Fairly recently Lifeway Research conducted an in-depth examination of the problem of ministry burnout and concluded through its research that only ten percent of pastors left the ministry because of burnout.[i] Whether it’s ten percent or more, ministry burnout is an issue, and it’s something I am personally familiar with.
My Personal Story of Burnout
I was 24 when I first experienced burnout. At the time, in 2004, I was leading Servants of Grace through a time of great growth, preaching on an internet radio station once a week, and attending a community college studying philosophy. There were many great opportunities for ministry showing up, and I foolishly believed I could do them all. My foolishness led not to fruitfulness but to the worst burnout I’ve ever experienced. As a result, I quickly began to suffer from anxiety attacks and full-blown depression.
I eventually recovered, but three years later I came close to the line once more. By the grace of God, my wife intervened, and thankfully I listened to her. This second encounter scare led to me handing over control of my schedule to my wife, Sarah. I told her that no matter what I was doing or what opportunities came up, that she had veto power over it all.
Whether it is on social media or in face-to-face conversations with others, I always tell people that outside of my salvation my wife Sarah is the greatest gift God has ever given me. Before I met my wife, I was very unfocused and undisciplined. By the grace of God, my wife helped me regain my focus on Christ, and then on good and godly priorities that required my attention.
Shortly after she helped me in this way, I started doing better in school and in every area of my life. So dramatic was the change that my family and friends wondered, “How did this happen?” I was only able to overcome burnout by the grace of God and the love of a godly wife. And although it’s been many years since I burned out, I still occasionally find myself taking on too much and getting close to that edge. Why is that? I wonder if it’s because of the ongoing struggle with unbelief.
Idolatry, Unbelief, Healing, and the Gospel
As I’ve learned through two bouts with burnout and several close calls, I was more concerned with a good thing, ministering to people than on growing in my walk with the Lord. While ministering to others is an important part of the ministry, we should never prioritize service for Christ above our growth in God’s grace. When this happens, ministry becomes an idol. As Charles Spurgeon said in his classic work, Lectures to Students ministers are first and foremost Christians then ministers. As Christians, we are to know the Lord personally and then to serve Him. While it’s easy to justify our lack of quality time with Jesus with saying, “I’m too busy” such a statement reveals we are acting in unbelief, not belief.
As I came out of burn out, I quickly realized that what got me into it was a lack of confidence in the transforming power of the gospel. Instead of resting in the finished work of Christ, I was trusting in my ability, efforts, and success in ministry, then in the Lord to bless my efforts.
Healing from burnout is possible, but it is only possible if you truly desire Christ. Christ promises rest to His people, inviting them to come to Him whose burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). Jesus bids His people come with confidence before His Throne and commune with Him (Hebrews 4:14-16).
When I burned out I was not resting in Christ; I was more interested in my performance for God. As a result, ministry become my idol. The cure for this is understanding how the gospel provides the fuel by which ministry leaders serve the Lord. Also, it’s critical for ministry leaders to personally know how the gospel provides the fuel and motivation for knowing God and serving His people.
What You Can Expect From This Series
In this series, I want to get to the heart of this issue by providing you with biblical, theological and practical teaching for not only how to avoid burnout but to address the underlying causes of burnout by pointing you to Jesus. To that end, we will consider the following together:
- First, we will consider the topic of resting in and being renewed in Christ.
- Second, we will examine how to grow in godliness.
- Third, we will explore the gospel, accountability, and friendship.
- Lastly, we will look at how to care for one another in a manner worthy of the gospel.
Our churches need healthy pastors and ministry leaders. They need men whose lives are Word-centered. Our churches also need men who are grounded in the gospel and whose character is continually being shaped by the gospel. Such a legacy will lead to the well-being of ministry leaders, which will, in turn, affect how we lead their families and ministries by God’s grace.
[i] Lisa Cannon Green, Despite Stresses Few Pastors Give Up On Ministry, September 1, 2015, accessed March 24, 2017. http://lifewayresearch.com/2015/09/01/despite-stresses-few-pastors-give-up-on-ministry/