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FIRST-PERSON: Fatigue can be fatal

AMARILLO, Texas (BP) – Leadership is a high-stress calling. There are no two ways about it. Pastors have all the stresses of any leader with the added weight of spiritual burdens. The hazards of the job include physical, mental, emotional, relational and spiritual fatigue. Many pastors walk around burned out without even realizing it, having become so accustomed to perpetual exhaustion that they do not even notice it anymore. It often takes a physical or mental breakdown before pastors realize how tired they are. Sometimes pastors do not realize how susceptible to sin they are in this fatigued state until they make a life-altering decision to give in to one temptation or another in a moment of exhausted vulnerability. We often do not realize what the weight of ministry has done to our souls until it’s too late.

Few pastors take care of their own souls in the midst of taking care of the flock. Many lack disciplined rhythms of spiritual, relational and physical health. The busyness of doing the Lord’s work can sometimes crowd out the intentionality of being in the Lord’s presence. Most pastors identify with Martha much more than we do Mary.

Some of the fatigue comes from the inescapable responsibilities of pastoral ministry. Sermon preparation, for instance, is a round-the-clock responsibility. I have jokingly said that preaching is in some ways like pregnancy – you give birth to the sermon on Sunday morning and then find out you are pregnant again on Monday morning! There is no real way to leave this work at the office. I carry the sermon around in my mind and heart all week long, at all times of the day and night. And that’s just sermon prep! The constant needs of the people for counseling, weddings, funerals, hospital visits, the need to lead the church staff well, coordinate with church committees, work with church deacons, fulfill responsibilities to the community and the denomination, can all be overwhelming and never-ending. There has never been a time in my ministry when I have laid my head down on the pillow at the end of the day and thought, “I finished everything that I needed to do today.” There is always more to do. It is exhausting, and there is no way of getting around it.

Some of the fatigue associated with ministry is what ministry does to us, but some of it we do to ourselves through sinful action or perhaps sinful inaction. An unwillingness to be disciplined physically or spiritually often leads to spiritual burnout that is no one’s fault but the pastor’s. Some pastors have a “hero complex” where they will not take the time off that the church offers for them to replenish their own souls and invest much needed away time with their families. Failing to observe Sabbath rest is as much a sin as failing to observe the commandments not to commit adultery or murder. A failure to rest is its own type of unfaithfulness, but the mistress is work. It is its own type of murder, where the pastor is killing himself to work. He is also killing his own joy and the joy of his family. John McCallum describes this experience well:

I never had a complete breakdown…but I often carried around a low-level depression. I often did my work without enjoying either the work, the people, or God in the process. I do not think the people I have served picked up on that very much. I wore the mask pretty well. In retrospect, however, I realize that in my weariest seasons I deprived the church, my family, myself, and the Lord of my best ministry and my deepest joy. I was serving Jesus as if he was a slave-master rather than a shepherd, as if he was more Pharaoh than friend.[1]

Friends, this is more common than most church members will ever know. Fatigue is often a gateway drug that weakens the pastor’s defenses against other sin. Fatigue may reflect sinful habits that don’t reflect the character of Christ who “often withdrew to deserted places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Jesus modeled a rhythm of work and rest that pastors should, but often do not, imitate.

Fatigue can be fatal. Perhaps the best gift you can give to your family, your church, and your own soul is to accept Jesus’ invitation: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Consider taking a sabbatical. Prioritize a weekly Sabbath. Run to Jesus for rest. Today, quite possibly the most spiritual thing you can do is take a nap.

Andrew Hébert is the lead pastor of Paramount Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas. This article is an adapted excerpt from Shepherding Like Jesus: Returning to the Wild Idea that Character Matters in Ministry.

[1]  John McCallum, The 23rd Pastor: Pastoring in the Spirit of Our Shepherd Lord (Printed by author, 2018), 49-50.