Planter: Don’t Let Depression or Burnout Kill Your Ministry

How to handle the unique stresses of the pastoral life.

Planter: Don’t Let Depression or Burnout Kill Your Ministry

Almost every single Senior Pastor I’ve coached over the last two years have dealt with depression and burn out. I don’t think this says anything specifically about the people I’ve coached as much as it does about how hard it is to be a Senior Pastor in the 21st century.

I can say with certainty that virtually no-one understands the immense, unrealistic and unrelenting pressure you’re under as a leader. No local business owner understands. No CEO of a fortune 500 company understands. No leader in any field in your church understands. Nobody, and I mean nobody, understands what you go through on a week-in,week-out basis, except the people who have walked in your shoes.

You are absolutely and utterly unique in the pressures placed upon you. Do other leaders in other fields face wildly difficult pressures? Of course! But if they blow it in their jobs people don’t go to hell. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so don’t get me started.

Dealing With Depression as a Pastor

One mistake I see Senior Pastors make when they realize they’re depressed and/or burned out is they quickly go to counseling or get anti-depressant prescriptions without also addressing the environmental issues of their lives.

I’m not a doctor or therapist, so I’ll leave comments about medical matters to your physician or counselor, but as one who’s walked in your shoes and suffered both depression and pastoral burnout, I would like to give you three principles to embrace that will help you re-engineer and refocus your mind and focus in addition to any help you might receive from a doctor or therapist.

For each we’ll turn to three giants of the faith, two with which you are certainly familiar, and one who will more than likely be new to you.

For each principle I will share a long quote from each (so you can grasp the full thrust of their thought), and then provide a number of practical steps you can take as a Senior Pastor to incorporate their principle into your life.

Listen, I’m mindful of the fact that some reading this can’t even muster the energy to finish reading this article. I get that. I think Kathleen Norris had us in mind when she wrote, “Acedia is like morphine. You know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a da&%-.”

What I’d like to ask you to do is stop thinking, and start doing. Read what I’ve written below and do as many of the things listed as possible. I promise that if you do, rather than simply think, the act of doing will reshape your environment in such a way that your thinking will be bolstered. Admittedly, some of my suggestions are extreme, but they work.

1. Embrace the Principle of Destruction

In a section of the classic compendium of wisdom handed down to us from The Desert Fathers, I offer to you a strategy utilized by a man of renown faith named Abbot Paul. He was a monk who lived in the desert and performed one extreme act every year—he completely burned down everything in his living quarters as a way to fight off despondency.

“So when the abbot Paul, revered among the Fathers, was living in that vast desert of Porphyrio secure of his daily bread from the date palms and his small garden…when his cave would be filled with the work of a whole year, he would set fire to it, and burn each year the work so carefully wrought: and…let it be done for the sole purging of the heart, the steadying of thought, perseverance in the cell, and the conquest and final overthrow of accidie itself.” – Helen Waddell, tr., The Desert Fathers (New York: Vintage, 1998), p. 163.

Let me just say that I really like this Abbot Paul guy. We Senior Pastors get into ruts of our own making and don’t realize it until it’s too late. I’d like to encourage you to force yourself to break out from them.

Though your physical environment may not be a cave with reed bowls, nuts and lawn-chairs you made with your hands, it is capable of being torched, then reshaped and reworked. Regularly doing so will keep things fresh in your mind.

Here are a few suggestions to burn your “house” to the ground and start over:

  • Wipe out your to-do list. Just delete everything on it and let it dissolve off into thin air. I mean everything on it. Then rebuild it while asking the questions, “MUST I do this?” and “Do I WANT to do this?”
  • Cancel all your standing appointments, then reschedule your three most important ones (but schedule them for different days and times).
  • Get out of all the classes and groups you lead. Then take two months to reconsider what classes or groups would provide the greatest impact AND bring you the most joy at the same time.
  • Change your cell phone number. You should do this every two years anyway. Too many people have it who shouldn’t.
  • Eliminate your outside email address and re-route emails through someone else (even a volunteer who serves three to four hours a week). Get an “internal” email that is only shared with family, close friends and leaders that must have it.
  • Give away every book in your library that you haven’t read in the last year (except four commentaries for each book of the Bible). A few years ago I did this and went from 12 book shelves to seven. It was liberating.You need empty bookshelf space calling to be filled with new books.
  • Fire that person on your staff that you’ve put off firing but need to because of their “veiled criticism” of you and negativity toward other team members. Trust me, do this. Get rid of the lemon.
  • Excommunicate the person in your church that has been attacking you. I’m not talking about getting rid of the person criticizing you. Otherwise we’d have no one left in our churches. I’m talking about the person maliciously and attacking. Give Marshall Shelley’s book Ministering To Problem People In The Church to everyone on your elder board and staff, and get on the same page. Then kick that trouble maker’s butt out post haste. You either believe in Matthew 18, or you don’t. Their attack is against you, but they are hurting everyone else. Deal with it.
  • Cancel all your standing speaking/teaching/serving commitments. I mean it. You need a change of pace.
  • Change your picture on your website, social media, etc.
  • Throw away all the extra junk in your bathroom cabinet, drawer next to your bed, desk at your office, car glove compartment, car trunk and junk drawer in your house.
  • Clean out and then give away all the mismatched dishes, glasses, bowls and appliances in your kitchen cabinets.
  • Clean out and then give away all the uneaten food, cans and bags in your pantry and refrigerator.
  • Throw away/give away all the junk in your garage and basement.
  • Get rid of that pet that’s been causing you stress.
  • Officially “torch” all of those tasks you’ve been thinking you’ll get around to doing someday but never do that drain your mental energy. Email/text your family, your staff, your elders, whomever, and say, “So these are things I’ve always thought I needed to do, but never got around to starting and keep beating myself up over. Today I hereby give the following tasks an official burial, once and for all. Here they are…”

2. Embrace the Principle of Limitation

The next principle comes from our dear friend Mr. Soren Kierkegaard, someone who understood human nature like no other. In his masterful work Either/Or, Kierkegaard outlines how limiting ourselves as Senior Pastors increases concentration and staves off boredom. He writes,

“Here at once you have the principal of limitation, the only saving principle in the world. The more you limit yourself, the more fertile you become in invention. A prisoner in solitary confinement for life becomes very inventive, and a spider may furnish him with much entertainment. One need only hark back to one’s schooldays, when aesthetic considerations were ignored in the choice of one’s instructors, who were consequently very tiresome: How fertile in invention did not one prove to be!

How entertaining to catch a fly and hold it imprisoned and under a nut shell, watching it run around the shell; what pleasure, from cutting a hole in the desk, putting a fly in it, and then peeking at it through a piece of paper! How entertaining sometimes to listen to the monotonous drip of water from the roof! How close an observer does not one become under such circumstances, when not the least noise nor movement escapes one’s attention! Here we have extreme application of the method which seeks to achieve results intensively, not extensively.” – Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (London: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 191.

Notice Kierkegaard’s claim that “the more you limit yourself, the more fertile you become in invention.” In other words, changing your environment forces fresh mental focus.

Here are a few suggestions for how you can “limit” yourself and increase the fertility of your imagination:

  • Erase all social media apps from your iPhone and commit to only using those accounts from your laptop or desktop.
  • Go through your closet and give away all clothing items you haven’t worn in a year.
  • Go through all your iPhone apps and delete the ones you haven’t used in the last 30 days, then gather similar ones into folders so everything fits onto one screen.
  • Clean up all saved links/folders on your browser and all extra programs on your computer.
  • Completely redesign and streamline the files on your computer (actually, I suggest you save ALL files to dropbox so you can access them on your phone, iPad, laptop and/or desktop—that way you let dropbox become the “home” of all your files).
  • Remove all the pictures, diplomas and other items cluttering your office except a few new pictures of your family.
  • End two to three “friendships” with people in the church that you feel obligated to maintain, but provide no reciprocal sense of encouragement for you or your spouse.
  • Delete messaging from your computer. That program is like a Pavlovian experiment designed to train Senior Pastors to crave distraction.
  • Delete all of the pre-set recordings for any podcasts or TV shows you have on auto-record/download except the most important.
  • Delete all email subscriptions except the one or two that are the most life-giving. Give all future emails subscriptions your Evernote email address so they’re automatically sent to a file there to read later.
  • Contact the companies that send you magazines and tell them you no longer want their products.
  • Purchase a Kindle and commit to only buying eBooks (except Bible commentaries and reference works).
  • Pick one gasoline station from which you will get your gas from over the next year. Just one.
  • Throw away all unused cards and junk in your wallet, backpack, etc.
  • Pick one store you’ll use for all grocery shopping, and then commit to only visiting that store one time per week.
  • Instead of giving yourself four days to write your sermons, make yourself write them in two.
  • Go on an “I want this” fast and commit to not purchasing anything for yourself except food and essential living items for three months. Remember the advice from the great stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” Discipline your “wants.”

3. Embrace the Principle of Diversion

The final principle comes from our dear friend Mr. Blaise Pascal. In his book Pensees, Pascal outlines one of the things very few Senior Pastors discover until it’s too late. We must take action to keep our attention diverted from despair to not fall into depression and burnout.

Pascal could have been speaking to Senior Pastors when he wrote,

“I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.

The only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion.

That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness, nor that anyone imagines that true bliss comes from possessing the money to be won at gaming or the hare that is hunted: No one would take it as a gift.

What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, not the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us. That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture. That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible.

That, in fact, is the main joy of being a king, because people are continually trying to divert him and procure him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself. Thus men who are naturally conscious of what they are shun nothing so much as rest; they would do anything to be disturbed.

When men are reproached for pursuing so eagerly something that could never satisfy them, their proper answer, if they really thought about it, ought to be that they simply want a violent and vigorous occupation to take their minds off themselves, and that is why they choose some attractive object to entice them in ardent pursuit. Their opponents could find no answer to that. They do not know that all they want is the hunt and not the capture. They think they genuinely want rest when all they really want is activity.

All our life passes in this way; we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. We must get away from it and crave excitement.

He must create some target for his passions and then arouse his desire, anger, fear, for this object he has created, just like children taking fright at a face they have daubed themselves.

However sad a man may be, if you can persuade him to take up some diversion he will be happy while it lasts, and however happy a man may be, if he lacks diversion and has no absorbing passion or entertainment to keep boredom away, he will soon be depressed and unhappy.

Without diversion there is no joy; with diversion there is no sadness.” – Blaise Pascal, Pensees (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2003), p. 39.

This may not seem like a very “spiritual” solution to depression, but its dead on accurate. We, Senior Pastors, think too much. This is our own undoing. I tell Senior Pastors I coach all the time to “get out of your head.” Stop ruminating. Stop living in your cranium and go “do” something “out there” that you love.

Here are some suggestions to agitate you to divert your mind away from despair and its surly friends:

  • Pick a new book for you, your staff, and your elders to read.
  • Rearrange the configuration of your family room. Put your TV in another spot.
  • For the next 30 days pick an entirely new location from which to write your sermons (whether on your church campus or off).
  • Move your days off to Fridays and Saturdays, then pick one place to visit each week for the next four weeks that you’ve always wanted to go see.
  • Pick up a new, strenuous hobby like kayaking, biking, weight lifting or hiking.
  • Pick the highest rated $ Yelp restaurant (Yelp rates restaurants $, $$, $$$, and $$$$ based on price) more than 10 miles from your house. Go there on a date each week for the next six weeks.
  • Schedule two vacations for more than a year away (one for just you and your wife, and another for your family) that have locations for which you can find a travel guide at the bookstore. Obviously keep them cost effective. Tim Ferris suggests always scheduling vacations a year away to get a double benefit—the trip itself, and savoring it for a year prior. As you plan your trip have regular discussions about it at the dinner table. Give family members assignments to do research and come back and report what they discovered to the family.
  • Schedule speakers to cover for you four times over the next year so you can visit other churches and take their Senior Pastors out to eat afterwards. Ask them all the same interview questions.
  • Commit one full year to learn a completely new skill and body of knowledge. I do this every year and call it my “M.A. Program” (since you can earn a Master’s Degree in a year). I’ve devoted one-year blocks of time to study things like: stand-up comedy, Ancient Greek mythology, Native American history, country music and astronomy. Yes, country music . I listened to country music exclusively for one entire year (and lived to tell about it). This year’s M.A. Program is peak physical health.
  • Instead of going to that conference you go to on a regular basis, create your own conference by going with your wife to a metro area like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Phoenix, Orlando, Portland/Seattle or Denver. Schedule a week where you interview a dozen pastors, video/photo their facilities (to bring back to your team), and then do two days of sightseeing and adventure.
  • Take one Udemy.com or CreativeLive.com class each week for eight weeks, but download the Honey Google Chrome extension which will find the best coupon code out of hundreds and get you the course for 50-90 percent off. You’re welcome btw.

Changing Environment Helps Overcome Depression

These suggestions are not in any way comprehensive. I’m sure you can come up with some great ideas as well. I’d like to challenge you to generate, and then follow, your own list.

I also encourage you to share this article with your staff (if you have one) and brainstorm ideas together. Remember, they struggle with the same issues, but with less control over their schedule.

Let me reiterate, these suggestions are not meant to replace counseling and/or medical advice by your physician if you feel you need that. These are meant only to supplement, not replace.

I can tell you, however, after working hands-on with dozens of Senior Pastors like yourself, that counseling and medication alone will not fix things. It’s not either/or, but both/and. Counseling and medication, if you need them, will only address your cognitive processes. You need to address your habits, ruts and environment as well. Few counselors understand how to address these unique aspects of your struggle. 

By crafting a philosophy of living that incorporates routine destruction, limitation and diversion, you’ll quickly find yourself back on the road to recovery.

Until then, press on friends.

Brian

P.S. One of the best investments I’ve ever made in myself and my ministry was going to see Dr. John Walker at The Blessing Ranch. Back in 2008-2010 when our church went through the financial collapse and I had to let go of staff, I went to counseling and on meds to deal with it. None of it helped, so I turned to John. I’m still in ministry because of my four days with him. I cannot recommend him enough.

Brian Jones
Brian Jones loves helping Christians live thoughtful, courageous lives. Brian is founding Senior Pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley, a church of 2,000+ amazing people in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div.) and Cincinnati Christian University (B.A.). He blogs at www.brianjones.com, but if you’re a Senior Pastor you might want to check out his website, Senior Pastor Central.