Ministry Burnout

He came into the meeting a little late, hair tousled, his typical gravelly voice apologizing with a sincere smile.   A group of local worship pastors and leaders had gathered at the regular spot, a trendy cafe off the beaten path, for our monthly fellowship.  We welcomed him to our circle.

We were bantering small talk and funny anecdotes when he spoke up.  “You know,” he began, “It’s gotten to the point where I’ve planned eighteen Christmas Eve services at my church.”  He paused momentarily.  “And one day, I came into the office and realized that I couldn’t do nineteen.”

I remember just sitting there in the awkwardness of that moment, not knowing what to say, sipping my coffee, feeling his pain.  You see, we’d all been there, far too many times. Anyone who is in ministry knows this feeling.

He had all the classic signs of ministry burnout.  Emotional jet lag. A spiritual dryness.  A loss of vision, replaced by a quiet cynicism and a half-hearted sense of duty.  A pain deeply held, but not entirely understood.  I knew what this feels like. I’ve been there.

According to one study, there are many reasons for stress and burnout in ministry:

“Recent research is unanimous in citing the following problem areas: the disparity between (somewhat idealistic) expectations and hard reality; lack of clearly defined boundaries—tasks are never done; workaholism; the Peter Principle—feeling of incompetence in leading an army of volunteers; conflict in being a leader and servant at the same time; intangibility—how do I know I’m getting somewhere?; confusion of role identity with self image—pastors derive too much self-esteem from what they do; time management problems; paucity of ‘perks’; multiplicity of roles; inability to produce ‘win-win’ conflict resolutions; difficulty in managing interruptions; the ‘little adult’ syndrome (Dittes)—clergy are too serious, they have difficulty being spontaneous; preoccupation with ‘playing it safe’ to avoid enraging powerful parishioners; ‘administration overload’—too much energy expended in areas of low reward; loneliness—the pastor is less likely to have a close friend than any other person in the community.”

That’s a lot of stuff to take in. And it’s not a question of if you will experience burnout; stress and anxiety are presumed for those who are in ministry.  For those of you who are experiencing ministry fatigue, I offer five small encouragements.

Remember to breathe. We need to take care of our whole selves, feeding our spirits through spiritual disciplines and other acts of surrender, our souls with fellowship with others and God, and our bodies with appropriate exercise and healthy food.  Also, as intense as Jesus’ earthly ministry was, He always prioritized rest.  Daily and weekly periods of rest as well as extended retreats were a part of His ministry time.  Rest allows us to physically restore our bodies and to spiritually reset the compass of our hearts.

Remember to laugh. Funny how we forget this one.  My church actually has “contagious fun” as one of our stated values, and for good reason: “We believe it is an act of faith in God to risk delight in a world which is often cold and cruel.”  Having fun reminds us that taking our faith in God seriously also means not taking ourselves too seriously.  So make sure you enjoy the journey—with family, friends, co-workers, and always in light of God’s sovereign and joyful presence.  One other thing—for those of us who are artists, make sure you are doing something in the sweet spot of your creativity.  Your artistic expressions give you an opportunity to express the wordless feelings you need to express, and in my experience, God will meet you there and use your art to fill you up.

Remember your calling. There was a reason why you went into ministry to begin with.  Something more than it simply being a good idea. It certainly wasn’t for the money!  For me, it was a Small Still Voice quietly but undeniably moving me to surrender a professional career for a vision of ministry I could not ignore.  And every day, I remind myself that the smallest thing I do that has eternal consequences is better than the largest thing I could do that is temporal.

Remember who you are. One of the things I am learning to do is how to be completely passionate for a particular thing, while being unattached to the results of that thing.  The reason is because we (men especially) mistakenly attach our identities to what we do.  So if we do well, we must be okay.  And if we don’t do well, we must be trash.  This is a dangerous way to think, because when one lives in “performance mode,” you’re bound to burn out at some point.  But think about how life would be different if you could truly and fully derive your self-identity solely as a child of God, His dearly beloved.  We can be passionate about doing God’s work, but feel the freedom to allow God the success or failure.

Remember how to keep score. Many of us have this mistaken notion that we can somehow impress God.  So we try to build a bigger congregation, a larger church building, a greater ministry, those things which point to success in ministry.  But at the end of days, God won’t say to us, “Well done, good and successful servant.”  He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  God will not reward us according to the numbers we so often use as metrics for ministry success.  He will reward us according to our faithfulness to the calling He gave us.

My wife and I recently celebrated twenty years of full-time vocational ministry.  Twenty years ago, we decided to leave a lucrative and promising career in aerospace to work for a small neighborhood church in Folsom, California.  The highs have been sky high, and the lows have been bottom-of-the-ocean low.  But we’re still here.  And right now, another twenty years is looking pretty good.

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3 thoughts on “Ministry Burnout

  1. At the easter service 4 years ago I was sitting on stage at the bass guitar, away from my family, watching my daughter’s back as she sang in the kiddie choir, and I realized “I’ve done this for 18 years now. I’m tired of it. I don’t even really like playing bass – I’m a guitarist. I’m done.” And that afternoon I made arrangements to resign as a bassist and become a guitarist again.
    And I’m goooood at guitar, and I love it. I’m not burnt out anymore, and I look forward being on worship team, because I’m doing something I love. You can do what you don’t love for a while, but you can’t make a life of it.
    Also, several other people are becoming good bassists finally, because we finally need bassists. They would not be developing as artists and worship leaders if I were still there every Sunday.
    AT 50 I’m thinking life is too short to waste it on our mediocrities. We need to invest in our areas of passion, because that is where we naturally shine brightest, for the glory of God.
    In fact, last Sunday several people mentioned that the electric guitar in the worship really ministered to them. I think real joy comes through in everything we do, and it leads to God.

  2. My husband and I were involved in the Youth ministry at our church. But politics, cliques and the kids’ persistant lack of desire to grow or change left us feeling burned out. We felt that we were standing in their way of progress, so we stepped down. Just as you mentioned, we felt like trash, and unfit to be there.

    Very encouraging post!

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