Biblical Counsel for Pastoral Burnout, Part 1

Recently, I was reading C. S. Lewis’s article, “First and Second Things.” His thesis is compelling. Simply stated, when the main thing is eclipsed by secondary things both things are lost to us. His example of the woman who makes a dog the center of her universe is humorous. The poor woman loses her humanity and her joy in dog care! And what about the man who transitions from wine aficionada to winebibber?

However, as I thought about the thesis, I started to reflect on the ministry. Perhaps herein we find something of an explanation for pastoral burnout. In these cases, secondary things have been allowed to eclipse first things. So, the obvious question is how can first things be kept first? I started to wonder what Paul might say in answer to that question. How might he counsel a man facing ministerial fatigue?

I found my answer in the first chapter of Romans, specifically verses 8 through 15. There Paul guides our thinking into some areas that will help a pastor to avoid burnout. The first area has to do with understanding self. The second pertains to God and his resources. And the third has to do with the pastor’s calling. This first post will deal with the pastor’s self understanding.

Now, self understanding is difficult for a pastor.  Too many people have too many pieces of him. A pastor can feel torn and fragmented. But if we are going to keep first things first, then a pastor needs to reclaim his identity. So, how did Paul understand himself? He gives us three coordinates from the text.

First, Paul understood himself to be a servant. In Romans 1:1 he called himself a slave.  But now look at verse nine, “For God is my witness, whom I serve…” This word is different from verse one. It carries a religious dimension. In fact, it can mean either “worship” or “service rendered to God.” Yes, he is a slave, but this word adds a dimension. Paul saw the entirety of his life as an act of service rendered to God. Let me put it differently, Paul’s service is so that we might see the God he serves. Perhaps an illustration may help.  Think about reading the same book to your child over and over again.  Of course, you get tired of reading it. So, why do you read it? You read the same story a million times because it’s your son or daughter and you love them. The task of reading the story is secondary to your child. You read because of her. If frustration with reading the same story makes us stop reading, then first things have been eclipsed. We must remember our role as a slave.

Second, as a servant Paul understood the importance of a right heart. Or, to put it as Paul does, he served, “with my spirit.” But what does that mean? He means that he is serving from the very depth of his heart. He is sincere. He delights in the Lord’s work.  And this means that our service to the Lord affects all that we do.  But when secondary things become first things we not only lose both things but we lose the joy in doing anything.  Now, here is the problem. It can be illustrated with a story from Anthony Trollope’s Last Chronicle. The Archdeacon was angry with his eldest son. Immediately he made legal changes that would put this son at a disadvantage.  These changes could have been made the next day but the priest made them immediately.


Trollope explained that in order to reach the next day he would have to pass through his evening prayers. And the priest knew that if he had prayed before the morrow he would not be able to complete his plans against his son. For how can we pray forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors and be unforgiving? The priest did not serve the Lord with his whole heart and any joy he had turned to bitterness.

Do you sometimes behave like the Archdeacon? Are you holding something back from the Lord? In other words, when you go to him do you go with reservation rather than going with your whole self? If so, then we are not struggling with our service but with the one we serve. Our problem is an identity problem. And yet, the third area helps us with this struggle.

It’s the gospel itself. Notice verse 8. Paul says, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you…” Let me remind you of what’s being said here. Paul knows that his prayers are heard because of the gospel. In other words, the Son of God humbled himself taking upon himself the form of a servant and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross that we might belong to the family of God.

The Lord held nothing back from you so that you might be who you are. So, a good place to start is remembering who you are by virtue of the Gospel. You are a slave whose whole self is to be devoted to the one who held nothing back from you so that you might derive your joy from first things.

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R Publishing) and Managing Editor for Place for Truth.

Jeffrey Stivason