10 Reasons Church Planters Burn Out (and How to Avoid It)

Most of us who have been around the church scene for long enough have encountered more than a few former church planters who have hit the ministry scrap heap because of burnout. Sometimes this burnout takes the form of a spectacular explosion and other times it is the culmination of a gradual process, but either way it is destructive to the planter, to their family and to the whole church, and we should avoid it like the plague.

Here are 10 of the most common factors that lead to burnout:​

1. Neglecting to take holidays

In the Old Testament, God’s people were mandated to take a holiday. The festivals of the Mosaic Law were breaks for people to put down their work, reflect on and celebrate God’s goodness to them through the year and enjoy a change of pace. Not only was there a regulation to take the time off, but there were also instructions about saving up enough money that it would be a great time! Colin Baron talks more about these festivals in this Broadcast.

For modern church planters (particularly those with ‘Type A’ personalities), the temptation is to ignore the need for holidays and press on. This is no way to sustain a long-term ministry, and makes burnout much more likely.

Practical Action Point

Look at your calendar for next year. Have you booked your holidays in yet? If not, plan the dates that you could take them and formulate a plan to budget for them. If possible, make the booking and put down a deposit.

2. Obsession

Let’s be honest. Church planters tend to be obsessive types. We can view our church plant as one of our children and obsess over it.

And that’s good. To a point.

Church plants are fuelled to a large extent (especially in the early days) by the passion of the planter, but this same passion can have a destructive side.

If your whole life revolves around your church plant, you probably need to take a step back. Read some books (books about church planting don’t count). Watch some box sets. Learn a new skill. Get a hobby.

Practical Action Point

List three interests in your life that are nothing to do with your church planting that you regularly spend time on. If you can’t list three, identify a new hobby that you will take up.

3. Lack of Success

Proverbs 13:12 says ‘Hope deferred makes the heart grow sick.” When you have been working hard in ministry for a long time and not seen the results that you hoped for, it is easy for discouragement to set in (both for you and those with you), and this discouragement can often turn to burnout.

Practical Action Point

Identify a couple of things that you can do in the next few weeks to give your church a couple of quick wins? As well as the difficult long term things, regularly go for some low-hanging fruit and celebrate every win (Tim shares more ideas about this in this Broadcast).

4. Success

Counter-intuitively, success can also lead to burnout (this was the case for Elijah) and in the hours and days after big ministry victories we need to be extra vigilant.

In part, this is because success raises the expectation, and raises it to a place that cannot be sustained permanently. This side of glory, none of us can live permanently in the exhilaration that comes with success, and this can make the everyday feel frustratingly unsatisfying.

Practical Action Point

What brought Elijah out of his slump was the still small voice of God. Build time into your schedule after significant moments in your ministry to reflect and hear from God. Many leaders take Mondays as their weekly day off for this very reason.

5. Disbalance

If, like many church planters, you are working a job (whether full-time or part-time) as well as planting your church, then life becomes quite a balancing act.

You need to manage the demands of work, church and family, and will probably find that whichever of these things your attention is on, there is a nagging feeling that you need to do more on the others.

There is no such thing as a perfect balance to strike, and the requirements and priorities will vary from season to season, but it is certainly possible to find a disbalance where one or more of these areas has been critically neglected, and living with this disbalance for too long will either cause a breakdown externally (losing a job, marriage problems, etc.) or a breakdown for the planter internally.

Practical Action Point

With your spouse (or a close Christian friend or pastor) audit the different things in your life. Look at how much of your time they are taking, and how emotionally draining they are. Also look at how much money they contribute to your income. Assess whether your current balance of priorities is right for the season you are in, or whether you need to make some adjustments.

6. Poor Physical Habits

We all know that good sleep, good food, good hydration and good exercise have a big effect on you physically, but we probably under-estimate how important they are for us emotionally and spiritually.

On the other hand, the more we lean into caffeine, alcohol and comfort eating, the less effective we will be and the more vulnerable to burnout we become.

Practical Action Point

Choose one of the following:

  • Start going to bed 30 minutes earlier
  • Join a gym
  • Start a new diet
  • Quit caffeine
  • Quit alcohol
  • Drink a pint of water first thing every morning.

7. Lack of Friends

Leading a church can be a difficult position to make new friendships from – particularly if you are trying to be somebody’s friend and pastor at the same time. And yet there are few things more discouraging and destructive in ministry than loneliness.

Both within and outside your church, find some people who you personally click with and invest in spending time with them doing stuff you enjoy (and make sure it isn’t church stuff).

Practical Action Point

Think of one person in your church who you are close to, one person outside the church that you are close to and one person who you don’t know that well but think you would get on with. Make sure you have some time scheduled hanging out with each of them in the next few weeks.

8. Lack of Connection to a Bigger Picture

When you are out there on your own planting a church, then your successes and failures can seem like all there is. When you are going through a tough season this can then weigh much heavier on you and become all-consuming.

By connecting your church plant into a wider movement, you will be able to share in the successes of others, experience the wisdom of mentors and the support of brothers and sisters on the ground, and have your head raised to see what Jesus is doing in the world, even when your own circumstances are challenging.

Practical Action Point

Do you consider yourself to be part of a wider movement? If not, spend some time thinking about which movement(s) you may explore connecting in with?

9. Working Outside Your Strengths

Part of church planting means being involved in many different types of ministry. Some of these will suit the way you are wired well and other less so, but in the early days there is little choice but to do whatever needs to be done.

Over a long period of time though, too much focus on things that you don’t really enjoy and aren’t that good at can start to get you down. As you grow your church plant and raise up other people, look for who can take start taking on some areas of responsibility that can free you up to do things that you are more gifted for.

Practical Action Point

Identify a couple of things that you are doing at the moment that you are not gifted in and you find draining. Develop a plan for who you could delegate these tasks to, and what you need to do to equip those people for the job.

10. Lack of Appreciation

Everybody needs to hear ‘well done’ from time to time, but sometimes church planting can be a thankless task. Hours spent setting up chairs for meetings, only for nobody to show up. Opening your home to one person after another, then to never see most of them again. Praying your heart out that somehow the eight people that you have would reach double figures.

It’s hard. And we don’t get into it for the accolades, but still some appreciation goes along way.

Practical Action Point

Think of 3 church planters that you know and send them a text to encourage and appreciate them.

What other ones would you add? Why not drop us a message on social media to let us know?