It was the summer of 2003 and I was excited to work my first paid pastoral gig. I had landed a youth pastor job in upstate New York, so I headed out to find my way. And I worked hard – really hard. Not knowing anyone and not having much to do in the small town where I found myself, I threw myself into my work.
I can remember a few things about that summer, but not many. After 2 months, I was completely burned out.
I think burnout can take a lot of different forms in ministry – apathy, tiredness, anger, vengefulness, losing sight of the mission, anger at the people you’re supposed to be serving – and there’s lots of solutions to those symptoms. You know the ones that everyone else always tells you – take your Sabbath, leave your phone at home, read Scripture not like a pastor, do things that are filling rather than draining, allow your mind to rest. And all of those things are great – and they usually work.
But many times, feeling burned out is actually just a presenting issue for a deeper problem.
I spend a lot of time with folks in recovery – alcohol, drugs, sex, you know the drill. The more time I spend with them, the more I learn about myself. One of the things that almost no one in the recovery world agrees with is the idea that you can just quit cold turkey and go on with your life. The reasons for that are very simple – even though it sounds appealing and is pragmatically fine, the real problem is that there’s a reason that you drank or shot up in the first place. Identifying THAT is the key to making sure you don’t fall into the trap again.
There’s almost always a deeper issue.
What I see in many of my friends in ministry who burn out is not just that they have been over-working themselves or plunged too far into ministry – the reason they burn out is that they’re using ministry in a way that it’s not supposed to be used. And the real problem with that is that, even if they take a break and come back to it, they will likely fall right back into the same rut. Maybe not right away, but eventually.
Those ruts are pretty diverse for ministry leaders, I’ve found. For me, personally, when I was in NY state, it was that I was trying to fill spaces in my life where I felt deficient with ministry – effectively trying to keep myself busy to stop from thinking about existential issues that I needed to think about. I see a lot of other pastors doing that, too. And now that I’ve had it happen, identifying it is about as simple as one alcoholic identifying another. Pastors who are using ministry to fill their feeling of failure as spouses, failure as a son or daughter, failure as a broken human being, guilt over something they’ve done in the past.
I also see a lot of ministry leaders who are burning slowly because they’re doing ministry they really don’t believe in – for a paycheck, for a career, for food in their family’s pantry. If you really pushed the on it, they’d admit that their church isn’t the type of church they’d ever want to join as a parishioner, but they’re simply there because they’re being paid to be there – and they kick against the goads for years until they finally burn their candle down.
So how can you, as a ministry leader (paid or volunteer) sense when you’re on the road to burn out? There’s lots of tests out there for that – lots of things to look for, and I named some of those indicators above, but I think the more obvious test might be the best – and it’s not “does what you’re doing in ministry bring you joy?” It’s not that simple – and there’s plenty of things that I do in ministry that don’t bring me joy but also don’t burn me out. So my test for coming burnout is this:
“Does what you’re doing in ministry make the kind of impact for the Kingdom that you feel God leading you to make?”
If it doesn’t, you need to revisit your view of the Kingdom, your view of yourself and your ministry position – any one of those wicks is liable to be burning out soon.