“Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches…I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls.”—2 Corinthians 11:28, 12:15
Much has been said about ministry burnout. I probably won’t say anything new, but perhaps I can curate a few mediations for you. And then I have two lists I want you to write.
Mark Sayers says something about facing the Leviathan of our busy and over-entertained culture that has seeped into how we do ministry as under-shepherds to the Lord of Rest, the Lord of light-burdens and easy-yokes:
“Leadership is primarily in the ability to command a non-anxious persona in an anxious environment….The leader will exist in a toxically anxious environment that both desires leadership and works to undermine it. The leader must “return” to the toxic environment, maintaining relational connection yet remaining emotionally differentiated, and live out a posture of peace.”
I like that. But how do we return to the toxic environment if we’re running on fumes ourselves?
Spent for Souls
Is your current busyness “being spent for [their] souls?” Or is it the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things (Mark 4:19)? There is a busyness that is for your people’s sake and God’s name, and there is a busyness that is for your sake and your name; the former is a busyness that must be managed wisely, the latter is a sin that must be killed. As Kevin DeYoung paraphrases Owen: “Busyness is like sin: Kill it or it will kill you.”
Not all busyness is bad. Being spent for the souls of our people is good busyness. But the busyness of people-pleasing, the busyness of controlling, the busyness of doing work you aren’t called to, the busyness of performance for your sake, the busyness of “everything rises and falls on you” is toxic and only adds to the waste and stank of Leviathan.
Holistic Beings/Holistic Rest
The problem with some of the conversations on burnout is that it gets reduced to just one aspect of flaming out. Some talk of physical burnout. Others, wisely, speak of spiritual burnout; but it’s more complicated than that. We need to recognize that what we do is more holistic:
What we do is spiritual: Our war is not against flesh and blood, the enemy accuses us and those we minister to day and night. Further, your drift is sin and idolatry, not faith and spirit-filledness. When we don’t commune with God like a child with his father, we orphan ourselves into self-dependence on the streets of Leviathan, destined for burnout and moral failure. Read this slowly:
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me. — Psalm 131:2
What we do is emotional: He gives you enough strength for the day, but you will be drained emotionally without the rhythms of rest and repentance. People are draining. Even Jesus had to get away from ministry. Sometimes your physical capacity will outrun your emotional one (especially if you’re young). So it will seem like you can work well because you’re getting things done, but emotional burnout usually means you’re not getting people “done.”
What we do is mental: Taking your thoughts captive and making them obedient to the Lord diminishes without rest and repentance. When you can’t focus, are making silly mistakes, have trouble communicating, you are mentally burned out. Ministry takes a lot of thought, consideration, and creative energy.
What we do is physical: If you’re sick, tired, injured, out of shape, you can’t work well. What we do isn’t overly physical, but it is physical.
We are holistic beings who need holistic rest.
As well, it’s important to realize what burnout isn’t:
Burnout has nothing to do with capacity: whether you are a Ferrari or a Volvo you still need maintenance and fuel.
Burnout is not about your workload: how much work you have doesn’t change the time allotted to you in a day, the energy you have, or the priority of going to the Father first.
Signs, Signs, Everywhere A Sign
Make these lists for yourself and share them with a few people, and then run to the Lord of Rest.
Signs I am getting burned out or tired:
1. Sermon prep becomes laborious, mechanical, and can lack joy
2. I am more likely to watch tv/social media than to read
3. I lose compassion for others and tend to dismiss them, being inconvenienced by them, or judging them
4. I become frustrated with my lack of community, friendships, and/or encouragers
5. I lean into performance
6. My work lacks efficiency
7. My life lacks joy
8. Prayer becomes almost impossible to focus on
9. In the same vain, my mind becomes cloudy, decision-making becomes difficult, and vision impossible
10. I am angrier, more ornery, and sarcastic
Solution to burn out/tiredness:
1. Lean into the Holy Spirit
2. Don’t get burned out
3. Watch my preaching schedule
4. Assume unplanned meetings will happen, so plan accordingly
5. Daily Bible reading and prayer time
6. Keep a short sin account and repent often, be a lead repenter
7. Initiate and keep meaningful relationships
9. Stay off social media/TV and pray through tiredness
10. Rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, worship