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Burn Out or Bend Your Knees

I have been thinking about burnout a lot lately.

One reason is that I’m coming up on the mile-marker of five years of ministry in Chattanooga. Year five seems to be that invisible mountain that many pastors try to summit and do not conquer.

In addition, as our ministry opportunities, staff and volunteer force grows, so does the potential for the burnout of those I lead.

As often as we have heard the term burnout, I wonder if we actually understand it. For many, burnout is like a child trying to describe the wind—they know it when they feel it, yet defining what “it” is can be difficult.

I recently heard a pastor describe burnout in a helpful way. Here is my slight variation of what he said:

Burnout happens when ministry demands increase and personal soul care decreases.


Time to Work

When ministry demands increase, we can respond in one of three ways:

1) We can avoid our responsibility and drop the ball.

We never want to value excellence in execution over loving our leaders. We need more church cultures where there is grace to fail and drop the ball.

However, if we constantly find ourselves avoiding our responsibilities, then there’s a problem. These failed to-dos impact others, create more work for others and hinder God’s mission from moving forward.

When demands increase and we are unable to faithfully accomplish all our work, we can spiritualize avoidance. “I know I didn’t get it done, but I just really needed time with Jesus. So, I had to choose the better thing.”

While we always want to choose the better thing of sitting at the feet of Jesus (Lk.10:42), we also need to see our pride in avoiding our responsibilities. If our capacity to accomplish a needed task is the end of the matter, then we have considered ourselves too valuable and essential to the mission of our church.

2) We can power through and overextend ourselves.

Others do the opposite. As tasks increase, they take on more, sleep less and push themselves to the max. And most often the first thing to be pushed out is personal time with Jesus, quickly followed by downtime with friends and even family.

This too is a form of pride—to think that we don’t need to draw from the deep well of friendship with Jesus in order to work alongside Jesus. With this mindset, we attempt to become mini-saviors pushing the Kingdom of God forward with our resources and our strength.

3) We can delegate and work together.

When the floodwaters of to-dos rise up to our noses, we can avoid or power through. Both of these options are fueled by pride and neither ends well.

Instead, we can delegate. Ask for help. Depend on others.

This requires humility to say, “I can’t.” It requires understanding that others can do the things that we can do and can often do them better.

As leaders, we should always be asking ourselves, “What are the tasks only I can do? What can I delegate?”

Leaning on each other in this way chips away at our ego, and collaboration opens the door to rest, health and longevity in ministry.


Time to Rest

Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tm. 4:16).

Now that we’re delegating our increasing ministry demands, how do we care for our souls?

1) Embrace your weakness.

The pride that gets us in over our heads whispers the ancient lie of self-sufficiency and strength.

The humility that brings us to our knees whispers the ancient truth, “Your hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn your commandments” (Ps. 119:73).

We are weaker than we ever dreamed, and God wants to do more through our weakness than we can imagine (2 Cor. 12:10). Personal soul care happens in the presence of Jesus. Nothing draws us into the presence of Jesus like embracing our weakness.

2) Share what you need.

With our weakness and limitations clearly in view, we can ask others on our team for help. We can communicate to them what we need—not just at a task-level but at a soul-level.

How encouraging to work alongside others who are not only ready and willing to help each other with to-dos but are also ready at the drop of a dime to pray for each other.

In this way, we bring each other to Jesus in prayer, and then we personally go to Jesus ourselves to share with Him what we need. This requires time and space.

3) Create space.

Jesus understood His limitations. As ministry demands increased, Jesus increased His time with His Father (Mk. 1:32-37). Do we?

Martin Luther also understood the needs of his own soul when sharing his plans for his day with a friend: “Work, work, from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

In ministry, more work requires more prayer. Every healthy friendship demands margin for connection and growth.

Are you scheduling time alone to spend with Jesus in His word and prayer?


Where are you?

We all feel this tension between increasing work and decreasing rest. Where are you in the tension? And, with God’s help, where do you need to go to avoid burnout and to experience health?

Pastor, Jesus loves you! Ministry is heavy, but Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:30).

Apart from Jesus, ministry will crush us. With Jesus, we find an other-worldly lightness as we navigate difficult work together.

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