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Avoid pastor burnout by creating boundaries

An older and wiser pastor once told me that being a pastor is like being in the middle of a large circle. Everyone on the outside of that circle has a basketball they are bouncing. Each person wants to pass their ball to the guy in the center (the pastor or ministry leader). Each basketball represents a new (or old) issue, a concern, a request, or a hurt. If you don’t have wise boundaries in place you will struggle. You may even feel like you are on the receiving end of a basketball beat-down.

I consider it an honor to try to help people with the challenges they bring.

Balancing the demands leaders face in ministry can be a real challenge. I’m not minimizing or lamenting the concerns people bring to us; facing hard issues is a big part of being a leader in ministry. In fact, I consider it an honor to try to help people with the challenges they bring. I’m simply stating that if we are to respond well to the issues we face, we must have a plan.

Healthy boundaries are a part of that plan.

Boundaries serve as guidelines that help you navigate the challenges, requests, and demands of ministry. Now, let me begin by saying I am not always awesome at keeping healthy boundaries. There are times I find myself doing things in ministry I really don’t need to be doing. Other times, I have been guilty at putting off worthwhile matters for more immediate concerns.

The longer I serve in ministry, the more the need for healthy boundaries becomes apparent. I am going to share a few things that will help you craft your own boundaries to serve Jesus and avoid burnout.

Jesus was not available all of the time

I don’t recall where I heard this statement, but it stuck in my brain like an arrow. When Jesus was physically on the earth, there were times he was not available or could not be reached. Scripture records that when Jesus retreated in prayer, no one knew where he was (see Mark 1:35-37). There were also times Jesus sent the crowds away so that he could be alone (see Matt 14:23). Sometimes we can feel the pressure of needing to be available and respond all the time. It’s a good thing for a pastor to be with his sheep. However, feeling that you must always be available is another matter. We have to be disciplined to separate ourselves for prayer, devotion, and rest. We cannot be available all the time.

There has to be a day of rest in there somewhere

Some of us are GUILTY of working 7 days a week without a rest, a break, or a Sabbath. I’m not going to get into the technicalities of our relationship with Old Testament Law in this post. I simply want to stress that you need a day of rest each week. For me, that day is NOT Sunday.

Sundays start early and end late. Sunday is one of the busiest, most demanding, and draining days of the week. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sunday. I love to preach. I love to teach. I love to be with God’s people in worship and work to move the ministry ahead. However, the one thing missing from my Sunday is rest. You may have to get creative to figure out what day of the week works for you. Find that day of rest and be disciplined about keeping it.

Save some margin for the crisis

We have a large wall calendar in our church office. This thing is huge. It displays all 12 months of our church calendar on one massive page.  We chart out dates for ministry, mission trips, youth camps, and events on this calendar. However, some things cannot be charted out. We cannot plan for things like emergencies, funerals, unexpected illnesses, and tragedies. I know some of these events will impact our ministry each month.  

They are coming. They are unavoidable. We have to have margin.

I have to remind myself that I’m really not anyone’s answer. Jesus is the answer.

As I scan the coming months I ask myself:

  • Do we have margin here?
  • Have we scheduled things too tight?
  • What about my family?

You cannot plan for or avoid a crisis. However, you can evaluate what you are doing. Anticipate there will always be more that actually happens than you can see on a schedule. So, schedule and plan wisely with an eye to maintain margin. Leave some room on the books for what you know will come.

It’s sinful and self-centered to never say “no”

Are you a “yes-man” or “yes-woman?” People who are mastered by God cannot be mastered by the opinions of others (see Gal 1:10; Acts 5:29; Eph 6:5-9; Eph 6:6). There are times we have to say “no” to someone so that we can say “yes” to the Lord. This can be a hard thing for those who struggle with “people pleasing.” I struggle myself with this temptation. However, we must put God first. There will be times we simply have to say no.

You are not everyone’s answer

I like to fix things. I like problems to be solved. However, we must guard against thinking we are the solution for every problem we encounter. I’m not talking about turning a cold shoulder to a stranger (see James 2:16). I’m referring to the broken and difficult situations we encounter where only God’s great mercy will suffice.

I have to remind myself that I’m really not anyone’s answer. Jesus is the answer.

… and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

James 2:16 (ESV)

Sometimes Jesus uses the words I speak, the counsel I give, the prayers I pray, and the Scripture I preach to provide real and immediate answers to people. I rejoice each time God enables me to help someone. However, there are times I’m confronted with a situation and the solution is not clear. Sometimes I feel a burden to resolve it immediately. I must accept there are times I will not have the answer immediately.  I’ll do all I can to point a person to seek God’s grace and mercy. However, I’m not the answer, Jesus is.

How about your family?

Your family is depending on you to implement boundaries for your ministry. Your wife and family are your first ministry. They are depending on you like no other. Remember that. I’m saddened to think of the many examples of ministry leaders who put ministry demands ahead of their families. Many have done this and lived to tell a tale of regret, sorrow, and brokenness.

Fight to make and keep healthy boundaries.

Dace Clifton

Dace is a pastor in central Texas. He is married to his wife Jacque and has two children. Dace holds a Ph.D. in preaching and pastoral ministry. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Arlington Baptist University. Dace is a family man who loves adventure, travel, hunting, and anything related to the mountains.