A personal reflection on pastoral ministry, loneliness, and burnout

A personal reflection on pastoral ministry, loneliness, and burnout

There’s no shortage of articles about ministry loneliness, burnout, and, no less, the impact on the pandemic on gospel workers. The Barna Group released research in July 2023 suggesting feelings of loneliness and decreased support increased by 50%[1] in the last seven years. If you consider the factors at play—such as the recent pandemic, increasing social hostility, and internal challenges of ministry—it’s really no surprise.

I don’t think there’s much I can add to this conversation, but what prompted this reflection is more personal. Friends and ministry colleagues who are dealing with this on a very real level. So really, I’m just adding to the growing collection of those who struggling in ministry.

The joy (and burden) of pastoral ministry

Over 15+ years, I'm blessed and privileged to have served in various ministry roles and capacities. I’ve experienced ministry from different perspectives, in different places, and differing stages of life. I’ve still got lots to learn, made plenty of mistakes, but there’s one thing I can say: pastoral ministry[2] provides both the greatest joy AND the greatest burden of any ministry experience.

One of my great joys is watching people grow over the years. I’ve watched newborn babes grow into young adults. Little boys become loving husbands. Young girls become teachers of the next generation. Teenagers making their mark on the world. Anxious parents become carefree grandparents. Empty‑nesters discover a new purpose and vision for ministry. Retirees come to grips with their aging and frail bodies and minds. Few, if any, vocations are so all‑consuming.

Elements of pastoral ministry

What is it about pastoral ministry that creates this dynamic? Let me offer a quick outline (this isn’t an exhaustive list, but provides a general overview of pastoral ministry):

  • Regular and frequent connection with the same group of people.
  • Sharing in people’s most intimate and personal moments of life (eg. births, marriages, deaths).
  • Personal (and family) life limited to a specific subset of wider society.
  • Personal time (even with good practices and boundaries) may be interrupted.
  • Dealing with pastoral matters over extended periods of time; some never to be resolved in this lifetime.
  • Doing the “same thing” each week (with seemingly little outcomes or progress).
  • Privately bearing the weight of people’s personal lives, sins and struggles.
  • Weekly expectations upon pastors to be able in areas of ministry that they never signed up to do (eg. administration, communication, service planning).

I’m sure I could add more to the list if I gave it more time, but hopefully it paints the picture if one didn’t already exist in your mind. I want to expand on one of these points (and may expand on others in future posts).

Sharing life with people

I love spending time with people and sharing in their most precious and intimate moments in life. Outside of family, who else gets a front row seat to sharing a person’s life from birth to death? Who else is invited to not only share but minister into the darkest moments of life in sickness and death?

Yet, this is coupled with the burden of this privilege. To be so intertwined with people’s lives brings you close, if not deeper, to the relationship status of family. It’s no wonder certain Christian traditions use the title “Father” of their pastors and ministers.

To be part of a (healthy) family means to deeply love and care for the members of the family. This means rejoicing with them through the good times, but also mourning with them through the bad. It means walking with them through good choices, and graciously loving them through bad ones with which we may not agree or struggle to accept.

Motivated by God’s love for us, our capacity for love is great, but we're still limited by our human capacity. No one person, but Christ alone, can love so many people endlessly. In most cases, I suspect the issue isn’t desire, but capacity. Simply, the demand simply overwhelms the supply. Walking with others through the more difficult and harder seasons of life, this supply can quickly be diminished before we’re aware of it.

Willingly sharing the joys (and burdens) together

How can we change this? We need to build and equip the church to share their lives with one another. We need to equip church leaders to share the pastoral load. This requires time, opportunity, and most importantly, willingness from the church. This willingness isn’t just a case of showing up, but actively pursuing spiritual growth and maturity.

It’s a willingness to let the pastor put aside the week‑to‑week tasks to focus on the task of equipping “people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12–13)

The body of Christ is made of many parts (1 Corinthians 12:12). Christ alone is the head, so there is no reason to exalt one part of the body (eg. a pastor or leader) over the others (1 Corinthians 12:15-20). A pastor is unable to exercise off the parts of the body on his own, he must do it with the help and support of the rest of the body (1 Corinthians 12:21). The suffering and honour of ministry is shared across the whole body (1 Corinthians 12:26).


This is but one aspect of pastoral ministry that leads to loneliness and burnout. However, the suggestion above will be a significant step into responding to many of the other (potentially) unnecessary aspects of ministry.

As the Barna Group highlights:

Pastors who are bucking the trend toward burnout tend to portray a strong connection with others around them, a flourishing connection with God and a sense of optimism about the future of the Church. They are energized by their jobs, feel well supported by the people in their lives and generally satisfied with their mental, emotional and spiritual health. … Taking steps to build more spiritual and mental health support can be a transformative part of holding off burnout and working toward quality solutions for other stressors in the job.

In order for this to happen though, both the pastor and the church must be willing to relinquish unbiblical and unreal expectations. This is a significant change from the way many churches operate in practice (even where healthy structures exist on paper). The body must start to function as a body. It will take time as we begin to equip people to serve one another. It will mean making difficult decisions about what we do to create opportunities to train. But most importantly, it will take a willing sacrifice to be the body of Christ. Are you willing to sacrificially come alongside the pastor/s in your life and support them?

Further Reading

  1. Barna Group’s data shows a rise from 42% (2015) to 65% (2022) who reported feelings of loneliness and isolation. ↩︎

  2. I speak of pastoral ministry, primarily, in the context of a local congregation within a church setting. However, there’s an overlap with those in settings such as (but not limited to) missionaries who give themselves to a group of people for an extended time, though a local congregation may not yet exist. The underlying premise I hope is made clear in the comments made in this post.cts ↩︎