In many churches today, there are diverse leadership roles: cell leader, zone leader, youth pastor, head of worship, and the list goes on. Although pastors face burnout more commonly than lay leaders, understanding the symptoms of burnout in anyone serving in ministry, and addressing them early, can make a critical difference.
In any leadership role, the risk of burnout is real. This goes for leadership in churches as well. Burnout is defined by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon (not a medical condition) and in simple terms, what this means is that you’re often or always unmotivated, tired, unhappy, unable to focus and you feel like you’re running on empty.2
You may be thinking — I’m just a cell leader, head of the children’s ministry and in charge of Sunday hospitality. Could this phenomenon apply to me? Sean Nemecek, author and coach to ministers in crisis, shares four questions to ask5:
- Are you emotionally fatigued? It’s deep exhaustion that doesn’t go away even after a few days of rest.
- Do you have a diminished sense of accomplishment? Work that used to bring you joy now drains your soul.
- Have you lost your sense of self? You’ve forgotten what you enjoy, and value and can’t recognise yourself.
- Are you feeling hopeless? You don’t see how change is possible, you feel stuck and have lost your optimism.
If you answered yes to all four questions, Nemecek says you’re probably in burnout.
God commands rest even in the midst of our service to Him. Burnout was and is never part of His plan.
“When I’m talking with pastors, I usually say: ‘Burnout is what happens when our inner walk with God isn’t sufficient to sustain our outer work for God’…”, says Nemecek.5
We must understand that Jesus Christ never intended for us to be burnt out in our service to Him. Throughout the Word, we can see evidence of God looking out for us, commanding us to rest from our labour (Hebrews 4:9-11), support one another (Galatians 6:2) and find true rest in Him (Matthew 11:28-30).
And He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.” (For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.) They went away in the boat to a secluded place by themselves.Mark 6:31-32
God worked and rested; He expects us to do the same. In his infinite wisdom, He knows we are finite.
Is being too nice a cause of burnout? Possible reasons for burnout among the church community.
According to Prof Phil Van Auken of Baylor University, there are a “growing number of conscientious Christians who unknowingly fit the burnout syndrome to a T.”3 He first clarifies that burnout is not just feeling tired from daily stresses, life, even ageing; it’s a result of overextension, prolonged stress and hurriedness.
“Burnout happens to nice guys–to the dedicated, loyal, idealist church member who wants to make a difference. That’s the problem: this all-out commitment drives some Christians to take on too much, too soon, too often. They overlook their heavy non-church responsibilities at home and on the job.”Prof Phil Van Auken3
Van Auken then lists what he defines as the road to church burnout:
- Over-commitment (always in motion);
- Inadequate breaks and rest (continuous ministry involvement);
- Idealistic standards;
- Constant low-grade stress (occasionally interrupted by the crisis)
- Lack of help and assistance;
- Chronic fatigue from pushing oneself
- Strong sense of responsibility, even when others “dropped the ball”;
- Guilty feelings about missing church events/activities;
- Heavy job and family responsibilities/expectations;
- Inability (or strong reluctance) to say no.
If you or someone you know fits this description, it may be time to take a step back and assess if you’re heading for burnout in your ministry role.
“Okay, someone I know is burnt out. What should they do?”
The good news is that if you’re burnt out, there is a way out. Nancy Wilson, an author and pastor’s wife, shares several keys to overcoming burnout.
1. Address and confess your sin
According to Wilson, it’s not the tiredness or fatigue that is sin but rather the “sinful attitudes” we may have, including self-pity or self-loathing, envy of other people’s lives or a complaining spirit.
So by all means, deal with any sinful attitudes before trying to solve the issue of burnout. Self-pity never helps us or equips us when we have work to do, and it will not be our aid in dealing with this. But once we have set aside any sin by confessing it to God, let’s turn to consider the burnout itself. How did we get here in the first place?Nancy Wilson4
2. Learn when to say no
Saying no isn’t the easiest thing, especially in a church setting. Wilson advises splitting our ‘duties’ into two categories: mandatory (God-given) and voluntary.
By identifying what our non-negotiables are, we can easily see if we’re failing to fulfil our God-given responsibilities simply because we’ve volunteered to do everything else. Are you doing what God has called you to, or way more?
3. Remember that you’re not irreplaceable
When we look back at Van Auken’s road to burnout, we find that burnout can stem from the feeling that if you don’t do it, no one else will. Wilson challenges us to take a step back and consider that we are not irreplaceable.
4. Don’t break your promises
If you’ve overcommitted, Wilson says, ask God for strength to see it through. Don’t flake on what you’ve said you will do; rather ask for more grace in this season and learn from it.
One of the ways we learn to be wise rather than hasty in our commitments is by sticking to them…And we will find out that it is not a sin to say no. It’s not a sin to let someone else volunteer. Someone wisely said, “The need is not the call.”Nancy Wilson4
“Serve the Lord with joy and gladness. Come before His presence with singing.”
Burnout can happen to the best of us, but Jesus sees our hearts (Jeremiah 17:10). He knows that often, church burnout happens because we believe (or have been taught) that the greater our service, the more pleased He is with us.
However, Scripture clearly shows us that God loves us unfailingly (Psalm 36:7) and values obedience over sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22). Are we doing what God has called us to or way more?
Jesus knew of the burden of burnout. His words in Matthew 11:20, 30 are extremely comforting: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.PROF Phil Van Auken
Serving God and all that comes with it ought always to be accompanied by joy. Work is worship, and we are each called to establish God’s kingdom through work. But in His order of things, His joy must be seen, felt and experienced in our work unto Him.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. – Romans 15:13
1. Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases, 2019, World Health Organisation
2. Caston, M 2019, 6 Warning Signs of Pastoral Burnout, The Mustard Seed – Medium
3. Van Auken, P, Understanding Church Burnout and What to Do About It, Hanmaker School of Business, Baylor University
4. Wilson, N 2016, The Way out of Burnout, Desiring God
5. Cornwell, M 2022, Burnout: Has the pandemic pushed pastors to the point of no return, Premier Christianity
6. Cover Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash