Pastoral Burnout

Escaping the Burden of Pastoral Work

Post Icon

Pastor, do you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders?

Do you toss and turn at night, restless over lagging attendance, non-existent baptisms, and deficient offerings? Do you stress and worry, half-present at the family dinner table because your mind is still at the office or the last deacon meeting? Do you snap at or resent anybody who challenges you (even if they’re only trying to help) because you can’t afford anybody to discover your secret––that you feel like a failure doing your best to just tread water?

The weight of the world might not be on your shoulders, but, for all intents and purposes, the weight of the church feels like the weight of the world.

In the iconic words of Bruce Hornsby & The Range, is that “just the way it is?”

I sure hope not.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).

Based upon this invitation and promise from Jesus, I simply do not believe that pastoral work was designed to feel like a heavy burden to bear.

Two Reasons Pastoral Work Feels Burdensome

But, are pastors somehow exempt from this invitation and promise from Jesus? Does Jesus’ promise of soul rest and a light burden not apply to us while we’re carrying the shepherd’s crook? I don’t think so. So, if this invitation and promise applies to pastors, why does pastoral work often feel so burdensome? I’m going to propose two reasons, there are likely more, but for this blog we’ll just deal with these two.

Reason 1: You’re Trying to Bear Someone Else’s Yoke

A yoke is a wooden beam with two grooves, which can be placed on the shoulders of two oxen. When attached to a plow, the yoke allows the farmer to use the oxen’s power to till up the ground.

Most likely, this explanation of the yoke is nothing new to you, but my experience in student ministry won’t allow me to leave it unexplained. When leading a small group discussion one time, I asked a group of high schoolers, “Why does Jesus say his yoke is easy and his burden is light?” To which a young man replied, “Because nobody likes their eggs over-cooked!”

Since that experience, I don’t assume the yoke analogy is common knowledge.

To train an ox, farmers pair the young ox with an older one under the same yoke. The stronger, more experienced ox is in total control and bears most of the burden of the yoke. But, over time, the young ox learns how to bear the yoke.

Jesus uses this image to describe the experience of following him. By joining your life to his, you gain the benefits of his power and his guidance, which afford you deep soul rest and the pleasure of bearing a light burden.

Jesus calls each individual believer to yoke up with him. While many things about our personal experiences will be the same, the Bible also speaks to the specificity of God’s plans for our lives. As Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” In other words, God has prepared certain good works for each Christian to walk in.

As a pastor, the details of these prepared works involve things like the specific church to which God calls you, the type of pastoral position and job description you have, the opportunities in the community, and so on.

However, while the details of our individual journeys differ in various ways, there are also many details that are exactly the same. God tells us in a number of key passages precisely the sort of “good works” which he has prepared beforehand for each pastor.

Ephesians 4:12 is one of those key passages. Paul tells us that Jesus gave the church “shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

So, a key part of what it means for you as a pastor to personally live under Jesus’ yoke is that you devote yourself to “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.”

Accordingly, your yoke does not involve “doing all the work of the ministry.”

Pastoral work will, however, feel like an unbearably heavy burden when you try to do all the work that God intended an army of saints to accomplish.

Of course, different sizes and types of churches certainly require different responsibilities of a pastor. However, regardless of the size or type of church, do not be fooled into thinking that you can break the rules of how God has designed the pastor’s role––that is, that you are primarily called to be an equipper for ministry, not a doer of all the ministry.

You may be thinking, “But I don’t have enough saints here to do all the work to keep this place going! I have to do it, or it won’t get done!” That may be true, but the only way to remedy that situation is to devote yourself to the task of equipping saints. Otherwise, your problem will be a self-perpetuating, ever-increasing issue. But as you give yourself to equipping, and more men and women are equipped to do the work, your burden will begin to feel lighter.

If pastoral work feels burdensome, it could be that you’re trying to do the good works God has prepared for someone else (or lots of someone elses!). In other words, you might be trying to bear their yoke. Don’t try to do the good works God has prepared for somebody in your congregation––equip them to do it.

Reason 2: You’re Trying to Do Jesus’ Job

Almost four years ago, we moved into a house built in 1937. In our front lawn stands a massive oak tree that had probably been there several decades before they broke ground on our home. The tree is beautiful, but it is my nemesis.

I am particular about my lawn. In previous homes, I have made it my mission to have a beautiful front lawn. This oak tree is making that mission nearly impossible. When we purchased the home, it had more moss and mushrooms growing than grass. After four years of battling, now I know why––that tree is a menace. I can’t tell you the hours or the dollars I’ve spent trying to make the lawn beautiful. It looks better, but it still isn’t beautiful.

Fertilizing, aerating, and re-seeding are the most recent projects in this mission. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into all that. After I sow the seeds and water them, however, there’s nothing more I can do. I simply do not possess the ability to force those seeds to sprout (I suppose I could try talking to the seeds . . . but then my neighbors might be concerned).

Pastoral work functions similarly. The Bible lays out a number of things for which we are responsible. We are called to work hard and to be excellent in these things. But, at the end of the day, you are not able to produce the slightest degree of spiritual transformation in a single person. Only God has the power to do that.

As Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6).

Spiritual transformation is in Jesus’ job description, not yours.

So, if pastoral work feels like a heavy burden, it could be that you’re putting too much pressure on yourself for something that is simply not within your ability. You long to see people come alive in the gospel and be transformed, as you should. But placing that burden on yourself is as foolish as me talking to grass seeds (and a whole lot more exhausting).

It is, however, in your ability to “equip the saints.” And toward this goal, you must work hard. But when you have worked hard doing your job, having given your all to equip the saints, rest in the assurance of the fact that Jesus is hard at work doing his job. He is changing lives. He is building his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt 16:18).

A Simple Prayer to Escape the Burden

Pastoral work is hard work and hard work is a good gift from God (Gen. 1:27). There is, however, a massive difference between hard work and burdensome work. If pastoral work begins to feel like an unbearably heavy burden, something is wrong. Could it be one of the reasons above?

Few things help me escape the burden of pastoral ministry better than praying Psalm 127:1–2 before bed:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.

At the end of the day, when your mind is racing and your heart is in your throat, hear Jesus’ invitation anew: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Pray the glorious truth of Psalm 127, and rest.

  • Pastoral Burnout
  • Pastoral Ministry
  • Quentin Self
Quentin Self

Quentin Self is the Lead Pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Canton, GA. He holds a Masters of Divinity from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in preaching from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

More to Explore

Never miss an episode, article, or study.

Sign up for the Center for Preaching and Pastoral Leadership newsletter now!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.