“I’d rather burn out than rust out!” the young pastor said. The wise older leader responded, “Either way you’re out.”
Recent statistics tell us that each month an alarming number of leaders choose to leave the ministry because of burnout. I learned something about this experience in my early years of pastoral work.
My close encounter with burnout:
With the odds stacked against me, I poured myself into ministry with unbalanced fervor. The threat of burnout would have been far from my mind. Full of vision and a touch of youthful naïveté, I had a calling to answer and a job to do. Nothing but full throttle ahead would be acceptable. I was ready to tackle the work of starting a Church in the university town of Millersville, Pennsylvania! My expectant wife and I moved to the community in 1985 to take the remaining seven members of a Mennonite Church and build a thriving non-denominational Bible Church. By God’s grace, we are still in Millersville and the Church is flourishing. But I had to learn a lesson about rest and ministry.
In the first five years, our little group grew to 175 people and we added three children to our young family. During the first four years of ministry, I had to work on the side to support our growing family. I now realize it was more like working two full time jobs. By the fifth year, on a very modest salary, we were able to devote ourselves fully to the ministry.
After the fifth year, we decided that a vacation would be a good idea. My wife tried to convince me that two weeks would be best but I didn’t want to leave the work for that long. We settled on a week. Occasionally, my wife reminds me of how hard it was in the early years to get me to take time off. I was carelessly unaware.
Consider the statistics
Eighty percent of pastors’ spouses feel their spouse is overworked. Eighty percent of pastors’ spouses wish their spouse would choose another profession. The majority of pastor’s wives surveyed said that the most destructive event that has occurred in their marriage and family was the day they entered the ministry (from: Barna and Focus on the Family).
My pace was unsustainable
When we arrived at our vacation destination, I unloaded our luggage and laid down for a rest. I will never forget what I felt at that moment. I had pushed myself to a frightening point of exhaustion and I knew that I couldn’t possibly continue the pace of my life. But it took getting away for me to come to my senses. How could I be at risk of burnout? It didn’t make sense because I didn’t see myself as an unbalanced person. Lying on that bed, on vacation, I realized that I had not been honest with myself and that my pace was not sustainable for the long run.
Some will say, “Been there; done that!” Others might wonder if this describes their present condition. It’s amazing how oblivious we can be to the threat of burnout until it hits with full force. Opportunities outweigh resources. Overload comes too easily. Margin and balance are hard to maintain. The good threatens the best.
Five signs of burnout
- Decreased energy;
- Loss of motivation and feelings of failure;
- Reduced sense of reward in return for pouring so much of self into the job or project;
- A sense of helplessness and inability to see a way out of problems; and
- Cynicism and negativism about self, others, work and the world generally.
If you’re experiencing physical depletion and fatigue; if you’ve begun to question your effectiveness and battle with negative attitudes towards life and other people; if you feel a growing desire to withdraw from responsibilities and detach from people; if you experience a growing sense of hopelessness, your condition might be a case of burnout.
Responding to burnout
What should you do? When I realized my level of exhaustion, I knew several things had to change.
First, I had to deflate my ego. Even though I was not egotistical, I had the wrong view of my own importance to the Church. I had to realize that the ministry does not depend on me as much as I thought. It belongs to God and I am a replaceable part of his work.
Secondly, I had to do a better job of sharing the work. I am not talking about delegation because that word implies giving “my” work to others to do. Sharing is a better word for ministry. I began to pray that God would bring some low maintenance, high givers. We needed more mature people who could share the work. I had to be careful to invest in people who desired to be participants in the Church, instead of devoting time to those who had no desire to serve. There are plenty of people who want to plug their spiritual umbilical cord into us and live off our walk with God. The evil one wants us to invest our focus in those who do not want to serve others. One of the best decisions we made was to add an associate pastor during our fifth year of ministry.
Thirdly, I learned to say “no” to things I didn’t really need to do. This required regular reminders from those around me, and a willingness to listen to them. In Church planting, we had to keep a “no job is too small” mindset. But as the Church grew, we had to learn to hand things over to others and focus more on oversight. Keeping the main thing the main thing is an ongoing battle. Simplify and prioritize has been my motto.
Finally, I had to prioritize quiet time for prayer and reflection. Those who give large amounts of themselves to others must balance ministry to others with solitude and self-reflection. This is the only way to replenish. Opening Scripture and meeting God in His Word each day is an indispensible part of living a well-balanced and healthy life. On one occasion, Jesus said to his disciples, “Come away to a secluded place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). This is good advice for those facing the threat of burnout.
Does the devil take a vacation?
“I have no sympathy for those who say the devil never takes a vacation,” said the late Vance Havner. “I am not following the Devil but the Lord who said, ‘come apart and rest a while.’ If you don’t come apart, you’ll come apart— and you’ll go to pieces.”
Vocation or Vacation?
In his book, “In Praise of Plodders” Warren Wiersbe wrote, “Doctors tell us that burnout is ‘the product of unresolved emotional conflict.’ It’s not the demands of our work that destroy us, but the way we respond to those demands. Many a pastor has listened to his nerves instead of to the Lord and ended up looking for a new vocation, when what he really needed was a vacation. If you value your emotional life, take time to relax. Don’t become a martyr by blowing all your fuses at once.”
Thankfully, I learned my lesson on that first vacation. Looking back on 26 years of ministry in Millersville, I am grateful for the thriving Church that grew out of the small group. I am even more thankful for the good wife who faithfully labored with me. I’ve been blessed with a unified leadership team of eight pastor/elders and many part time helpers. Our children are raised and released and with deep gratitude to God, I can say that each one continues to seek the Lord and support His work.
Being an elder/pastor is a continual reminder that God put His “treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (II Corinthians 4:7). We must practice the rhythm of spiritual activity our Lord followed— a pattern of engagement and withdrawal, of crowds and solitude. “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone” (Matthew 14:23).
Get perspective in the audience of One. “Come away” Jesus said, “to a secluded place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31).
For a few more thoughts: Rhythm of Life and Ministry