Ministry burnout. It can be so frustrating. You love your ministry so much it causes you to work too hard and eventually you burnout. The more you burnout, it seems the more fires start popping up in other parts of your ministry, causing even more stress and exhaustion. It’s a vicious cycle.
According to the New York Times (August 1, 2010) “Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.”1
While you can certainly recover from ministry burnout before you allow the whole thing to go up in flames, perhaps a wiser approach is to not let yourself get that low to begin with.
To avoid ministry burnout, here are some common underlying reasons people in Christian ministry get so overwhelmed and fatigued. To stop the cycle of ministry burnout before it completely ruins you, you must identify the underlying problem that is causing all the stress.
1.Ministry Burnout Happens When You Are In It for the Wrong Reasons
At the root of ministry burnout is a mismatch between the amount of work required and the amount of energy available in the minister. When you give more than you have, you burnout.
We will talk about other solutions to solve this mismatch, but one way to deal with this is to increase your energy. You have to be honest with yourself and determine whether or not the work load is actually the problem. It’s usually verbalized that way, “I’m just so overworked.” But sometimes ministry burnout occurs not because there is too much work but because the person in the ministry is lacking the energy.
One way to increase energy is to examine the motivation for why you are in ministry. If you have a poor motive you will have a low energy level for ministry. Money, reputation, human praise, family pressure, religious obligation, having no other options, or any other weak motive just won’t do.
Love for God and love for people, all for the glory of God, compelled by the Holy Spirit, is the only motive that will keep you fueled for the long haul.
2. If You Don’t Want to Experience Ministry Burnout, You Need Ministry Boundaries
If burnout often occurs because of the mismatch between workload and energy levels, I think it’s the minister’s job to try to increase energy levels first to make sure the problem does not lie within. However, there’s only so much energy one should be expected to have for any given ministry role.
While people may see pastors and other church staff as “different” than the secular workforce, there still should be realistic expectations for all involved. Some in Christian ministry love working 60 or 70 hours per week. Some prefer to work between 40 and 50 hours. Neither is more holy or sinful. The most important factor is that there are clear expectations from those putting out energy and those taking energy.
To prevent ministry burnout, there needs to be ministry boundaries. There needs to be times where people know the Christian ministry worker is available and there needs to be times where everyone knows they are unavailable. While this should be something the whole church or Christian ministry thinks about and tries to enforce, most times the burden to create and enforce boundaries is on the ministry worker.
So if you are in ministry and you want to avoid burnout, it is your job to lovingly communicate your boundaries to those you serve. When are you available and when are you not? What roles are you willing to fulfill and what roles are you not? When will you respond to email and when will you not? Who are you willing to meet with and who are you not? How far are you willing to travel?
People can’t read your mind. They need to know your ministry boundaries. Creating and enforcing this type of structure will help prevent ministry burnout.
3. Ministry Burnout Happens When You Serve in a Bad Ministry Fit for Too Long
I just talked about this in point two of my recent sermon, “How to Have More Passion for God,” so you can refer to that article if you want to dive into this more.
But the gist of it is this: Your calling is where your passion and your spiritual productivity meet. If you are passionate about something but it doesn’t help people, it’s a hobby. If you are helping people but you are not passionate about it, it’s called a job or a duty. Mature people embrace both jobs and hobbies in their proper place in life.
But when it comes to ministry, it can’t be a hobby and it can’t just be a job. While you are serving in that ministry, you need to feel called there. That calling may not last forever, but you will certainly burnout if you are not passionate about your work and if you are not seeing fruitfulness.
When you are in a bad ministry fit, it shows through your stress, your joylessness, and your impatience with the people you are serving. Ministry burnout is never far behind when you are serving outside of your giftedness for long periods of time.
4. Ministry Is a Marathon and Not a Sprint, So You Will Need to Say “No”
“No” is a much more powerful word than “Yes.” While you can’t say “No” to everything, I don’t think most Christian workers fall on that end of the spectrum. I’ve seen far more people in Christian ministry who say “Yes” too much and “No” not enough.
People who often say no are people who have taken the time to define their ministry and set the goals they feel led to achieve for the glory of God. People who say yes to everything are much busier but often they accomplish less. When you increase your “no” muscles, you are empowering your ministry in the areas you have defined as your mission.
There are endless needs in the world, and if we try to meet them all we will fail to meet the ones we have been called to meet. Ministries that sprint and say yes to everything usually see quicker growth. But those who have a prayerful plan (which of course will leave room for flexibility) will start slower but will last longer and be more fruitful in the end.
Those who do not burnout know ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. You can fight valiantly and die quickly; or you can fight strategically and live to serve God and people (Psalm 19:2).
5. You Will Experience Ministry Burnout If There is a Tier 1 or 2 Difference with Leadership
Tier 1 issues are those which are foundational to Christianity. When people disagree on a tier 1 issue, they usually assume the other side is not truly Christian.
Tier 2 issues are important topics which many Christians disagree about but which would not cause either party to doubt the other person’s Christian standing. Tier 2 issues usually affect the daily life of the church and thus make disagreements about such issues reason for separation (like the Paul and Barnabas split). This is why there are denominations within the universal church.
Tier 3 issues are those which two Christians can disagree upon and it will not affect their regular ministry patterns. While any topic mentioned in Scripture is important, there are issues in the Bible where two people can disagree on but still serve with unity on daily base.
(For more on the Tier 1, 2, and 3 issues, read this article about theological differences in marriage.)
Tier 3 issues are to be expected. However, if you try to work with people day in and day out when there are tier 1 or 2 issues, you will get burned out in your ministry. Conflict will be more regular than communal unity and productivity will grind to a halt as you find yourself in constant traffic jams of differing opinions.
Avoid ministry burnout by properly assessing the level of disagreement present in your ministry. It’s okay if you need to accept that the differences with the leadership or staff involved are too great to overcome. Sometimes peace is produced through healthy separation. You don’t have to be enemies to part ways. Mature people can accept when things are just not working out and both parties could be more effective for Christ by working on their own.
Summary: How to Avoid Ministry Burnout
So much more could be said. Perhaps the best thing to conclude with is to remind you that ministry burnout is not acceptable and normal. So many times people let themselves die on the inside and get so low in ministry because they were taught “that’s just how ministry is.”
No, it’s not. Healthy ministry is possible. But the way you get healthy is by dealing with the sickness and then putting in methods to avoid certain problems again. Nothing will be perfect, but through the grace and wisdom of God, you can avoid ministry burnout.