Five Habits to Avoid Burnout in Ministry
Note: I hope you’ll enjoy another post with contributions from my good friend, Brady Ross. Brady is the Youth Minister at the Crestview Church of Christ in Waco, TX. To read more of his work, visit his website at bradyross.com.
Burnout in ministry is a problem for far too many people. According to recent research:
28% of ministers are spiritually undernourished
35% of ministers battle depression
43% of ministers are overstressed (To see all the data collected go to churchleadership.org)
Burnout can ultimately affect not only a person’s career, but their entire life and well-being. In our brief ministry careers, we have seen churches suffocate their ministers by placing lofty, unrealistic expectations on them that any person would struggle to meet. We have also seen ministers who work 70 hours a week with respectable goals and good intentions, but destroy their own lives in the process. Both of these potential pitfalls threaten the well-being of our churches and the people whom we work with.
Church leaders must know how to set up boundaries to protect their personal, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
In the space below, Payton and I take some time to examine five duties of ministers that may not show up in a job description, but that we believe are crucial to long-term health and personal development. Some may say, I don’t have time to worry about these things. I have to do the work of God! Although church work carries many important tasks, we would both argue that you don’t have time to NOT do these things. They will help you avoid burnout while strengthening and preparing you for a long career in ministry.
Habit One: Focus on your personal spirituality.
Payton: We spend so much time pouring into others that we forget to pour into ourselves. Yes, Jesus loves the people you are serving, but he loves you too. Honestly, he might miss you. A habit that is embarrassingly difficult for many ministers to pick up is developing healthy spiritual practices. Unless you have a deep spiritual well to draw from, you will have nothing to offer to those who are seeking or asking. It is easy to be sucked under the dark vacuum of pain and suffering the world's sinful nature creates. Many attempt to not only carry their burdens, but also the burdens of others. Personally I struggle with this, but have learned that saying "no" can be just as effective as saying "yes." We each have to decide where we invest our time, energy and resources because we have a limited supply of each. Adopting the metaphor from Wayne Corderio in his book, Leading on Empty, if we pour more into others than we do to ourselves, our "gas tank" will eventually run empty and we will have nothing left to offer.
Brady: Ministry and personal spirituality are not equal. You don’t get a pass on following Jesus just because you are serving in his church. And you shouldn’t want one - following Jesus is life’s greatest joy, and if you neglect personal discipleship because of your service in the church, you are robbing yourself more than anybody else. When done right, ministry is an outpouring of one’s love for Jesus cultivated through daily time in prayer and God’s word. This should be a priority for all people - ministers included.
Habit Two: Spend meaningful time with your family.
Payton: One of the most important things we have is often the first to get knocked down the ladder of importance. We struggle to understand why the average household is divided; I believe one of the reasons is because we have stopped making our family a priority. For me this is my wife. For you this might be your first-born child, your mom and pop, or your twin brother. These people have been put in our life for a reason. We, for the most part, didn't get to choose them or decide how they would act and think. What we can control, though, is the type of relationship we want to have with them. Coming from a person who has had many fallouts with family: love your family with all you can muster. You will not regret that time.
Brady: I think Andy Stanley says it best, “The real spiritual litmus test for a pastor is not what happens on Sunday morning behind the pulpit, but on Sunday afternoon at home with his family.” Your title, job, church, and career field may change over the years - possibly several times - but your family will always remain a constant. One day, when I’m old and retired and looking back on my life, I imagine that I will care less about the retreats and mission trips that I led, or the lessons that I’ve taught, and more about the way I loved my family and brought them closer to Christ. Also, to be bluntly honest, if your wife ain’t happy - you won’t be happy either!
Habit Three: Take care of your body.
Payton: You can only provide the best when you are at your best. Strain your mind (heart) you are going to experience burnout; strain your body you are going to experience a heart attack. Our bodies were meant to move. They crave for it. Here is one of the best reasons to care for your health: it improves the quality of life. Studies have shown that once you begin to exercise regularly, it reduces stress, lifts moods, and helps you sleep better. If you could spend an hour every day doing anything that promises these kind of results, wouldn't you be first in line?
Brady: Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:8 that physical training is of “some” value. I don’t think this is a statement that should be ignored. I have come to believe that there is a greater connection between physical health and spiritual devotion than you might expect. God has taught me quite a bit about discipleship through my personal diet and exercise habits (for more of my thoughts in this area, read a recent blog post here).
Habit Four: Have fun.
Payton: God gave us joy and laughter to use and express. God wants us to have fun, just not to be driven by it (Ecc. 11:9). When 'fun' is enjoyed in parameters it is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Ecclesiastes has a plethora of passages regarding the balance of joy and sorrow in our lifetime. One of the most prominent is Ecclesiastes 3:4: "A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…" There certainly is a time for everything, but what I want to call attention to is the time to laugh and dance. Do not trap yourself in a place of bearing the world's burdens. Find times of joy and laughter. Times to dance and live freely. This period of rejuvenation will take you the distance.
Brady: Jesus says it himself in John 10:10 - “I have come so that you may have life and have it abundantly.” God wants us to enjoy the good things in life that he has given us, as an extension of his power and his blessings. At the same time, God doesn’t want us to worship his “gifts,” but rather to worship him as the “giver.” For this reason, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a day off, a good meal, a fun activity, or even a mindless escape from reality from time to time.
Habit Five: Go to church.
Payton: It is true, on Sunday morning the ministers are stepping into their workplace, but they are also stepping into the house of God to exalt his name and sing praises to him like everyone else. Ministers are sheep amongst other sheep. They laugh, cry, fail, and wander like any other sheep might. This is not to say that they should not be held to a higher standard as leaders in the church, but that ministers need "church," too.
Brady: Sharing life with other believers is an important element of the Christian faith. Ministers shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice their participation in the body of Christ because they happen to also be employed by that congregation. For us, church is our place of work, but it remains our community with whom we share life.
We must never forget that ministers are people too. They have good days and bad days. They have fears, quirks, insecurities, and limitations. They can’t—and shouldn’t—neglect their personal well-being for the sake of their church. On the contrary, if they take care of themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, they will ultimately put themselves in a better position to lead ministries, shepherd the flock, and bring others to Christ. All church workers should strive to not only be effective ministers of the Gospel, but complete disciples, spouses, and friends.