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How to Avoid Pastoral Burnout

Will Riddle 7 minutes to read

If you are any good at pastoring, you will quickly have more people to help than you have time to help them with. This can easily lead to burnout, where you are swamped pouring effort into your flock and seeing very little return.

So the question becomes who do you help, and when? The simple Biblical answer is that you help each according to his faith. But what does that mean? In translation to the pastoral context, you help those who are hungry. I do not help those who will not help themselves. The reason is because helping these people is actually counter-productive. One of the core concepts you need as a pastor is to understand that you by yourself cannot get anyone free. In fact, even God himself by HImself cannot get anyone free. Only when that person's hunger for change interacting with God will cause them to change. Many people who are in a very bad situation want you to do things for them, and because of your love for God, you want to, but you must resist.

To understand this better, imagine a person who has been in a very bad accident and needs physical therapy to rebuild their muscles. Now, when the therapist comes in, they will show you what to do, and help you a bit, but having a therapist just move your legs for your will not make them strong. In fact, if that is the only motion you do, it will make you weaker, because you have to use your own muscles in order to grow. It is simply impossible for someone else to make you grow strength physically and it is equally impossible for someone to grow strength for you spiritually. Now of course a good trainer or therapist can help you go much much faster and avoid pitfalls, show you the ropes... That's exactly what a pastor does. I’ve written more about the art and nuances of pastoring in my book Unlocking the Heart: A Guide to Pastoral Care.

Not knowing when to invest is a major pitfall for pastors -- at least getting started -- after a while every pastor learns this lesson from a few people who refuse to work and instead try to suck you dry. Hopefully some of you are breathing a sigh of relief right now. It's actually better for some of the people you are helping if you do nothing at all, and in fact if you encourage others to do nothing at all for them as well. This person needs to experience the consequences of their actions before they develop any true desire to work their way to freedom. So that's a rule I have in pastoring people. I don't do things for you, I do things with you. I am like a "matching grant." You are putting forward effort, and I will match your effort. I will not do more for you than you are willing to do for you. Now obviously if you are in a place where you are unable, I will come to the rescue, but again, even then I'm looking for you to signal that you want it.

Therefore as a pastor you will feel two kinds of pulls on you. One is like the person who comes into your house and throws down their baggage and expects you to carry them up the stairs. They want you to do the work for them. If you do, you will ruin your life and help them continue in bondage. The other kind is people who are ready to work hard to get free and are just looking for coaching. Sometimes you can't tell the difference at first. The way you can tell is to give them some kind of "assignment." I often give them my book, but it could be anything you think would help them, even as simple as some Bible reading. The point is you want to see what they are going to do with it.  If they do nothing, then I'm not going to do anything more. I will simply tell them, "Come back when you've done the homework" And although some will do it, in most cases they will not return.  Some will return LATER to seek help once their situation has gotten more desperate, and they simply need to see that neither you nor God are going to magically get them out. They will have to start to work and exercise faith. God will respond and you will help them.  This is like the seed that falls on the path. The seed never even makes it into their heart. The devil just eats it up.

Just like the spiritually lazy person is the person who is not teachable. A person who is not teachable always spins your words around into their own theory. They are always pumping someone else's teaching, and their own method of getting free. They might even tell you how to pastor them! Because they know what works for them. Jesus encountered lots of people that weren't teachable. He did not refuse to teach them at all. He simply spoke in riddles and reversed their questions on them. He did not invest a lot of time in them. His riddles and questions were designed to expose the condition of their heart -- to get to the real root of the matter. So the person who is not teachable may have a lot of energy, but their energy is going to take them in circles because they are unable to hear what you are telling them. They think they "have it figured out." They are running their own play instead of the ones you are coaching them to run. This is like the person with the rocky soil. You sow things in and it grows up quickly but then just as quick it's dead.

When you encounter the truly hungry person, however, you have found a gemstone. I will invest as much time in a hungry person as they will benefit from. Move them into your house if you can. Take them on trips with you. Just generally do whatever you can to feed this hungry sponge, because they are going to take everything you say, and with their own effort and walk with God turn and bring forth fruit, 30, 60 and 100 fold. This person is the seed that falls on the good ground. What's funny about the hungry person is that they are often doing so much on their own that you can overlook them and get dragged down by the lazy or unteachable. Make sure you always return their calls quickly and always make yourself available to the hungry person. Great will be your reward here in this life by seeing them grow, and in heaven through all the good they do.

Pastoring the lazy person is the art of making sure they reap what they sow, so that you and others do not do their work for them. That means the main thing you do is make sure they have things to do and that no one else is doing it for them. You hope that in the process they learn the value of work and the pain of not working so they can become a true disciple. Pastoring the unteachable person is about giving them truth every time they come back with their schemes. You hope that they are able to hear something you say and start to learn to hear, if not, their plans will fail them and that will bring them back to you for another chance to hear the truth. If they become humble, they can be a good disciple because they have a lot of energy, it's just been wasted on the wrong things. And for the true disciple, you simply pour in everything you know how.

And of course some people are in between. If you are responding rightly, over time the lazy person will start to show some effort, and the unteachable person will start to ask real questions. You simply treat them like the true disciple when they act like one, and when they don't you respond accordingly. It's proportional. Only once in a long while do you meet someone who is very teachable and very high energy. Most people are somewhere on the spectrum. Respond in proportion and according to each specific situation. Pray that they will move higher up the spectrum to be a better investment. The good news is that, it is my experience that some of them actually will. It might take several years but the fact is, that it is rare for someone to find someone that will get involved and really help them. That means that if they found you, they will likely come back to you. As long as you consistently reward positive, teachable behavior, and consistently "punish" negative behavior, over time, they can change.

Do not be discouraged about this process. Some people simply didn't get the right parenting growing up  or refuse to be humble or work. Their failures are not your failures. You cannot make them work or listen. Just continue to love them and hope they will come all the way around the corner.

If you would like to read more about the art of pastoring, check out my book Unlocking the Heart: A Guide to Pastoral Care.


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