On two occasions I have come close to burnout, even after running seminars for Christian leadership on this subject, so be aware this condition may build up and you be quite blind to it. A counsellor / friend I visited on one of these occasions defines burnout as “the inevitable outcome of unattended cumulative stress”. (Brian Massey). A fuller explanation is that “Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, social and spiritual exhaustion”.
People involved in effective ministry are highly vulnerable to burnout with the casualty rate so high that many drop out of ministry for good. You are not super human so you need to plan for the long haul rather than simply committing yourself to the immediate opportunities and pressures facing you!
Scripture is full of people approaching burnout. For example Moses nearing emotional exhaustion received counsel from his father in law Jethro just in time. The advice he gave was to delegate much of his work to others as soon as possible, which he did (Ex 18: 17-27). Then there was Elijah who after a major victory in killing the prophets of Baal found himself in a desert place hiding from Jezebel. His heart cry was that he might die (1 Kings 19:4). … and the list could go on and on!
People in burnout can cause much damage to themselves and others and discredit God’s work.
- People helping others are highly likely to experience burnout to different degrees.
- Some reasons for burnout:
- Our cultural upbringing. I grew up in a home where my mother often talked about how she would get up very early in the morning and milk the cows before she went to school. I too was expected to work very hard. It was the norm in my environment. To break that expectation can be exceedingly difficult and I found myself approaching burnout (and this was in “retirement”!) that I had to force myself to only work in the mornings and take every afternoon off for a period of time and only do things which refreshed me until I came right.
- An addiction to work. In many cases we enjoy a hard day’s work. It gives a sense of satisfaction and we love to see others released and drawn to Jesus or the office desk spotless with our “to do” list all ticked off. Then organisational issues can be a problem where there are not enough staff/resources for the ministry
- Problems of poor self esteem. We want to feel good about ourselves and want others to notice how well we are doing. We live for the praise of others and try to avoid criticism. Again this wrong motive is particularly noticeable when we are devastated at the forced conclusion of a ministry. To ‘know yourself’ is essential in tackling this problem. For myself it has meant spending an ongoing monthly time with a skilled person where I can celebrate my joys and confess my sins in a confidential atmosphere (James 5:16). John Wesley was a strong advocate for this and he encouraged his followers to share in small group settings on a weekly basis. Don’t let shame over ride the importance of getting help.
- Bowing to the expectations of others. People can be so demanding and sooner or later we have to tactfully confront this.
- Not taking a weekly Sabbath rest. I recently read this interesting story. ‘Someone applying for an associate pastors job had an interview. “Rich, there’s only one way to get fired at this church.” I sat up straight waiting for him to give an example of some kind of moral failure. He said, “If you don’t keep (the) Sabbath you will get fired, because you won’t have the kind of life that will sustain you for the kind of work pastoring entails.” (Rich Villodas, Christianity Today ) Do you want to work for the ‘short haul’ or the ‘long haul’? Too many of us think that we are super human until we slide into burnout and then it’s too late! You must learn to pace yourself before you lose your health and spiritual vitality.’ Eugene Peterson defined Sabbath as, “Uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing.”
- “Vicarious trauma” where we are being stressed/traumatised by hearing of others pain and suffering.
- If Jesus was to take over your ministry would He work at your pace? …. If not what are you going to do about it? No excuses please, especially by thinking that once this is out of the way you will rest up!
- Needs do not always constitute a call. Jesus often withdrew to a quiet place to recover.
- I was given good advice once that reading books about burnout can be good, but reading relevant articles is more time effective. True. It is also good to attend appropriate seminars on the subject once in a while.
Honourably Wounded by Marjory F. Foyle