One of my students brought a published report to class saying that 1,500 U.S. pastors leave the ministry every month. The report said many of those pastors depart their posts because of clergy burnout.
It is not a new phenomenon. Clergy burnout has been around for thousands of years. Need a case in point: how about Elijah, who lived about 900 years before the birth of Jesus? Not long after Elijah saw the victory fire ignite his watered-down alter in the face of the Baal prophets and wicked Ahab, we find the prophet feeling so low that death appears for a moment to be one of his best options. First Kings 19 gives a detailed account that warns how fast it is possible for a preacher to go from a mountaintop to a slide down the slopes to despair and burnout.
In the 16th-century, the Spanish mystic and holy man Saint John of the Cross narrated his own journey of the soul’s dark night. Full disclosure: As Elijah and St. John of the Cross, I also know firsthand how easily burnout can consume our joy. As I reflected on that published report, a series of Scripture truths that can help in such moments began to flood my soul. Believing they need to be passed along, I offer them here in brief form. Following is my eight-step remedy to lift us out, or help us avoid, our own dark night of the soul.
Step 1: Remember who is responsible for you.
Paul counsels his young protégé, Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (
Step 2: Cultivate daily dependence on God.
There is a serious risk for all of us to forget the true Source of our ministry successes. This seems to have been part of Elijah’s journey into soul darkness. A daily re-visit to these well-known words from Solomon to his son can help us remember where our true strength finds its source: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (
Step 3: Intentionally schedule time away for R and R.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work…” (
Step 4: Develop a sense of humor and determine to have fun.
Whoever said ministry always must be long-faced to be good did not read the old catechism answer, which says that next to glorifying God, our primary goal is “to enjoy Him forever.” Elton Trueblood, in his easy-to-read little classic The Humor of Christ—carefully vets every New Testament saying of Jesus and points out how many of them are humorous and frequently witty. No wonder the Jewish religious leaders did not understand Him. Perhaps that is why they were called, “sad-you-sees!”
Step 5: Develop good diet, exercise and sleep habits.
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (
Step 6: Develop the practice of thinking up.
Always look for the bright side in any situation. Sometimes we have to look hard; but it is there, and we will find it. Remember, Paul was locked in dungeon leg-irons when he instructed the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (
Step 7: Develop a daily habit of meditating on God’s Word.
This means pondering the depth of God’s Word, meditating long-term on short promises until they become a part of who we are. Again the psalmist instructs us about the God-blessed man, “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (
Step 8: Never forget you are not—and never will be—alone!
David reminds us of the reality that we are always in the best of company: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (