All the same answers are given as to how to avoid burning out in ministry: the need for regular intervals of rest, the need to exercise, accountability to others, learning to leave our work at the office and not carry it home, etc. All contain sage advice for leaders who want to remain in ministry for the long haul. Neglecting them over long periods of time can certainly lead towards burnout as many leaders have unfortunately discovered.
But few who venture to provide answers to why so many pastors burnout ever consider that the answer may lie in our theology; in particular, Ecclesiology (study of the Church). It may lie in beliefs about pastoral ministry that are not found in Scripture and therefore put demands on pastors that are both unscriptural and unreasonable. Could it be that God never intended for one person to shoulder the burden but called a team to carry the load?
The answer is a resounding, yes! Nowhere in Scripture do we find the idea that one man is responsible to lead a church, but a team of leaders (elders) who are called to the task. These elders are shepherds of the flock as Paul clearly points out, and together represent pastoral ministry in a local church (Acts 20:28). Paul uses the word care in this verse, which is the translation of a Greek word meaning to pastor or shepherd. In other words, pastor is not a noun (except in Ephesians 4:11) but a verb describing what elders do. All of the elders share in the pastoral load, shepherding the flock. There are a number of reasons for this, the chief one being that it is too great a task for one man. God never intended that a man burnout while serving in pastoral ministry.
I have no problem with the idea of a lead pastor, as long as that leader both leads the team and is submitted to the team. But in a lot of churches the elders are little more than advisors to the pastor and this is where the single pastor gets in trouble. Elders are more than advisors to the guy who is really doing the pastoring—they are men who are really pastoring the flock. In other words, it must be a shared ministry. The most important function of the lead pastor will be to communicate to the church the decisions of the elders, not to attempt at doing all the pastoring.
A lot of churches claim to have plural leadership but in reality they don’t. But when it is working, it is a great safeguard against burnout. I once made the statement while serving as the pastoral team leader of a local church that we had become my favorite word. I was part of a team and was not responsible to pastor the flock alone. And even though I served as team leader, I had to learn how to be pastored by the rest of the team. That meant I had to come down from my pastoral pedestal and receive pastoral ministry from a team of men who both loved me and were willing to speak truth to me.
Someone asked me a while ago what I thought the number one problem pastors had. Without hesitation I said it was that they forget that they are first Christians before pastors. They begin to think they don’t have to play by the rules or receive ministry like other members of the body. That is the beauty of a team of men pastoring a church; each one realizes he must be willing to receive from the others and be pastored. There were times when I needed for other elders to be in my face or question what I was doing. Pastors can either resent the intrusion or see it for what it really is: a provision from a loving God for our safety and well-being.
And it, in the long run, is better for the flock. Now that I am no longer serving in the lead role of our pastoral team, I travel much and am rarely in the local church pulpit. A while back a woman in the church made a comment to me that I really appreciated. She said something to the effect that while she missed me when I was gone, she never missed hearing the Gospel preached properly. I took it as the ultimate compliment. I had worked hard in the years I led the team to raise up a team of elders who shared the ministry load together. While I much appreciated her missing me when I was not there, she will never know how much I appreciated the fact she recognized that shepherding was a team effort.
I wish all pastors could experience the joy of pastoring as a team of elders versus the single pastor model, which, in my opinion, puts undue pressure on one man to perform God never intended. In my opinion, we would see a lot more healthier leaders and radically reduce the burnout levels we presently see in the Church.