The Busy Pastor Syndrome, And What You Should Do about It

Jeremy was busy — busier than he ever thought was humanly possible. When accepting a new assistant pastor position six months ago, he knew it would be a lot of work. Phrases like “you’ll be in charge of the music,” “oversee the youth,” and “do some visiting” had been part of the conversation. But now, Jeremy was rising at 5:30 each day, and falling into bed exhausted well after midnight most nights. He was originally told that he would have Tuesdays off, but that was a long-gone vestige of his first few weeks on the job. Now, Jeremy was trapped on a treadmill of ever-increasing speed, fury, and freneticism. He felt as if he didn’t know his two little children, aged 2 and 4. He felt as if he and his wife hadn’t talked in months…and they hadn’t, really. Jeremy’s own soul was parched — worse, he was angry, discontent, and deeply troubled.

But, it was okay, he told himself, because he was doing it all for God. Wasn’t he supposed to “burn out for Jesus?”

Jeremy was caught in the busy pastor syndrome. Although this article deals with advice tailored to busy pastors, the conditions and suggestions may also apply to other individuals who find themselves burdened with the busy syndrome.

The Busy Pastor Syndrome

The danger of Christian busyness, and more specifically the busy pastor syndrome, has spread across thousands of churches. Pastors find themselves in a rat race of busyness, seldom taking a break, always going, and becoming overwhelmed in a morass of more and more and more and more responsibility. It never ends. As hard as the pastor works and as much as he gives, there is always more to do, and more to be taken from him.

This is the busy pastor syndrome. Such pastors and ministers get trapped in the high of ministry busyness, sometimes never even recognizing the negative impact it has upon their souls. Instead of viewing such incessant busyness as a danger, it is viewed as a virtue. After all, it’s ministry, right? Therefore, it must be good….right? Isn’t this what Jesus wants?

The busy pastor syndrom is actually a self-destructive malady that must be stopped. The dangers are obvious — burnout, exhaustion, temptation, neglect of family, the inability to do a few things well, and the forsaking of one’s own spiritual and physical wellbeing. Besides, Jesus himself readily took rest, and encouraged others to do so (Matthew 11:28-30). The idolization of incessant activity is a danger.

Two Points of Advice for the Busy Pastor

Busy pastors should heed some simple advice. If you find yourself in a busy situation, consider the following and ask, “how am I doing?”

  1. Protect your soul. If you leave off feeding your soul, you are in no position to lead others. It is a farce to pretend to feed others’ souls, when you have not taken the time to do so personally. Your spiritual and physical wellbeing is first responsibility, because unless you are healthy, you can no longer serve and minister. This “put yourself first” advice is not self-focused psychobabble. It is simple, practical survival. It is stewardship. It is true ministry that includes one’s own wellbeing in the scope of ministry responsibilities.
  2. Intentionally guard your family time. A dangerous myth exists in some Christian circles that we should “sacrifice for the Lord,” which, somehow, includes neglecting one’s family. Those who neglect caring for their families do so with apparently pure motives, desiring to advance God’s kingdom and minister to others. Unfortunately, at the same time, they are neglecting ministry to the very ones whom God has put closest to them. It is true:  Jesus did declare that love for God must eclipse love for family. But nowhere does God assume, command, or promote, nor endorse the neglect of one’s family. On the contrary, a church leader is called to “manage his own household” (1 Timothy 3:5). When Scripture enjoins heads of family to provide for their household (1 Timothy 5:8), it isn’t simply prescribing financial provision or making sure that there is bread on the table. It is speaking of one’s provision of total wellbeing, giving one’s time, love, care, and attention. In other words, the busy pastor must never be so busy that he has no substantial family time.

How to Overcome Ministry Busyness

Those two points of advice, as important as they are, are useless unless one can extricate himself from the web of busyness. How is the busy pastor supposed to become less busy?

1.  Examine your situation.

Assess, then take practical measures to free up time for yourself. If you need help managing your time, read a time management book or seek solid advice. If you are spending extended hours each week or day in a hobby or watching TV, you may need to bring this into check. Before complaining, “I’m way too busy!” take a moment to actually look at your time management, and assess the situation for what it really is.

2.  Explain the problem to those involved.

If you are an assistant pastor, speak to your senior or administrative pastor. If you are the pastor, discuss the situation with your elder or deacon board. If you are under the leadership of a synod or denominational council, request to meet and talk about your situation. If you are the only staff member, you can tactfully explain the situation to your church family.

In your meeting, call out busyness for what it is — a dangerous blight upon you, your family, and those whom you lead. It’s not your responsibility to prove how and why busyness is wrong. All you must do is say, “I am unable to minister effectively to myself, my family, and the church under my present demands.” It is entirely appropriate to outline your demands and explain how pinched you feel. You may be tempted to think that you’re complaining or being a wimp about the toughness of ministry. Realize, however, that being to busy is a blight upon your ministry. This conversation does not need to be a pity party. Simply explain the issue. Be clear. Be open. Be bold.

3.  Request a solution.

You should be prepared to make specific recommendations. In other words, don’t come to your pastoral staff team or deacon board, complaining “I’m too busy. Help me out.” You’ve got to think through it yourself. For example, you can suggest that you will take every Monday completely off. No visits. No office hours. No counseling. No phone calls. Nothing. Or, you can stipulate that four nights a week, you are determined to spend from 6pm onward with your family. During that time, there is no visitation, no nothing.

Don’t forget to consider others who may also be suffering from fatigue and overwork. Suggest some changes that can help their situation, too, such as hiring an additional staff member, sharing on-call nights, etc. Be creative with your solution. Does your church have unncessary “ministries,” a glut of meetings and services, or far too much unproductive busywork?

4.  Briefly pause for a resolution.

Hopefully, the problem of your busyness will be resolved. You may have to wait a while as changes occur. It’s appropriate to pause and see how the changes will roll out.

A word of caution is in order here. Be aware that temporary stopgap measures are not a solution to your busyness. They are simply a pause to your busyness. Pauses feel nice, but they don’t ultimately solve the problem. If you are allowed to “take a few weeks off of visitation,” that’s not going to solve the perennial problem of your busyness. Or if the secretary agrees to prepare your PowerPoints, your core busy issue hasn’t been successfully addressed. Larger systemic changes may need to be enacted in order to adequately address the problem.

There are busy seasons of life. But if those “seasons” are stretching into years, it’s time to take action. Pause to see if the busyness will be alleviated, but don’t wait too long.

5.  Act on your principals.

Finally, it’s time to do something. This is the most difficult step of the entire process, because it could mean jeapordizing relationships and cutting ties. If there is simply no satisfactory resolution to the situation, it’s time to go. This isn’t an issue of laziness or irresponsibility on your part. This is about acting on your principals, protecting the people who are involved, and stewarding your life for maximum kingdom effectiveness. Don’t mistake a “passion for God” for senseless self-destruction. You may need to leave the position or enact sweeping changes.

Conclusion

There is no inherent sin in working hard and filling one’s time with action and ministry. The problem comes when we allow anything — even ministry — to snuff out our spiritual vigor, to shove aside family time, and to crush our spirits. By all means, give yourself wholeheartedly to God, to service, to ministry, to your church. Ministry is truly fulfilling, and there will be busy spells. But when anything, even ministry, begins to become the idol of your heart and the sole consumer of your time, change is needed.

The irony is that few busy pastors will have time to read this article on busyness. Fewer will have the courage to act on their principles and reject the malady of busyness. If you’re a busy pastor, accept God’s grace to change your practices. Then, encourage your colleagues to do the same. Your ministry, your life, and your families will be the better for it.

3 Responses to “The Busy Pastor Syndrome, And What You Should Do about It”

  1. Katherine Burton September 11, 2012 at 5:31 am #

    Wow. Did I need to hear this. I have been consumed with guilt and sadness after resigning my music director position. Also I did the media presentations, served on the youth board, assisted with VBS, the Christmas program and and Easter Contada. Not to mention womens auxiliary. And assot
    Assisted teaching the teenage girls on Wednesday nights. I was so burnt out even walking into the church made me either short and snappy or withdrawn and sad. We had a family meeting. My family said I was doing way to much and they wanted more of my time and wanted me to relax. We decided as a family for me to give it all up. And that was tough, I even got depressed. God might be pointing me in another direction, but I think he is allowing me to slowly heal. If you read this pray for me. God will direct my paths, I know.

  2. Fran Russo September 11, 2012 at 10:10 am #

    Hi my sister. My heart goes out to you. The Lord certainly does not want you to be consumed with guilt and sadness. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! My Pastor has a policy that we should not serve in more than two ministries at a time. It sounds like you were doing too much. Although you may have the gift/talent to serve in those ministries we must be careful to do only what God has called us to do for a particular season or we will grow weary. I will pray for you. Be encouraged, the Lord loves you! He has blessed you with the ability to serve in various areas but we must use wisdom (which He also gives) and have some balance. I suggest you have a season of refreshing, seek His will for you and then do it!
    You are not alone. We all fall into the category of burnout at one time or another. This is probably because so many just sit on the sidelines and want to be served. Then there are those that serve with “everything”. Be of good cheer. Love in Christ, Fran.

  3. JCB September 13, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    An excellent book on this topic, Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald, I found to be very helpful.

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