Burnout in Ministry

November 12, 2008 at 12:10 pm | Posted in Questions for Pastor Glenn, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I’ve been thinking about burnout lately.  Not because I am struggling with it, though motivation in ministry can be an issue for me, but because I’ve been asked about it in some different contexts.  There may be times when someone struggles with burnout issues because of sickness or other physical imbalances.  Outside of that, I’m thinking that burnout in ministry always has the same cause, though that cause may take many forms.  Burnout comes when someone is relying on a resource other than God.

            Some people burnout in ministry because they are not believers and are just doing what seemed to them a good thing to do.  It may be something that they fell into or it may be copying someone who impacted them, but they are doing it without Christ because they never really trusted him for salvation.  These people will run out of gas before too long.  Either they will see the futility of what they are doing and lose motivation or they will run themselves ragged trying to meet needs they have no strength to meet.

            Some burnout because they pursue the wrong things.  They work for big numbers of people, or big buildings or more exposure and fame.  For a few, these things happen in spite of them, and the results are motivating enough without God’s help.  I believe this is the case with some of the big media preachers, though not all.  But for many more, the results never come and the unmet expectations wear heavy after a time.  I’ve been there myself and I know.  I decided years ago, when I was pastoring a very small church, that if God wanted me to spend my life preaching to only 30 people, I would be faithful to that task and leave the results to him.  Sometimes people seek approval or recognition in ministry.  They need positive feedback, and when they don’t get it, they get weary.  This also I know all too well.  It is encouraging to get good feedback in ministry, and we should encourage those who minister to us, but if that feedback is our motivation, we are pursuing the wrong things.  God will not empower the wrong pursuit.

            A special case of wrong pursuits is people who burnout because they are maintaining the institutional methods they were taught without conviction or passion that those methods are what God really desires.  Or they follow those methods thinking they are God’s only ordained methods.  In either case, God is not in it because they are not ministering from overflow of the relationship but from human tradition.  This is not to say there are no God-ordained methods or traditions, but to say that God uses different things at different times and in different settings.  Simply using what one believes to be a God-ordained method because of the past is not relying on him in the present.

            Another case of the above is those who burnout because they are not ministering in the area God gifted them to minister.  I believe the spiritual gifts God gives affect people to the core of their being, impacting even their motivations.  When people use the spiritual gifts God gave them, they are motivated and enthusiastic about their ministry.  When they minister in other areas, they wear out because there is not a deep motivation there.  I am gifted as a preacher/teacher, and, after 20 years of full-time ministry, the past fifteen as a teaching pastor, I have never tired of preaching God’s Word week after week.  However, when called upon to do counseling or to mediate between differing parties, I wear out quickly.  The co-pastor at our church has a great sensitivity to hurting people and is motivated to counsel them.  Though he does a great job filling the pulpit when I’m on vacation, it is not something he relishes doing often; it would wear him out like counseling does me.

Finally, some burnout because they do not take the needed sabbath rests God tells his people to take.  I’ve seen many a pastor who wouldn’t take a day off each week, because he thought there was too much to do and his work was too important to break away from.  Such thinking is arrogant; it presumes that God can’t operate without me, and that his principles don’t apply to me.  Ultimately it is relying on my strength instead of God’s.  Relying on God’s strength means always following his principles, even if it seems that less is getting done for the kingdom.  An acrostic I thought of years ago is appropriate here.  True REST is Relying on El Shadai’s Strength Totally; El Shadai is God Almighty.

As I’ve written in recent days, our ministry to others must be from the overflow of God’s ministry to us.  He must be the ultimate resource we have in ministry.  We must follow his principles, use the methods and gifts he’s called us to, take needed rests, and trust in him.  When we abide in the Vine, then we will bear fruit.  When the Spirit is evident in our lives, we will have joy.

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  1. You know, it’s refreshing to think about Earthly problems in God’s context. A few comments:

    “…the results never come and the unmet expectations wear heavy after a time…”

    This is an important thing to remember for a lot of different subjects. Burnout in ministry isn’t the only thing, though it is especially applicable in ministry. Set your sights on God, and nothing else. He will change your desires. This is something I’ve been struggling with recently. I want so much, yet God is saying, “No, not yet” and the reasons are unknown at worst and baffling at best. It’s so tough to keep God as your top priority some times, but your thoughts here are very helpful.

    “people… burnout because they are maintaining the institutional methods they were taught without conviction or passion that those methods are what God really desires… Simply using what one believes to be a God-ordained method because of the past is not relying on him in the present.”

    This is something I’ve struggled with too. Why do I believe what I do? Can I find support for this in the Bible? Is this superstition? How can I carry God’s work through this set of rules? The simple answer: “The just shall live by faith.”

    “Another case of the above is those who burnout because they are not ministering in the area God gifted them to minister. I believe the spiritual gifts God gives affect people to the core of their being, impacting even their motivations.”

    I can agree with this simply by using personal experience. I’ve had people say otherwise, with intriguing arguments, but they just don’t hold up. They say things like, “You can become more outgoing”, or “God can change you to be better at ministry” or even “You can minister to others in foreign countries when you don’t know the language and have really bad people skills anyway”. The truth is that God made us they way we are for a reason. If he made you in order to change you, it is for His glory. However, I think he made me the way I am to put me to work. If he wants me to change, I have no idea how he will do it. But he’s the creator of the universe. I think he can figure out something.

  2. Thanks Ty. You have some great comments here. All of us, who grew up in Christian homes, like you and me, must come to the place where we evaluate whether what we believe is truth or learned behavior. This relates to simple things like worship styles or dress and to major things like the meaning of the gospel or the truth of scripture. As one of God’s children, who trusts in Jesus, don’t be afraid of that evaluation process. Let God use it to build in you a depth of conviction and passion that will never burn out!


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