This post first appeared in the CareLeader website, May 9, 2016, http://www.careleader.org/prevent-leader-burnout/.
I know how easily a Christian leader drifts in the direction of burnout. By the time I turned thirty-seven, I was dangerously close.
Having talked to scores of others over the last twenty years, I see more clearly the mental and emotional pieces that breed the sort of disillusionment where you wish you were playing golf—not leading a workshop on God’s grace.
Burnout is not inevitable. It can be seen from a distance, if you look closely. Helping people “stay in the game” without burning out in the process should be a major goal of coaching ministry leaders.
Here are some of the main factors that create the perfect storm for burnout.
Running out of adrenaline
There’s a nasty, brutal truth no one tells people during their twenties. They will never have that much adrenaline again. The ability to push through, work twenty hours straight, and not feel the effect … leaders need to know: it will never come again. Most people discover too late that there’s a physiological component to burnout. I thought I had some awful disease at thirty-five because I woke up tired after a big meeting the night before.
Most folks do what I did. They push through and push through until there is no “push” left. And then, on a bad day they think God is somehow failing to come through for them. Or more likely, they conclude they are miserably failing God. The real truth is more humbling: they are living in a body that has limits. And that body will stop them in their tracks until they listen to it. This is the good plan of God.
Wiser Thought No. 1: Help leaders realize that they are running a long-distance race, not a sprint. Their goal is to grow old loving people and serving Jesus.
Becoming a stranger to silence and solitude
We live in a culture that rewards activity and noise as signs that Something Important is happening. The problem is that it does not match the life of Jesus.
Christ dealt with the demands of people by, on occasion, getting away from them. He withdrew. He let Himself take in the support, the nurturing, of His Father. If Jesus had to stop and get away, if this God who created the universe rested on the seventh day, then why would your leaders think they can go from people-need to people-need and not feel the effect?
I remember so well the first time I went alone (dragged myself) to a retreat center. It was so eerily quiet. Nothing was happening. All my little insecurities and suppressed fears rushed forward, eager to fill the space. But by the second day, my soul relaxed a bit. The quiet and solitude slowly wrapped me in a warm blanket. Taking a walk, reading the Bible, indulging in a nap—all in the context of silence and solitude—why, my soul came to life. My ears were unplugged. I could begin to hear and see and feel God present, there in the moment, entirely enough. Rest. I found an inner soul rest—really, I think, for the first time.
Twenty years later it’s not so hard to take a couple of days in a retreat center. I can tell when I’m overdue, not unlike a runner knows when she hasn’t had exercise. I know there is no substitute for this silence-and-solitude thing. But then, if I read the Bible with honest eyes I conclude there was no substitute for Jesus either.
And so I go. And I make sure I go to a place where they pray … and nobody talks any more than utterly necessary. Your people will have to hunt for those places, but they are there!
Wiser Thought No. 2: Your leaders’ insides will settle down if they let themselves think and feel and pray for at least a few days in a quiet space, just them and God. They will return strangely refreshed, like Someone poured water into their cups.
Secretly believing God loves them more when they teach the workshop
Oh, this is a hard one. We know better. We are the ones teaching the workshop on grace. A wild thing begins to happen, though. We start to feed on the high that comes from seeing God move in a person or a group of people. I seriously doubt there is anything sweeter on the planet than the moments when God, in His mercy, moves through you in the lives of others. Only a midwife would understand what it’s like.
It’s greased skids from that spiritual pleasure to the human temptation your church leaders may have to build one’s identity around being His “indispensable” instrument. That’s why ministry is an easy addiction. But just as when people abuse a substance, over time they require more and more of their drug of choice in order to get their high. Which leads your people to take on more and more responsibility until they can’t handle any more and they burn out.
Wiser Thought No. 3: Show your leaders there is amazing freedom in serving a God who does not need them, but rather lets them come along in what He is already doing. Being loved by Him is the only reality strong enough to hold the weight of their lives.
Drowning in the waves of a loss they won’t take time to feel
About the time I was cruising toward burnout, my parents’ marriage began to fall apart. I never saw it coming. How could this be happening to my small-town-Virginia family back east? For months I walked around in a state of grief I could not name. I was too busy trying to meet the needs of others to see my own need with any clarity. What I did notice was the biting edge of a cynicism I could barely contain.
It’s humbling to be the ones leading others—who must, themselves, ask for prayer. It slows the leaders down in a half-irritating way to buy a journal so they can write what they’re feeling so they can, then, pray what they are feeling. So they can actually feel the comfort of God. Big losses can’t be breezed past.
I recently read the familiar story of Mary and Martha, and I noted that the cause of Martha’s worry and overwork was a distorted view of God. “Don’t you care,” she said, “that I’m left to do all the work?” She was saying these words to Jesus, who was on His way to the Cross to pay for her sins. Yes, He cared.
How easily, though, your leaders fall into this same distortion. When they won’t take time to process big chunks of life as they come to them, they are prone to conclude that they are alone. And that God doesn’t care. It takes them some time and focus and a diligent return to the Father to discover, like Martha, how very much He cares.
Wiser Thought No. 4: Using busyness as a way to push through a significant loss will only move your leaders closer to burnout and leave their souls high and dry.
Having little internal “permission”
I remember reading a quote years ago that said something to the effect of, If you think of yourself only as God’s hired servant, then you can be praised and promoted, or you might just as easily be dismissed. It’s a precarious arrangement. While our theology tells us we are secure in Christ, many of us think of ourselves and live with God as His hired servants. This was how I was living, on the inside.
But God invites us into a different relationship altogether. Your leaders are His sons, His daughters. They are already loved. The place they have with Him can’t be gained—or lost. In the wake of that freedom, there is the permission to work and serve and give. And there is the permission to rest and play and receive.
Those last words have been life to my soul. The gospel means that this door on the inside can swing both ways: I get to work and serve. I also get to play and receive. I remember that the word receive was so unfamiliar that I carried it around inside me for a year at least, like a cup in search of good water. What was God trying to give me through this conversation or passage of Scripture or song on the radio? What would it mean to have the permission to receive? Such a novel thought to people like me who secretly think love comes by doing.
Wiser Thought No. 5: If your church leaders live as sons and daughters of God, then they can work and serve and give. AND they can rest and play and receive.
I believe that burnout among Christian leaders is quite avoidable. It grieves the heart of God when these individuals come to see this midwifery work as a burden or a chore. I think the devil cheers when leaders get disillusioned.
The ultimate comfort is that we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken, says the writer of Hebrews. And so, the service offered up by leaders is one of gratitude. The only motivation that lasts.
Your leaders follow in the path of a God who daily bears their loads. If they live as wise sons and daughters, with the support of fellow travelers, with enough quiet to settle their souls, and with the freedom to rest as well as to work, they just might still be in the game when their hair is gray and their bones creak.