Staying alive: Defusing the emotional time bomb in pastoral work

“If I’m called to ministry, then I’m supposed to be full-on, over-the-edge, not only in my commitment to the Lord, but also in my work patterns.”

By Ronald E. Keener

The e-mail came from an executive pastor of a large church. He was declining to accept an invitation to be a blogger on a national website. He shared that in his original position description he agreed to a 40-hour a week schedule and that he’d also work outside the church.

His compensation with the church was set, he said, at what his family needed to make ends meet.

“That was the way things were for the first year and a half,” he says. Two years ago matters changed. “I was asked to take on an $8 million facilities expansion at our church and did this on top of my business manager duties.”

That created a 60 to 80-hour work week and he had to forgo nearly all his outside employment during that time. He recounts that with the current economic downturn the church hasn’t been able to do even a minimal cost of living increase over the last two or more years. But the church found itself with the first shortfall to expected giving in 35 years.

“While the shortfall was much less than most churches are facing, it required taking some selective staff actions and I personally took a 25 percent reduction,” he shares. “So I find myself with a personal mountain to climb to make ends meet and keep me in ministry.

“I’ve also been diagnosed with severe physical and mental exhaustion resulting from the last two years, and have to be very careful with what I take on right now.

“There is no blame or animosity in me for any of this” he says of his church, in explaining his inability to take on the blogging role for the outside group.

He closed in asking for prayer, while stating “I know full well that my situation is not unique and that, in fact, there are many facing far more challenging circumstances in ministry.”

Ministry is challenging and difficult work that takes it toll on the pastor, his family and often the congregation too. This individual’s story sets the tone for an interview Church Executive sought out on pastoral stress and burnout. Daniel Spaite is a physician and tenured professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, AZ, and the son of a retired senior pastor. He authored a book, Time Bomb in the Church: Defusing Pastoral Burnout that was published in 1999 by Beacon Hills Press. Dr. Spaite responded to this magazine’s questions:

You write that your dad’s “call from God was not a call to burnout but to deliver ‘reasonable service.’” What do you mean by that?

There is a remarkably pervasive concept in ministry that “if I’m called to ministry, then I’m supposed to be full-on, over-the-edge, not only in my commitment to the Lord, but also in my work patterns.”In my opinion, in the church for generations, we’ve looked on pastoral overwork and called it “dedication.” We’ve looked at pastoral imbalance and called it “commitment.”

When the pastor overworks, the congregation applauds. After working with thousands of pastors over the last 15 years, I’ve found that the typical pastor feels guilty when they truly protect Sabbath and balance in their life and the typical congregation encourages them to feel this way.

Amazingly, many have shared with me over the years that, “I’ve been working like a maniac for years, and I still feel guilty that I haven’t done enough.” From a physician’s perspective, I believe the church has set up a pathological expectation and many pastors don’t have the insight to recognize it as an unhealthy “yoke.” That clearly does not come from God.

Since the book was published 11 years ago, is there later information or stats on the impact of stress or poor health for pastors leaving the ministry? Is anything more known or clear about the impact of stress than was known then?

Studies continue to confirm a high rate of health-related issues in ministry. This is particularly true if one considers the incidence of “ill-health” and not just “diagnosed disease.” For example, professional “drop-out” rates are exceptionally high when compared to other professionals with similar “corporate” responsibilities.

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One study revealed a dropout rate of one-third in a seven-year period. This is not surprising when survey studies have shown that the number of pastors who have considered leaving the ministry within the last three months is between 10 and 25 percent whenever this is studied. There are also high rates of response when pastors are surveyed for symptoms and signs of depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts.

What is the impact on people from, as you write, “exhaustion, disillusionment and eventually physical or emotional burnout”?

There are many ways this issue impacts pastors and families. However, one complication that’s particularly extreme in ministry is when a pastor experiences “emotional” or “psychological” symptoms, these are often assumed to be spiritual issues. Thus, if a pastor is depressed due to exhaustion, this may be interpreted as them being “unfit to pastor.”

Ironically, the grace offered in almost all other professional settings is often missing from the church when it comes to our shepherds. Because of this, many pastors will hide depression, anxiety and other emotional symptoms because they don’t want to hear the dreaded words, “I wonder what’s wrong with the pastor?” This often keeps them from getting the help that they need at an early enough point to be helpful. Tragically, because of this unfortunate pattern, help may be delayed until after a “break” and then may require long, or permanent, absence from ministry.

You write, “How many, at the brink of seeing great revival for which they may have been praying for years, miss the spiritual renewal because of debilitating diseases associated with overwork?” This seems like the central point of the book?

Over the years I have literally had hundreds of pastors tell me, “I wish I had heard these biblical and scientific concepts years ago.” The unintentional encouragement for our spiritual leaders to work in the flesh – in their own strength – is nearly universal in the American church. Because of this, the inevitable damage being done to the body, mind, and spirit by the relentless, uninterrupted, imbalanced pastoral lifestyle accumulates over the years.

So I hear testimony after testimony of pastors who missed the benefit of seeing the harvest from their work because they have had to leave the ministry due to emotional, physical or spiritual complications.

You note that we may not feel the stress in our lives: “Just because you do not perceive stress does not mean that stress is absent.” So how do we know what to do?

There’s an amazing neurohormonal system in the body called the endorphin system. Endorphins have a remarkable ability to decrease the physical and emotional symptoms related to stress. They function in the same way that the opiate narcotics, like morphine, work. This system was created by God to allow short bursts of these powerful pain-relievers to be available for stressful events (like childbirth or helping to rescue someone, even when we’re injured our self).

However, if a person lives with relentless, uninterrupted responsibility, without creating pause in their work by taking true Sabbath, they do damage to their body that they don’t feel because their high endorphin levels prevent them from being aware.

One of the physical purposes of Sabbath is to re-set the endorphin system so that we can feel the stressors in our lives. However, if this re-set doesn’t occur, then we do bodily damage without being aware of it because we are misusing – in fact addicted to – our own endorphins. So, one great purpose of Sabbath is to allow us to return to an awareness of the stressors in our lives. This allows the leader to be aware of the threats to one’s health, the family, and the congregation because they aren’t “intoxicated” by their endorphins.

What’s a reasonable amount of stress and pressure?

A lot. The fact that God has called you to be a leader in the battle for the souls of humanity means that you are in a war. Thus, the answer to stress in life is not to remove it. In fact, this is impossible to do in ministry anyway: The Enemy and your congregation will always ensure that stress is there.

The answer is to have reliable, intentional, cyclical rest built into your normal pattern. This is so important to God that He modeled it himself on the seventh day of creation, even though He didn’t need it. Failure to obey the natural, biblical rest patterns will have consequences. When you obey God’s sabbath cycles by faith, He creates an amazing resiliency in your life.

You talk about “chronic stress.” What is that exactly?

There is one sense in which we will always have “chronic stress.” However, when stress is not interrupted by Sabbath, this is when the physical and mental health issues kick in (peptic ulcer disease, gastro-esophageal reflux, cold sores, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, etc.) The answer to chronic stress is weekly Sabbath. This is not complicated. Our problem is we are tyrannized by our own self-importance, our “messiah complex” and our frantic sense that we must keep working. After all, it’s “for the Kingdom.

What is the connection between stress and exhaustion? When our lives have “short fuses,” what lights the fuse?

When uninterrupted stress is ongoing, the endorphins prevent us from feeling the impact of the stress. However, there comes a point where there is a deep exhaustion that accumulates, and our overworked adrenal glands can no longer produce enough adrenaline to keep going. When this happens, a person often “hits the wall.”

It may be emotional, physical, and/or spiritual. When this happens the person is forced to interrupt the stress. Hitting the wall is God’s “severe mercy.” He loves us so much that He won’t allow us to destroy ourselves with our pathological imbalance or our self-deception that everything important in our ministry rises or falls on us. Unfortunately, sometimes the wall is so significant that the pastor is never restored to the work of ministry.

However, no one, no matter how lofty their motives and reasons for overwork, ever gets around God’s natural laws. This is the way He made the Universe — so the “land” will get its rest. We don’t have to give the land its rest, but if we don’t then God will.

So how does a pastor take control of his life and health? How does he realign his ministry perspective?

This isn’t mysterious or complicated or impressive, but it is attainable for every pastor. The answer is balance. Here are the specifics:

•  Be meticulous about 24 continuous hours away from ministry responsibilities each week.

•  A minimum of three one-hour cardiovascular workouts per week. (You will never have time for this; get over it and do it. God will multiply your work time because you stopped working for this.)

•  Minimize fat and cholesterol intake, maximize fiber intake, and minimize sweets.

Be ready for others to say that you’re being lazy. It’s OK, obedience always costs. If they throw you out, God has a greater plan.



“I am totally overwhelmed,” he said, putting another bite of salad in his mouth. “I have a hundred e-mails waiting for me at the office, and by the time I get back, there will be 20 more. I spend hours returning calls and emails. I don’t know how to manage it.”

My lead pastor and I were out for our weekly lunch meeting where we check in with each other, talk about what’s on the horizon for our church, and just spend time together. This problem quickly bubbled to the surface. He was feeling stressed, overwhelmed and completely weighed down with a seemingly insurmountable pile of correspondence, sermon prep and pastoral responsibilities. We had to make some changes — and fast.

In some way, the situation you find yourself in may be very similar to ours. Every person and situation is unique. There’s no magic formula to slap on this problem that is guaranteed to work. But good advice from a number of advisors from around the country. Here’s what I’ve been learning from others:

Have the conversation. Does your lead pastor even recognize the problem? If not, then there’s not much you can do because if he has not fully embraced the toll it’s taking on his health, as well as the health of the church, then any strides you try to implement will quickly be thwarted. So talk through this problem in such a way that he is ready to move forward with making key changes.

Leverage the administrative assistant. Use the lead pastor’s administrative assistant as more of a gatekeeper. Ultimately, this really depends on the DNA of the organization. What “feels” corporate in my church may feel completely natural in yours, so you have to determine where you land on this spectrum. It could be as simple as fielding phone calls before they go to the lead pastor or as complex as scheduling appointments, receiving and forwarding emails, or even handling initial correspondences. What this can do, however, is empower him to say “I’d love to get together, so please contact my admin who will schedule some time with you.” If it’s really important, they’ll make the contact and wait; if not, then they’ll save everyone time or move on to a more appropriate pastor or leader.

Share upfront leadership. Get other pastors or leaders up in front of the church. Have them teach, make announcements, or do other things in the worship gatherings. Make sure others are included on major communications or all-church meetings. Work diligently on transferring leadership to several people so that the congregation is familiar with many faces to turn to — not just the one. This will make it easier for people to see that they are led and shepherded by a group of pastors and leaders, and turn to the person who knows them the best, not just the person they see the most on the platform.

Learn to let go. In order to share the leadership load, the lead pastor must be able to learn how to let go of things. This is foundational! If he cannot grow in this, none of the other steps, no matter how basic, will work. He will suffer, the church will suffer, and most importantly, God’s Kingdom will suffer. Help the lead pastor think through God’s specific and unique call on his life. What is his contribution to the Kingdom that only he can do in this specific time and place? In other words, how can he spend more time on what only he can do and less time on what others can do? And this will ultimately cause the lead pastor to trust God to build his church instead of thinking that it’s completely up to him.

Make the plan; work the plan. Finally, agree on a strategy together. It could be that you help your lead pastor set aside three hours a week to have coffee with new people. Then make sure there’s not a pattern of him stretching that out to five hours. If so, talk with him about it. Come up with an initial plan that works, try it out for awhile, tweak it if necessary, and then make some more changes if needed. You don’t have to jump into the deep end and make sweeping changes overnight. It can be gradual, like losing weight, so that it’s easier to stick to over the long term.

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For us, we’re starting out slow, taking a few bits and pieces from the above suggestions. We already do a decent job of sharing leadership but we can still be more intentional. The greater changes will come internally: forwarding emails and calls with greater frequency, helping him understand that letting others respond to people is really a good thing, and using his administrative assistant in more effective ways. We’ll start there and over time, if necessary, take more aggressive steps. We hope this will bring a better pace of life, more health for our church, and a deeper reliance upon Christ.

Stacey Campbell is executive pastor at Christ Community Church, Greeley, CO, where he and lead pastor Alan Kraft have learned to keep their cool.



What can a church board or elder board do to understand the demands of ministry and be supportive of their pastor’s health and life?

• Give them two, two-week true vacations per year.

• Give them one to three additional days per quarter to add to the weekly sabbath so that they can have some patterned creative timeto hear from the Lord.

• Ask the pastor if it’s OK to hold them accountable by asking them each week if they took their day off.

• Pay the dues for a fitness center for them.

• If they go on church-related conferences, seminars, retreats, meetings, don’t make them count this as vacation.

• If they do mission “work and witness” trips, don’t make them count this as vacation.

• Announce the pastor’s day off to the congregation. Most people encroach on the pastor’s attempted sabbath because they’re not aware that it’s their day off.

• Provide for shepherding and congregational care that helps relieve the load of “pastoral care.”

• Help manage the absurd, ridiculous, over-the-edge congregational expectations to “meet our felt-needs.”

• Have an Acts 6:1-7 model of pastoral leadership: The pastor is supposed to be devoted to prayer and the ministry of the Word. The congregation is supposed to serve tables.

• Have a pastoral sabbatical plan that provides a sabbatical after each six years of serving the church. I recommend a minimum of seven weeks — in addition to vacation in that year.

Dr. Spaite has worked with church staffs and boards to help them work through the biblical and scientific concepts related to stress management and how to identify practical strategies to bring balance and health to ministry. He keeps his schedule three years in advance. He can be reached at


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