I have the blessing of talking with many ministers (missionaries and pastors primarily). It is often rather amazing how their public selves diverge from their private selves. Their public selves are all “Praise God!” and “God is Good All the Time!” (Is God good all the time?) But privately, they will often open up about their struggles with their ministry, their faith, their relationships. Many of them have ministerial and personal lives that are in chaos. There are many reasons this can happen, but one common theme is burnout.
What is burnout? Burnout is a holistic condition, meaning that it is a malady of heart, body, and mind, and shows symptoms that are also holistic, including relationships.
Quoting Nairy Ohanian, burnout has symptoms that include:
feeling overwhelmed by needs, unable to help, isolating self from people, cynical, distrusting, blaming others, feelings of incompetence, compassion fatigue, self pity, emotional exhaustion, detachment, irritable, frustrated, spiritual confusion, trapped with no end in sight, critical spirit upon self and others, despair and hopelessness. Besides the emotional and attitudinal warning signs, often there are physical manifestations of burnout. Burnout candidates often experience trouble sleeping, headaches or migraines, chronic hives, constant fatigue even after resting, excessive weight loss or gain, abnormal monthly cycles for women, anxiety attacks, distressing dreams or nightmares, tremors, dependence on over the counter drugs and possible alcohol dependence. (“Burnout of God’s Servants,” 2008)
Many of the horror stories of ministry leaders who were found to do horrible things did so after being overwhelmed by stresses, and then began to develop unhealthy ways with coping with them. This is not excusing their behavior, but a recognition that many find themselves involved in behavior later in ministry that they would have found repugnant early on, before stresses began to overwhelm them.
Burnout comes from a variety of stressors at home, with the ministerial team, and in serving in the ministry. Two classic examples of burnout, or potential burnout, in the Bible are Moses and Elijah.
Moses, in Exodus 18, receives a visit from his father-in-law, Jethro. In verses 13-18, we read,
The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone.”
In this, Moses’ system of ministry, taking on too much responsibility without proper delegation, will lead to being worn out, as well as the people he was serving. Elijah had a similar problem of taking on too much. In I Kings 19, Queen Jezebel threatened his life after a time of great seeming victory, so he runs for many days to Mount Horeb. Even before he gets there he appears ready to give up (verse 4)
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
After giving him food, drink, and rest, and encouraging him to continue to Mount Horeb, God finally speaks to him and Elijah responds (verses 13 and 14)
And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
Like Moses, Elijah feels that he has to do it all himself, feeling alone and isolated. Many in ministry feel that they have to do it all. As such, they have a poor understanding of themselves as limited beings. Relatedly, they don’t have good boundaries, protecting the time they need for care of themselves. Ministry consumed their time, their relationships, and their energies.
Burnout is to a large extent related to a compiling of stresses, where the stresses become too much for the coping capacity of the individual. As such a person often feels both drained and overwhelmed. One can imagine a person as having two gauges attached. One gauge measures the stress a person feels. The higher the value the more the person feels overwhelmed. Stress is the overall accumulation of wear and tear on the body due to demands placed on it. Stress is also holistic… mental stress, emotional stress, physical stress, and more. Likewise, the symptoms are holistic: physical, mental/emotional, behavioral, social, and spiritual. The other gauge is a measures of the coping capacity of the individual. The lower it is, the less stress the person can handle. Some aspects of coping capacity are related to long-term characteristics of the individual, such as temperament or family background. Others are related more directly to the present, such as exercise, rest, and other forms of mutual and self care.
As stresses overwhelm one’s ability to cope, burnout develops. The emptiness can be felt in a number of ways. One can feel “depressed” (not necessarily clinically depressed), worn-out, emotionally numb, unmotivated, spiritually “dry,” socially disconnected, alone, and lacking hope.
Sin can easily come into this spiraling of symptoms, but it is not necessarily the initiator. Seeking to serve God without knowing one’s personal limits may be foolish, but it is not necessarily sinful. However, as one’s life becomes less and less fulfilling, as one shifts from a “human being” to a “human doing,” all aspects of life begin to suffer, including spiritual. In fact, often the person will begin to seek substitutes to cope with the stresses— including drugs, addictive behaviors, or fantasies of a life that is more enjoyable than the real one. These substitutes have limited long-term success as coping mechanisms, and commonly lead to forms of acting out that further damage all aspects of one’s life.
So what to do about burnout?
Acknowledge it. This is a very important first step.
Let go. Rather than pray for God to give more capacity to handle the stresses of life and ministry, recognize that God’s will was demonstrated in creating each human as a limited being. It is likely God’s will to let go of some of the stressors.
Reject unhealthy coping methods and begin to develop healthy ones. Healthy ones include taking care of one’s health, having a positive supportive network of friends and family, and having hobbies or other activities that one enjoys that are not connected with ministry.
Establish priorities and boundaries. Ministry is important but there are things more important, such as God and family. Recognize that it is okay to say “No” to ministry requests or “Let me pray about it and get back to you.”
Speaking of prayer, establish good habits of spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, Bible study, and meditation. This should not be done legalistically, become another ministry burden, but as part of a joyful rekindling of one’s relationship with God.
Learn to delegate and to accept the accountability of others. Leaders need to be accountable to others as much as anyone else, if not more. Find people one can trust to share with freely, and who are willing to ask the tough questions.