Pastors and others in the helping professions are burning out from stress or blowing out in moral failure at alarming rates. Many studies have been done that show ministers suffering from overworking, stress overload, and discouragement or struggling with sinful behavior.
The cause of burnout and blow outs amongst Christian workers is not finding deep satisfaction in our life with Christ. We’ve stopped enjoying God and serving him. Disconnected from divine love, joy, and peace all our relationships and activities go flat.
Probably our doctrine is in order. Probably we are doing good things to serve the Lord. But our sacrifice has been feeling like too much. “I give so much, but what’s in it for me?” we feel. “I’m tired and what I’m doing isn’t really appreciated.”
Some of us may suddenly shut down in our ability to function from being overly pressured, continually criticized, or anxious all the time. We may become physically sick or fall into depression. We may feel like we need “a little something” for ourselves and so we turn to alcohol, food, taking extra money, an affair, or pornography. The comfort is fleeting. The temptations to sin are relentless.
(See our summary of research studies: “Pastor Stress Statistics.”)
Work and Rest
Even Jesus felt power come out from him when he ministered to people. He got tired. He needed space and refreshment. But Jesus didn’t live in a cycle of overworking and then recovering, much less burning out. Today we often talk about the need to balance work and rest, ministry and personal life in order to prevent burnout — it’s good, but it doesn’t go far enough because the order is wrong. It’s a cultural not a Biblical model.
In North American culture we work and then we relax. We get things done and then we play. But the way of life presented in the Bible is that the day begins with evening rest and then we wake up into a world in which God is already at work and we join what he is doing. And our week is meant to begin with the Lord’s Day, Resurrection Day, as our Christian Sabbath.
Jesus lived in the divine Sabbath rhythm, understood and practiced by the ancient Hebrews. His first priority was his intimacy with Abba and so he often went off into extended times of solitude and silence to pray. His second priority was his ministry to others and this flowed out of his personal abiding in God.
“I only do what I see the Father doing,” Jesus said (John 5:19). He called his demeanor of submission to and dependence upon the Father an “easy yoke” (Matthew 11:28-30). Jesus didn’t try too hard, he didn’t strain, he didn’t over-exert himself in ministry. Ironically, the Savior of the World didn’t try to be the hero, but sought to bring glory to God the Father!
Jesus was unhurried, at peace, and enjoying the moment with God and whoever else he was with — not just when he was resting alone or celebrating in community, but also when he was working hard and ministering to people in need.
Re-Ordering Your Life to Prevent Burnout
We’re meant to live in this world from the largeness of our life with Jesus in the Kingdom of God, but even as pastors and leaders we may lose sight of this, not in our statements about our mission and values but in how we actually function. Even though we “know” better, in our ministry leadership or caring for others we end up depending more on our own intelligence and abilities than upon the Holy Spirit.
The diagram “Renewing Your Life in Christ” highlights two contrasting orientations for living: one leading to burnout and the other to ongoing spiritual renewal. It features four circles or aspects of human experience that need to be differentiated: job, ministry, good works, and life.
In the burnout pattern we’re oriented on what we can do for ourselves and others and put our first priority on our job (probably not in principle, but in actuality), then our ministry and work, and last of all our life. We end up with a small and unsatisfying life!
To be spiritually renewed in God we need to focus on Him in worship and dependence, which means that we’ll put our highest priority on our personal life in Christ, then our work, ministry, and job. Happy is the servant whose good works, special ministry, and job flow out of a rich and meaningful life of enjoying God’s company, whether alone or with other people, whether working or resting.
(I’ve adapted this diagram and teaching from Dallas Willard’s “Spirituality and Ministry” Doctor of Ministry class that I took in June of 2012.)
The Four Circles of Human Experience
Your job is what you’re paid to do or whatever your main responsibilities are. Whether your job is pastoring, accounting, working in a grocery store, raising children, caring for a home, or volunteering to help a politician it’s a good thing. People who don’t have a job usually become depressed.
Your ministry is God’s special calling for you in your generation and your place in the world; it’s something that you are uniquely gifted and prepared by God to do with him in order to help other people in some way. Your ministry is your life’s mission statement. It’s your passion and it’d be a tremendous blessing if your ministry could be your job, but it rarely works that way. Even if you have your own nonprofit ministry there will be things you have to do for your job that don’t coincide with your ministry.
Thank God if you get fired from your job you still have a ministry!
Your work is whatever you do or make that blesses other people. It could be writing a blog, gardening, volunteering in a children’s classroom, painting, or listening to a friend over coffee. Whatever you do that’s lovely or loving, caring or creative, these are your good works that glorify God.
If your health declines or opportunities change and you’re not able to offer your special ministry you can still offer works of love to the people around you — even if you’re stuck in a nursing home.
Your life is your relationships and experiences that shape who you are. Your life shouldn’t reduce to your work, ministry, and job. It’s natural that our lives include many other diverse things like learning opportunities (including for your spiritual formation in Christ), resting, socializing, traveling, entertainment, and singing in the shower! It’s essential that you enjoy God and other people in your personal life, separate from what you can accomplish or how you can help other people.
Your life and soul are eternal. Abundant life is found by living God’s kingdom, entrusting your whole life to Christ. When you put your focus on loving God and enjoin him in your daily life then you have the joy and power to do works of love, minister in your special calling, and complete your job(s).
Paul Ministered Out of the Overflow of Christ in his Life
Let’s consider a brief sketch of the Apostle Paul’s life in terms of these four circles of human experience.
Two of Paul’s main jobs were tent making (Acts 18:3) and managing churches, which included many administrative duties, dealing with people conflicts, and raising money (2 Corinthians 11:28). These were difficult jobs for Paul. He did them without overworking, but he did them. Apparently he thought it important for his personal formation in Christ and his ministry to others that he complete jobs like these that he was not thrilled about doing.
Paul’s special calling from God was to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15-16). As part of this ministry he established churches and discipled many leaders (1 Timothy 1:1-2). Paul was all about making disciples to the Lord Jesus Christ! He loved his ministry, but he didn’t let it dominate his life.
There were many works of love that Paul did beyond the scope of his explicit ministry. A few prominent examples include providing for the needs of his companions (Acts 20:32-35), healing the sick (Acts 19:11-12), and discussing poetry and philosophy (Acts 17:16-34). You might think of these things as “ministry,” but actually they are works of love and not Paul’s special calling from God. Paul wasn’t set apart by God to a healer of the sick — this was something he did out of love for people and to help him share the Gospel with them.
The Apostle experienced many things in his life that were larger than his job, ministry, or work. For instance, he was trained in the law (Acts 22:3), spent three years in solitude in the Arabian desert (Galatians 1:17), received hospitality from Priscilla and Aquila and many others (Acts 18:1-3), walked the countryside with friends (Acts 16:6), sang hymns in jail with Silas (Acts 16:13), and enjoyed Olympic Games (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Paul’s life was filled with enjoying God and growing in his grace. This spilled over into the other areas of his life so that despite extreme stress and suffering he stayed spiritually renewed and didn’t burn out. He trained himself to depend on Christ in his daily life and so he remained in God’s love, joy, and peace when under pressure or being mistreated.
Elijah: a Story of Burnout and Renewal
After Elijah’s ministry confrontation with the false prophets on Mount Carmel he burned out and fell into a severe depression. His story illustrates the importance of depending on God’s strength in ministry and not our own. By identifying the symptoms that led to Elijah’s emotional meltdown we can learn how to prevent burnout for ourselves.
Precursors to Elijah’s Burnout
Why did Elijah burnout?
Criticism. King Ahab called out to Elijah, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” Elijah’s defensive response suggests that he let Ahab’s derogatory words get under his skin. (1 Kings 18:16-18) Most of us are hurt or discouraged by criticism, especially when it comes from authority figures or those we’re trying to help.
Intense Stress. Elijah challenged the false prophets on Mount Carmel to prove that Baal was a false God and Yahweh was the one true God and an fierce conflict ensued. (1 Kings 18:20) Then he prayed intensely for rain to end the drought (1 Kings 18:41). Anybody who is engaged in church, nonprofit work. or another ministry of caring for others will go through difficult conflicts, intense prayer needs, and draining experiences.
Isolation. In ministry we may develop a “Lone Ranger” mentality, whether from a desire to be a hero or out of self-pity, and try to do it all ourselves. In Elijah’s case, he said to the crowd of people watching this battle of the prophets, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has 450 prophets.” (1 Kings 18:22) As we’ll see later, that wasn’t true, but he felt and acted as if he was all alone.
Pride. The false prophets were trying to get Baal to answer their prayer and send fire to burn their sacrifice on the altar, but he wasn’t answering. “Elijah began to taunt them, ‘Shout louder!’ he said. ‘Surely he is a god!… Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.’ So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears… But there was no response.” (1 Kings 18:27-29)
This makes for great theater, but was it a good thing for Elijah to keep ridiculing them? It seems that Elijah is being prideful, that he’s making the battle about himself and his ego is invested in it all.
Ambition. Of course, Baal did not answer then false prophets by fire, but the Lord God Almighty did answer Elijah! Then he announced that God would end the drought and he began praying intensely. Sure enough, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, Yahweh brought a sudden rainstorm! After these great battles and miracles Elijah sprinted 22 miles to Jezreel, out running Ahab’s chariot! (1 Kings 18:45-46)
Why did Elijah run a marathon at top speed? It seems he was bent on performing a third great miracle. We know that the mighty profit was suddenly afraid of Jezebel, the little old lady who was the king’s wife (1 Kings 19:3)
Elijah’s Spiritual Renewal From Burnout
Elijah sat under a broom tree in the desert and collapsed in despair. The Lord began to minister to him and he recovered his strength and joy. What helped him experience renewal? Lots of sleep and food, solitude, praying out his emotions (e.g., fatigue, fear, sadness, isolation), listening to God, re-engaging with the community of Yahweh’s prophets (7,000 were faithful to the Lord), and being given Elisha to mentor. (1 Kings 19:3-18)