Proactively Preventing Burnout in Ministry

By John Martin

If you have been in a ministry position for any time at all then you have probably already learned it can be a difficult and sometimes thankless job. This can be especially true for those who serve in a role that is more “behind the scenes.” It can feel that the only reason anyone notices us is when something is wrong and they have a complaint. We are often criticized harshly as we make every attempt to make everyone happy no matter how impossible a task that is! We put in hour upon hour preparing for the various services, visiting members of our congregation and team, overseeing administrative tasks, and simply going before God to pray for the people and ministry He has entrusted to us only to have to smile when someone jokes about how ministers only work “one day a week.”

Ministry can be, and often is, difficult. In our roles as ministers, we will struggle with loneliness on a consistent basis and if we are not careful, we will begin to believe that no one truly knows us, understands us, or even cares about us. Over time these difficulties begin to take their toll on us spiritually, emotionally, and physically. If something does not change, even the strongest among us can fall into a state of depression and find ourselves burning out.

In the first article of this series, we identified some of the most common causes of burnout in ministry. In this article, we will attempt to offer some practical steps you can take to help protect yourself from ministry burnout.

Prioritize your faith

I know it may seem strange to have to say this, but as ministers we cannot neglect our personal walk with God! But even though we know this to be true, too often, we fail to prioritize our time with God.

When I was still pastoring full-time, I had to prepare at least three sermons per week: Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. I typically spend about 20 hours (and often wish I had longer) of preparation and study time to bring a sermon from thought to a polished message; and that does not count the time spent praying over and practicing the sermon. When pastoring, I found it was impossible for me to prepare three quality sermons each week plus make visits to the congregation, attend various committee meetings, and represent the church at different community gatherings and denominational meetings. So, what would typically happen would be that I would spend much of my time preparing the Sunday morning sermon (12-15 hours) and a little less time preparing for the other two sermons (10-12 hours total). That would translate to between 25-30 hours per week on sermon preparation and then another 20-30 hours per week on everything else for an average of 50-60 hours per week working in my role as pastor. This led me to develop a quite common but dangerous habit: not prioritizing my own personal quiet time with God every day. I figured I was already spending at least 4-6 hours per day reading and studying the Bible to prepare the sermons; that was more than sufficient. But God had to remind me nothing can take the place of spending time meditating on His Word and allowing Him to speak to me. I had to understand God does not want us to study the Bible just for the sake of our job or to simply be able to “check it off the list.”

Spending time in God’s Word is what allows us to learn about Him. Spending time in God’s Word is how He speaks to us; it is how He shapes us, and it is how He shares His heart with us. We cannot begin to get to know God and build intimacy with Him if we are not spending time in His Word and allowing it to penetrate our hearts and minds.

Above all the requirements of the job, before preparing the sermons, the set list and the order of service, before the rehearsals, before building the media slides, before the production meetings, before making those phone calls, making those visits, attending the meetings, before approving the budget requests, counseling the staff/team member, or signing off on the order of service we must, absolutely must, spend time with God! If we want to be proactive in preventing burnout, then we must prioritize our faith by having a daily quiet time where we pray and spend time meditating on God’s Word.

For more information on the need for a daily quiet time and tips on how to implement it in your life, please check out our blog article “The Practice of Quiet Worship.”

Prioritize your family

When it comes to raising a family someone once said, “The days are long, but the years are short.” Years ago, when I first heard that statement, I did not grasp the enormous truth of what was being said. But now, after more than 27 years of marriage and 3 children (ages 24, 21, and 16) the reality of that statement has hit me full on like a bucket of ice cold water and awakened me to the fact the years are passing by all too quickly. In a mere moment I have transformed from a young “know-it-all kid” without a care in the world to a 51 year-old man with a wife, grown children, responsibilities and the “hard to hear” but very true knowledge I don’t know everything and I don’t have all the answers. What I do know is that in the blink of an eye my children have grown (one is already on his own and the other two will follow soon) and I am staring at them, seeing them as the babies they once were, and attempting to figure out where the time went.

I do not think it is coincidence that as Paul is teaching us about how to walk as Christians in this world and just prior to discussing the relationships of spouses and children, he makes this statement: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16, ESV) Paul tells us to examine carefully how we are walking and to utilize wisdom. He seems to indicate that those who are wise make “the best use of the time.” That phrase “the best use of the time,” literally translates “buying back the time.” In other words, time is a series of ongoing choices; moments in time we use to carry out God’s purpose for our lives. How we choose to spend our time is vitally important to our walk with God and living a life of wisdom. But how does this relate to our family and making them a priority?

As I said, I do not think it is a coincidence that as Paul lays out what a faithful Christian walk should look like in his letter to the Ephesians that he includes teaching on how Christians should interact with and treat their spouses and their children. This teaching comes shortly after the instructions on making the best choices when it comes to using our time here on this earth. I believe this is a clear indicator God wants us to prioritize our families and spend time with them! Think about it a moment; before the first government ever ruled, before the first church was ever established, God created and ordained the family. The family is the foundational building block of all society and I believe the reason we see our society and culture deteriorating right before our eyes is because for far too long we have neglected the foundation or, in other words, the family! Pastors, we must prioritize our family. When we do not, it creates stress within our hearts and lives as well as within the hearts and lives of our family. This stress can create division, it can bring irreparable damage to our relationships, and it will hinder us from the ministry we are so devoted to. Therefore, we cannot allow our ministry to take priority over our family; for if we lose our family then our ministry is already lost! I honestly believe one of the biggest causes of burnout is the stress and guilt a minister feels over neglecting his or her family. So, what do we do about it?

Spend time with them. When our children were little (although it gets more difficult as they get older) we always had dinner together. It was a priority and no one was excused unless they were sick. If one of the kids said, “I’m not hungry,” we would tell them, “That is fine, you don’t have to eat. You do have to come and join the family at the table.” We made this daily event a priority; work, after school activities, nor any other commitments could take precedent. My wife and I were (and still are) far from perfect parents. We made a lot of mistakes and there are many things I wish I could go back and change, but this idea of eating dinner together is not something I would change. Looking back, I now realize the meal itself was not the priority but the time together. We would each share about our day, questions would be asked and many topics ranging from current events to the Bible were discussed. We laughed, we cried, we yelled, and we would sometimes even sit silent just enjoying the quietness of the moment together. This is where we formed our bond, this is where we influenced our children, and this is where we learned about what our children were facing in the world.

Spend time together. Should the Lord allow me to live and tarry His coming, I will preach other sermons. I will sing other songs. I will write more articles and I will handle more administrative tasks than I care to think about. But my time with my children, molding them and helping to shape their world views has come to an end for some and is quickly ending for others. Now that my youngest is 16, I am no longer their sole source for information. I may not be the most influential source in guiding how they interpret and process the information they receive. How I wish I could literally “buy back the time” and spend even more time pouring into my children and discipling them. Spend time with your family, love on them and let them love on you! Nothing can make you feel better than to “unplug” from the craziness of this world and seek refuge in the greatest gift God has given you outside of the gift of His salvation.

Prioritize your fitness

I am not the person who needs to write this particular point; I am the person who needs to read it and apply it! However, it is of vital importance we do not neglect to take care of our physical bodies.

Many people who are not in ministry often think it is a “dream job!” They do not know it can be both mentally and physically exhausting as well as spiritually draining. The long hours, too many fast-food drive-thru’s late at night, lack of physical activity, and the loss of sleep can all add up to take a toll. Eventually this failure to prioritize our fitness can lead to lack of energy, disease, injury, and burnout. Therefore, we must prioritize our fitness and here are a few practical tips.

Exercise. Not only is exercise good for our physical health, but it can also give us an emotional boost. This does not mean we need to spend hours at the gym to reap these benefits. Mini-workouts and short walks are convenient ways to make exercise a daily habit.

Eat a balanced diet. Eating healthy can give your mood a boost. There are many foods, when eaten in the appropriate proportions and prepared in the right way, that can help regulate hormones and elevate your mood while helping to reduce your anxiety.

Practice good sleep habits. Our bodies need time to rest and reset which is why healthy sleep habits are essential for our well-being.

These three simple things can do wonders for body, mind, and soul!

Prioritize your friendships

This can be a tough one because as ministers we often shy away from people. It may be surprising but many men and women in ministry are introverts. Those who know me will find this even more surprising, but I too am an introvert! To be honest, I am an extroverted introvert.

You can put me in a room full of people and ask me to teach them and I am the “life of the party.” I come alive and I do everything I can to “own the room.” I make eye contact, I tell jokes, and do everything I can to connect with the audience. If I am with a small group of trusted friends and family where we are simply fellowshipping together, again, I can sparkle and shine because I feel “safe.” But put me in a situation where I am expected to meet new people, make friends, and share my needs, then I clam up and can become one of the most introverted people you will ever know.

It is difficult for me to open up about myself. It is difficult for me to share about my pain and sorrows. I think it is because I am, by nature, a private person and a bit of an introvert. Ask me how I am doing and regardless of how I am feeling or what is going on, 99% of the people will get the same answer from me 99% of the time: “It’s okay” or “I’m fine.” Many of the people who ask are friends and family members who care for me and are genuinely interested. They would try to help if they knew I needed help, but still I most always answer, “I’m fine.” If you are close to me or if it is a particularly bad day, you may be graced with an, “It is what it is.” It is hard for me to open up and share about myself.

As I said, in part this is due to me being a private person and, in part, to being slightly introverted; but I think it is also the fact that I am a minister and I feel for me to admit weakness or struggles might cause people to think I have a lack of faith. If I am brutally honest, sometimes my faith is weak. I am like the father in Mark chapter 9, verses 14-29 who comes to Jesus asking for healing for his son. Jesus tells him all things are possible for those who believe and the father replies, “I believe, please help my unbelief!” I believe God can do anything but sometimes I wonder if he wants to do these things for me. God, please help my unbelief!

My friend, ministry is tough enough without trying to do it alone. We all need help; we all need friends.If you want to avoid burnout, then find a trusted friend of the same sex and lean on them. Share with them and allow them to help you.

Prioritize your finances

The reality is that many ministers are not paid enough and suffer financially. This adds to the stress of an already stressful job and can lead to burnout. We fear asking for a raise because we think many will view us as having a lack of faith or worse yet, they will view us as being greedy and “just in it for the money.” But the reality is, if you are serving while your family is starving, then you may become too stressed to do your job and the enemy could use this issue to plant the seeds of resentment and anger in your heart towards those you are called to serve.

My advice is to pray and seek God’s provision but do not be afraid to share your needs with the church leadership. This is too important an issue to “sweep under the rug” or leave to chance. Remember that many church congregations do not think about the minister’s financial needs and there are many who would work to help and support a raise if they knew one was needed.

Prioritize your failures

Sounds strange, right? It felt strange when I typed it. I sat and read it several times. Prioritize your failures? What does that even mean? If you read our previous article on the Common Causes of Burnout in Ministry, then you may have realized this article mirrors the points from the first article. Since neglecting our failures can lead to burnout, it only makes sense we address the need to review and admit to failure here. But let’s talk about exactly what I mean when I say to “prioritize your failures.”

We all fail and, just as assuredly as we celebrate the victories, we lament over the loses. So, when I say we must prioritize our failures, I am talking about two things. First, do not keep your feelings about a failure bottled up and allow them to remain pent up inside you. Talk about it. Pray over it and allow God to remove that burden from you. Find a trusted friend and debrief with them. Talk about what went wrong and what went right. Ask them what could have been done differently and listen to their advice, then put it behind you. Ministry is not rocket science. There are so many ideas and opinions on how to handle issues in ministry and sometimes our ideas will work and sometimes they will not. It is a learning process and sometimes we fail. Failing is a part of learning, so learn from it. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start again.

Another way in which we fail is when we fail spiritually or morally. In other words, we sin. Thanks be to God who gives us grace and has promised He will be quick to forgive when we confess and repent of our sins. But as ministers, we need someone to hold us accountable. This person may or may not be the same friend you turn to for advice or that you go to for comfort. But the important thing is that you find someone of the same sex that will hold you accountable to living a life of holiness. This is a person that you trust deeply and will ask you the “tough questions.” This is the friend that will not be afraid to “call you out” and hold you accountable. We need someone that knows and understands our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It is someone who will not look at us with judgement and condemnation, but it also cannot be someone who will help us justify our actions and failures. This accountability partner is someone who will have compassion and, at the same time, help us remain faithful to God and to living a life that pleases Him. Other than our relationship with God, our spouse, and our children, this may be our most important relationship. [fusion_highlight color=”” text_color=”” rounded=”no” class=”” id=””]An accountability partner will help us identify our weaknesses and pray with us and for us[/fusion_highlight] as we strive to become more like Christ. As ministers, most of us understand the concept and need for an accountability partner but we fail to make it a priority in our own lives. I urge you to prioritize finding someone who will help you to avoid these types of failures.

Burnout in ministry is far too common and growing worse every day. We must guard our hearts and remain diligent to preventing ourselves from becoming another statistic. We must learn what is important and make that a priority in our lives and ministries if we hope to avoid burnout. For we have an obligation to not only take care of those whom God has entrusted to our care, we must also take care of ourselves.

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. – Acts 20:28, ESV

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