Ministry Burnout: 5 Warning Signs Your Heart Isn’t In It Anymore

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When it comes to ministry, every leader knows you’re supposed to throw your heart into your work. But can you do that if you’re experiencing burnout?

Take a moment to reflect on how you started out in ministry — with your heart fully engaged. You felt a call, a passion, a deep hope and an optimism that you’re going to make an impact. Nothing was going to stop you. 

While leaders start out like this, many discover that there’s a shift somewhere along the way. It changes. 

Sure, some of that can be from the cynicism and disillusionment that seems to be an epidemic these days (in culture and in the church).

But I know a lot of other great leaders who want to do ministry, but somewhere along the line, their heart stopped working. 

And that’s a serious problem. 

It’s hard to throw your heart into your work when your heart isn’t working. 

Too often, their heart goes numb. Not just for a day, or a week, but often for a long season. Or sometimes, their heart goes numb indefinitely. 

What I mean by numb is that you don’t feel things anymore, or when you do, you feel them incorrectly — the emotions you’re supposed to feel are not the emotions you actually feel. 

I know this because my heart stopped working properly after a decade in leadership. 

I had run at a ragged pace for years. Our church was seeing double-digit growth year after year, and I didn’t know how to keep up, so I just worked more hours—not a smart plan. 

Before I hit full-on burnout, my body (soul?) fired a warning flare. The flare? My heart stopped working.

See if you can relate to any of the five signs that you’re heart isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. It’s often a sign that you’re heading into burnout, that you are already burned out, or that something else is deeply wrong.

5 Warning Signs You May Be Experiencing Ministry Burnout:

1. You don’t feel sad when you’re supposed to.

One sure sign your heart isn’t working happens when you hear bad news. Here are a few examples:

Someone tells you they just learned they have cancer, and you want to care. And intellectually, you’re concerned. Except you didn’t feel your heart sink or your gut plunge when you heard the news. If you were being honest with yourself, you felt nothing. 

Similarly, a staff member tells you they’re leaving. It’s not a great time for them to leave, and they’re a great team member, but you just felt flat when you heard the news. 

You get the P&L that shows your church is running significantly in the red this quarter and dipping too far into reserves. Rather than sound the alarm bells, you just shrug. You feel nothing. 

You know your heart isn’t working when at work and at home, bad news simply doesn’t penetrate. It’s like trying to pour water into a cup that’s already overflowing. It can’t get in. 

2. You’re not happy when you’re supposed to be.

Not only do you not respond to bad news with appropriate emotions, but good news no longer makes you smile. 

You watch your daughter come in first at a track meet, and while everyone else is cheering, you cheer too. But inside, your heart isn’t actually taking it in.

Your team tells you that they just crushed their quarterly targets…and you smile on the outside, high-fiving them. But inside, you’re still numb.

Worst, you’d perform a baptism and you know with everything in you that this is one of the best things that can happen to a person. It’s such a profound, moving moment. But to you, it feels mechanical. 

3. Your reactions are disproportionate.

A third sign your heart isn’t working is that you do experience emotions, but not nearly in the right proportion. 

A board member shows up 5 minutes late for a meeting, and sure, that’s not cool. But you lose it on them. You handled a 2 out of 10 problem with a 12 out of 10 response.  

Or, you hear that one of your staff has had an affair and that you need to deal with it. That’s a 10/10 leadership challenge, but you almost shrug it off and feel it like a 2 out of 10 problem. 

The same dynamic happens at home. Something that should not be much of a big deal gets an over-the-top response… while you underreact to an actual crisis. 

4. Your reactions are the opposite of what they should be.

A fourth sign that your heart isn’t working is that your reactions are present (high and low), but they’re the opposite.

Although you’re loathe to admit it publicly, when someone’s struggling or suffering, you’re secretly happy about it.

Similarly, when someone’s happy, you feel resentful or even upset about it. Not cool. Not healthy. Not good.

5. The temptations keep coming in strong.

Everyone gets tempted.

When your heart is healthy, temptations come and go and are usually easy enough to control. You have enough self-control to not do something stupid that would blow up your life and the lives of those around you. The temptation comes, but it passes quickly enough.

But if your heart isn’t healthy, temptations linger longer and present themselves more strongly. If your heart isn’t healthy, temptations linger longer and present themselves more strongly.SHARE ON X

You can find yourself preoccupied with lust, greed, bitterness, anger, jealousy, faction, impatience, division, and a host of other sentiments that you know don’t come from the Holy Spirit. 

Meanwhile, missing in action are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness and self-control. All the things that are supposed to characterize Christian leadership and the Christian life. 

So What Do You Do About Burnout And Getting Your Passion for Ministry Back? 

If any of these sound familiar, it’s a sign that your heart isn’t working the way it should.

The bad news is that it’s a serious condition. The good news is that there’s hope and there’s healing. 

Here are three things you can do to start the road to recovering from burnout:

1. Get an accurate diagnosis.

Is it burnout? Great question. 

The kind of burnout I hit years ago brought my life to a halt. For a few months I was wondering whether I even had a future, my energy was so low.

If you’re in that kind of deep burnout, chances are you already realize it. Your life grinds to a halt and you’re a shadow of what you used to be.

But I think there’s another kind of burnout.

I call it low-grade burnout, and my sense is that many leaders (maybe even most) are experiencing it right now, but especially pastoral burnout.The definition of low-grade burnout: The functions of life continue, but the joy of life is gone.SHARE ON X

Here’s how low-grade burnout works… You get up every day, go to work, watch your kids play sports, and socialize, but you really don’t feel anything anymore. 

You’re functioning, but your heart isn’t working. The joy of life is gone.

Burnout is a spectrum, and if you’re in low-grade burnout, you could be just a few missteps away from full burnout.

Curious as to where you are?

My team and I developed a free Burnout Assessment that will give you a custom report on what your burnout risk and level are, along with some practical steps on what to do next.

Free Burnout Assessment

My assessment is a great place to start, but it’s no substitute for professional care. 

Regardless of what your score shows, go see your doctor, and, even better, also go see a therapist or counselor. Something got you here, and unless you know how you got here, it’s pretty hard to get healthy.SHARE ON X

2. Find a friend.

Loneliness has long been a struggle for leaders. “It’s lonely at the top” has been said of leadership for as long as anyone can remember. 

    But culture today makes that even more destructive. In 2023, the US Surgeon General declared loneliness a cultural epidemic. Isolation isn’t just unwise for leaders, it’s deadly. SHARE ON X

    According to the Surgeon General’s report, being isolated in leadership is more deadly to a leader’s physical health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

    Puffing through a daily pack of cigarettes is grounds for termination in most pulpits. But pastoring without support or companionship? No problem, even though it’s just as deadly to a leader’s health. 

    How bad is isolation? In addition to the smoking equivalent bombshell, 16 independent longitudinal studies show that poor social relationships (social isolation, poor social support, loneliness) were associated with a 29% increase in the risk of heart disease and a 32% increase in the risk of stroke.

    If loneliness might kill you, what do you do about it?

    The answer is surprisingly simple. Find a friend. 

    I realize how hard that can be in leadership because almost everyone in your sphere is someone you’re serving, someone who reports to you, someone who you report to, or someone you’re trying to reach. I get it. 

    Leadership doesn’t have to be lonely and overwhelming. Thousands of people just like you are engaging a private community of church leaders to grow their church and their leadership.

    Get practical, step-by-step leadership strategies, skills, and (most importantly) connections that lead to real growth — only in the Art of Leadership Academy.

    But don’t give up. Finding someone who loves you enough to tell you the truth, and who loves you without you being able to do anything for them is the essence of friendship. John Townsend outlines how to find that kind of friendship in leadership

    Arthur Brooks calls genuine friends ‘useless,’ not worthless in the sense that you don’t necessarily work for them and they don’t work for you, but there’s the most amazing connection you have. They’re real friends. Not deal friends.

    Most pastors have a ton of deal friends, but no real friends. Changing that now won’t just help you get well, it will set you up for health and rich enjoyment for the rest of your life. 

    3. ReBuild your rhythms.

    When things aren’t going well, it’s easy to think you should just get back to normal.

    Not a bad sentiment, but think about it. If normal got you burned out, maybe you need a new normal. A new way of life that’s much more sustainable. If normal got you burned out, maybe you need a new normal.SHARE ON X

    What you need to do when you’re unhealthy is rebuild your rhythms, your approach to leadership, your schedule, and your life from the ground up. 

    It took me 5 years to figure out how to do that, but I’ve been living in a new rhythm for a decade and a half that has been life-giving. 

    Better, though, is that I’ve been able to teach over 50,000 leaders how to do the same. The framework and strategy are outlined in At Your Best, and it’s resulted in tens of thousands of leaders finding a sustainable pace for life and leadership. Best yet, it means their hearts have started working properly again, as has mine. 

    If you can’t throw your heart into your work because your heart has stopped working, I’m hoping this helps.