that culminate in burnout (and often burnout crescendos to job termination).


Pastoral burnout is not usually the immediate reaction to the above situations, but the ultimate end of reactions. Sinful reactions to the situations, when not recognized and dealt with, progress toward pastoral burnout. Oftentimes congregants when questioned about their pastor’s termination respond, “He just fell into some hard times, got burned out.” Pastors typically do not wake up one morning and feel burned out and quit.

Paul Tripp marks out the progression with certain signs: he ignores clear evidence of the problem, ignores his heart issues, grows lax in devotion to ministry, does not remind himself of the gospel, ignores loved ones, views his job as a burden, distances himself from others, then questions his calling, and ultimately begins to be interested in fantasies of another life (not in the pastorate).[5] This progression all begins with ignoring blatant sinful responses, thoughts, and feelings toward given situations. If a pastor understands certain common sinful reactions to everyday situations, he can better avoid sliding down the slope into the pit of burnout.

Compassion Fatigue

When pastors are constantly faced with trauma, in the midst of their empathy, they are desiring human flourishing. Humans were not designed for trauma; it’s not how God created this world to be. A sinful progression happens when the pastor begins to desire human flourishing above Christ: he doubts God’s sovereignty over all things, he forgets the purpose of the cross in reversing the effects of the fall, and ultimately loses sight of his role in that gospel proclamation. The affective issue progresses to a cognitive issue, that culminates into a volitional issue. After doubting God and forgetting his own role, the pastor then is not motivated to empathize with others. In his doubting of God and forgetting the gospel, he has become the savior, the one with all the answers. No man can handle such a weight and the pastor begins to collapse.

Unrepentant Sin

When the pastor is in the situation of his own unrepentant sin, the internal condition and outward behaviors only get worse, ultimately leading to job termination. When not repenting of known sin, the pastor has to practice another form of self-justification (other than having Jesus justify him). As Tripp writes, “You either preach to yourself an anti-gospel of your own righteousness, power, and wisdom, or you preach yourself the true gospel of deep spiritual need and sufficient grace.”[6] This self-justification leads to an idolatry of self, which can turn into sinful reactions with others, and sinful counseling of others. For example, if a congregant wrongs this pastor, then the pastor will respond in anger or revenge. If someone attempts to counsel this pastor toward repentance, he will tend to ignore counsel that takes away his newfound self-justification. Once congregants realize how their pastor tends to outburst in anger and stubbornly refuses counsel, typically they will seek his termination. The pastor himself feels spent constantly trying to defend and justify himself rather than trusting in grace. This affection for his unrepentant sin is greater than his affection for Christ. In turn, his affection for unrepentant sin leads to anti-gospel thoughts, which ends with job-termination-behaviors.

Task Overload

Having many different responsibilities can lead to burnout when the pastor desires any responsibility or responsibilities above Christ. This affective issue leads to a cognitive issue: the pastor believes his identity is wrapped in his accomplishments. He begins to believe he alone accomplishes his responsibilities. He believes God’s will for his life cannot be perfect since he cannot accomplish all of his God-given responsibilities. When he fails, or feels incapable, since his trust is not placed in Christ but himself, he has nowhere to turn but depression. This is where the cognitive issue turns volitional. The pastor begins to feel unmotivated and lazy, or focuses only on one particular responsibility typically in the public eye (becoming unbalanced). These “mis-prioritizations” and/or lethargy culminate in termination.

Opinion Overload

When the pastor puts his love for people’s opinions over his love for Christ, another progression arises culminating in burnout. Paul puts the question quite bluntly in Galatians 1:10, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” By attempting to please men rather than God, the pastor, by practice, announces Christ is not sufficient to be the savior then he unsuccessfully attempts to take Christ’s place. This puts the pastor unnecessarily in a failure mentality. Everyone’s diversity of opinions can hardly ever be successfully met. This incessant ocean of failure seems to have no hope as the pastor enters a state of burnout.


Kent Hughes recalls his progression well into desiring success above Christ in his book Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome.[7] He begins from his salvation and calling to be a pastor having the feeling that God was going to do great things through him.[8] He did everything “right,” but after several years of trying, his church attendance stagnated.[9] He found himself believing that “God has called me to do something he hasn’t given me the gifts to accomplish. Therefore, God is not good.”[10] This affection for ill-defined success leads pastors to believe God is not good. This unfaithfulness turns any well-meaning pastor into an unmotivated, passionless soul drifting in the midst of pastoral burnout.

Cross and Fruit

Again, the situations above, save “unrepented sin,” are not sin. Christ himself, the supreme minister and head shepherd, was placed in most of these situations as well. How he responded is our example to follow. This section will examine the biblical goal in the given situations and provide diagnostic questions for the pastors in these situations.

Prescriptive and Descriptive

How Christ responds in situations can be prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive refers to actions, affections, and beliefs people are commanded to do in the same way. Descriptive refers to things that Christ and he alone as human can do. For example, Jesus calling people to repent is prescriptive, we are also to repent and call people to that same repentance. On the other hand, Jesus excepting Thomas’s proclamation of him being “My Lord and my God” is descriptive. Pastors must not command their congregants to call them “God.” This distinction is important when examining the following examples.

Compassion Fatigue

Jesus is full of compassion.[11] He is certainly the exact imprint (Heb. 1:3) of the Father’s compassion. Christians are commanded thusly, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts…” (Col. 3:12). Jesus desires humans to flourish. He is noticeably upset at Lazarus’s death (John 11:35). He is constantly healing others (e.g. Matt. 4:23).  In the face of on-going human trauma (i.e. demon possession, death, sickness, massacres), Christ never takes a sabbatical or reads a self-help book. What was his secret? After an all-night healing session, he wakes up and prays (Mark 1:32-35). When his disciples find him, he tells them part of his purpose: preaching (Mark 1:38). Christ desires human flourishing, but he also understands the problem is not just physical. Human flourishing is denied by humans affectively, cognitively, and volitionally. All four Gospels are a road to the cross because Christ knew the denier to human flourishing was sin.

Pastors are fatigued with compassion when they are with Christ in his healing ministry, but do not follow him to the cross. Pastors desiring Christ more than human flourishing bring traumatized people more than healing, they bring the healer. Pastors help the sufferer realize the root of their trauma is sin and the victory over their trauma is the resurrection. Desiring human flourishing and being compassionate are positive qualities when Christ is priority. Does the pastor believe God is good in the midst of trauma? Does the pastor by himself try to meet all the traumatized person’s needs or does he direct the person to Christ? When the pastor is feeling tired of dealing with trauma what does he desire more that Christ: his own comfort or things to just be ‘right’ (denying God his goodness and right to define ‘right’)?

Christ is compassionate in the midst of suffering people. He does not garner “compassion fatigue” because he desires God most, knows the true cause of suffering and right definition of human flourishing (being made into Christ’s image rather than merely healthy and wealthy), and goes to the cross to answer the problem. In the same way pastors must desire God more than human flourishing, understand the cause of trauma and the true definition of human flourishing (Christlikeness), and point to Christ’s death, burial and resurrection as the resolution.

Unrepentant Sin

Christ’s example is sinless (Heb. 4:15). Nevertheless, his command is clear: “repent and believe the gospel” (Mk. 1:15). A pastor in unrepentant sin, though he may find himself in a condition of burnout, may also find himself in the worse place of hell. The unrepentance can be a thorn[12] of an unregenerate life. In which case, the pastor needs to examine himself (2 Cor. 13:5). The book of 1 John is written so that a man who believes “can know that he has eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:13). Repentance involves a whole confession (1 Jn. 1:9), remorse (2 Cor 7:10), and renewal (Col. 3:10). Repentance involves identifying the sinful practice, admitting to God wholly (examining heart motivation, sinful desires, wrong beliefs), and understanding the weight and consequences of that sin. Then, filling the wrong action that was being done with the correct action that Christ commands be done.[13] He should ask himself the following questions. Is the pastor aware of ongoing sin and willfully not repenting? Does he desire to repent? Is he willing to examine himself?  What sin is he committing? What is the righteous action to replace the sinful one?

Task Overload

God gives humans responsibility. Even before the fall, Adam and Eve had God-given responsibility. Life without God-given responsibility tends toward unsatisfactory insignificance. Life with God-given responsibility but without the Giver tends towards unsatisfactory inefficacy. God created humans to be interdependent on each other and dependent on him. Christ felt the weight of God-given responsibility in the Garden of Gethsemane. Christ had a desire to allow the hour of his death to pass from him (Mark 14:35). This desire is not sinful. It would have been sinful if his desire to avoid death was greater than his desire to follow God’s will[14]. Instead Christ prayed, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

In the same way, the pastor’s desires to accomplish or not accomplish his tasks are not always sinful in and of themselves. However, these desires can become sinful when they outweigh his desire for Christ. The pastor must put his desire to accomplish Christ’s will first. Is the pastor focusing on a certain task too much? Is the pastor neglecting a certain task? Are all the tasks being performed within God’s will and necessary? Where there is lack of desire to do a task is he still submitting to God’s will?

Opinion Overload

Opinions about Christ were overwhelming. Christ once asked “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Mt. 16:13). Then he pointed it directly to the disciples from whence came Peter’s famous confession. The Savior dealt with mass opinion in John 6. The people wanted to make him king and overthrow the Roman rule. That’s when Jesus made the famous announcement, “unless you eat of my flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Afterwards, many disciples stopped following him (John 6:66).

Jesus faces many opinions on how he should do things and who he was. Through all of those he listened, dialogued and graciously taught. The same has to be so with the pastor. The foundation rests as the Word of God which is able to equip us for every good work (2 Tim 3:17). Is the pastor quick to ignore other people’s opinions or quick to listen? Does he take the time to examine those opinions in the light of God or does he quickly try to appease the opinionated? Does he think more highly of Christ’s opinions than man’s?


Babylon and Christ define success in diametrically apposed ways. The world defines success by pleasure (Rev. 18:3), power (v. 9), and prosperity (v.11). Christ defines success as overcoming those temptations and dwelling with God forever (Rev. 21:7). Success is good, and the pastor should desire to be successful, but he must have the correct definition of success. Success in the eyes of Christ is faithfulness.[15] Do pastors remain faithful to Christ? Christ never scolded the churches in Revelation 2-3 about the number of congregants or the amount of money or their power (civilly) to influence the culture. But rather he opposed “abandoned love” (Rev. 2:4), “teaching of Balaam” (2:14), “tolerate that woman Jezebel” (2:20), “you are dead” (3:1), “you are lukewarm” (3:16).

The pastor must seek to be successful in faithfulness to Christ and desiring him most. Does the pastor do things to draw in a crowd or because he seeks to be faithful? What steps does the pastor take to be faithful? What does the pastor exalt in his sermons? Self or Christ?


Pastors have no easy task. Sin is waiting at the door and its desire is to rule them (Gen. 4:7). Burnout is often used euphemistically to avoid calling it what it really is: sin. Burnout is ultimately desiring something other than Christ. This is a form of idolatry. Rooting out this sin is a long labor of gospel love. A pastor feeling hopeless, or in the midst of burnout, or wanting to avoid burnout must examine his scenario. What situation is he in that leads him to feel hopeless? How does he respond sinfully in that situation? And most importantly, how did Christ respond in that scenario? This turns scenarios that usually cause burnout into scenarios that spur sanctification. Admitting to burnout is calling Christ a liar (1 Cor. 10:13). Christ in his wisdom knows how much his shepherds can handle, he will not give them more.

[1] MaryDale Salston and Charles R. Figley, “Secondary Traumatic Stress: Effects of Working with Survivors of Criminal Victimization,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 16, no. 2 (April 1, 2003): 167-74, 167.

[2] Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, “Trauma Informed Care” (lecture, Online, Tyler, TX, October 28, 2017),

[3] Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel: Introduction to Nouthetic Counseling, The Jay Adams Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Ministry Resources Library, 1986, 1970), 116. Cf. also John G. Kruis, Quick Scripture Reference for Counseling (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 48.

[4] Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change, 2nd ed. (Greensboro, N.C.: New Growth Press, 2008), 92.

[5] Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 32-39.

[6] Ibid. 21.

[7] Kent Hughes and Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 13-19.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Ibid., 23.

[11] Mt. 9:36, 14:14, 15:32; Mk 6:34, 8:2, 9:22; Lk. 7:13, 10:33, 15:20; Ja. 5:11.

[12] Thorn, here, as opposite of fruit. Fruit being a positive outward behavior reflective of an inward reality. A thorn is a sinful outward behavior based on an inward reality (in this case the thorn, unrepentance, is an outward behavior reflective of the fact that the individual is unregenerate”).

[13] Stuart Scott in his book The Exemplary Husband has a helpful explanation that true repentance does not take place without working to renew the mind with scripture and replacing sinful actions with righteous ones. Merely stopping sin is not full repentance, but the believe must stop sin and replace it with the right action. Cf. Stuart Scott, The Exemplary Husband: a Biblical Perspective, rev. ed. (Bemidji, MN: Focus Pub., 2002), 29ff.

[14] “God’s will” is a term thrown around a lot and can carry different meanings. Here, God’s will is referring specifically what he has called Christian pastors to do. If the pastor is married, it is also referring to his responsibilities as a husband. Oftentimes, pastors neglect one aspect of God’s will for there lives (e.g. being a husband/father) in order to accomplish another aspect of his will (being a pastor). This behavior is a result of believing God’s will is not perfect. And from his desire to perform a particular responsibility over his desire for Christ. Cf. John MacArthur, Found: God’s Will, 3rd ed. (Colorado Springs, Colorado: David C. Cook, 2012).

[15] Cf. Kent Hughes and Barbara Hughes, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 35. Hughes goes on to define success in 10 more chapters, but all these other characteristics of success are rooted in faithfulness.