Barriers: Burnout and discouragement

By Bob Bickford

Wise older pastors will often say that ministry is more like running a marathon than running a sprint. This good advice is meant to be a warning not to run too fast, too far for too long—do so and you run the risk of exhaustion and ultimately burnout.

Every long distance runner has experienced “hitting the wall” more than once. The physical symptoms of fatigue from sustained exertion and the mental battle that ensues might just cause an inexperienced runner to drop out. Most certainly, they will feel great pain and battle negative thoughts that scream to them that it is time to stop running.

Replant pastors hit walls too:

  • Dips in attendance and giving
  • Death of beloved church members
  • Hard work with few breaks and no vacations
  • Criticisms about their preaching, leadership and pastoral care
  • Financial challenges
  • Family conflict or trouble
  • Departing church members with whom they were close
  • Conflict among the church leaders

All these can bring a pastor to the wall.

When a pastor hits the wall, the battle is more than just physical, emotional and relational; it is spiritual as well. Runners will tell you that when they hit the wall, their mind begins to speak to them, even shout to them that it’s time to stop, that if they keep going they will collapse or even die.

A pastor’s mind may shout at him too. Actually, it’s often Satan, the enemy, whispering accusations and planting seeds of doubt into the mind of a weary servant who is on the verge of exhaustion and considering quitting:

  • “You’re not competent to lead.”
  • “You’re a failure.”
  • “The people don’t want to follow you.”
  • “You can’t go on, you should just quit.”

Some pastors believe thoughts like those listed above are just the truth and the fruit of their own self-examination. There’s no doubt that every pastor would benefit from careful and critical self-examination of his leadership and life. The difference between healthy critique of self and the clear attack of the enemy is the certainty and finality of the statements above.

Pastor, the enemy will attack you with “you are” statements with what seems like truth and authority. He does so because he wants you to believe what he says is true. He will disguise it and even cloak it and mingle it with legitimate critiques you receive from others.

How do you push back on these sorts of attacks?

1. Delay critical examination until Tuesday

In most cases the negative residual of Sunday’s service and ministries will linger through Monday. If you make a practice of evaluating everything on Monday, you’re likely not going to be able to process things clearly. The Monday morning “preacher’s hangover” is a real deal.

 2. Worship and rest

Sundays are workdays for pastors. Facilitating worship for the congregation and preaching are exhausting. At times, it is possible that as a pastor we fail to enter into worship ourselves. We can be thinking of how we are going to transition into the next service element. We may get distracted by the need to speak to someone in the congregation. We grow concerned if no one is greeting worship guests. And we’re thinking of how we need to offer coaching to staff or volunteers. Pastors, find a day to engage in personal worship and rest to ensure we don’t simply become vocational dispensers of religious services with no sincere devotion ourselves.

3. Measure every mental message by God’s Word

When Paul encourages us to take every thought captive, he is telling us we must evaluate the thoughts that come into our minds, not simply accept them or allow them to occupy mental real estate. Much of what we think, especially when it is negative, is not of God. Some of what we hear may be the conviction of the Holy Spirit—when that occurs it is specific, clear and addresses something you did, thought, said, etc. Confess sin, repent and move forward, but don’t be trapped by the generalized attacks of the enemy.

4. Work with your hands

Pastoring is primarily mental work. Preparing sermons, discipling, counseling, leading and planning are all mental and all exhausting. Take time to work out at the gym, in your yard, around the house. Work to the point of exhaustion. This will allow your mind a chance to rest while you are working out your body.

5. Pursue good physical health

A moment of truth and honesty: Pastors, most of us are out of shape. We fail to exercise, we eat in unhealthy ways and we often fail to get adequate sleep. These contribute to mental dullness or fog and emotional swings that can take us low. Ministry lags because we’re just not up to it physically. If you’re looking for help, check out, which is specifically dedicated to helping pastors get in shape.

The apostle Paul often compared the Christian life to running in a race. He says: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

Ministry is a battle. As pastors we must learn how to fight so we can keep running the race and finish it for the glory of Christ.



Published February 7, 2024

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Bob Bickford

Bob Bickford is a Replant Pastor in suburban St. Louis, serves as the Associate Director of Replant for the North American Mission Board and is the co-author of Am I a Replanter,  Pathways to Partnership and the Associational Replanting Guide. Follow Bob on twitter @bobick