Lies that drive people in ministry to a burnout

burnoutI have found from personal experience that people who have big work capacities – like I am – tend to perform really well and achieve a lot, yet they can push themselves that much further beyond what’s wise in their zeal and passion to achieve a little bit more. They ignore the fact that they are a three part being, with a body that represents one third of their being, which has a limited capacity to expand itself and which needs care or it will drag the other 2 parts down.
Yes, I have burned out, and it was severe. Recovery was very slow and painful and in those times when I was forced to just lie on the couch hardly able to move, I had plenty of time to think about how I got there and analyze the lies and the wrong motivations that led me there.
 
Because we are believers, and it is especially true of Spirit-filled believers, there is a certain belief that since I am working for God in ministry, certainly God will protect me from any of the effects of a burnout, because of His sustaining power and His resurrection power working in my body. That is true up to a point, but when we go beyond what God would have us do, and do more because there are too many ministry demands and needs around us, God cannot protect us where we go on our own initiative, beyond what He is asking of us. 
 
Jesus gave us a great example that we are not to be moved by needs, but by wisdom:
 
“Meanwhile, the apostles gathered around Jesus and brought Him news of all they had done and taught. Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. So they went away in a boat by themselves to a solitary place.…” Mark 6:30-32
 
As we can see from the passage above, this was a peak ministry time, it was so intense that the apostles did not even have time to eat. For Jesus, that crossed a line of wisdom. It was time to send the apostles to go away and rest. How many ministers today would feel they can send their ministry team away in a time of peak ministry time, because he sees that the team is in danger for a burnout. Jesus was controlled by wisdom, not by needs. He recognized danger and prevented it through wisdom. 
 
Have you ever been so busy that you had no time to eat? Have you been so busy that you feel sore all over your body? Have you been so busy that you tend to keep on getting sick and recovery takes longer than normal? These are just some of the obvious signs of overdoing it. If we ignore them, we do so at our own peril.
 
Because we believe we have more capacity than others, when other people tell us to be careful not to burnout we tend to think – yes, maybe they would burn out because they might have a smaller capacity, but I am pretty good with facing hardship and pain and can push through tiredness to achieve great objectives – and it feels true because we have done it at times, etc. That’s the exact lie that tends to drive you towards a burnout. Though it’s normally alright to push for a short period of time beyond your tiredness levels and achieve a needed goal, it’s NOT normal to live there and think there will be no consequences. 
 
A good resource that explains the consequences and symptoms of burnout can be found at http://www.pastorburnout.com/ – there are stories there from various ministry leaders of all kinds and missionaries who reflect the truth of the above made points. Unfortunately, burnout is very common among pastors and missionaries. It’s basically getting to a point of physical and emotional exhaustion that you cannot shake off and recover from through a holiday.
 
It’s like the engine stalled and you just can’t pull yourself up as usual. It usually combines physical exhaustion with relationship stresses, disapointments, feeling like your goals are not getting reached, or some grief that came through loosing a loved one, financial or health crisis, etc. Put together over a period of 6-12 months, it’s a recipe for disaster.
 
A great book to read on the subject is ‘Margin’ by Richard Swenson – it talks about the importance of leaving a margin in your life of emotional, mental, social, physical and financial reserves so when an unexpected tough time is forced upon you by circumstances you have the resources to deal with it, and those times come to all of us, sooner or later in life. It implies that you choose to under perfom on purpose – do 5%-10% less than what you can do in order to preserve some reserves.
 
If you do not allow this margin in your life, you will usually spend it and a lot more in months to years of total rest and agony, paying for counselling and in suffering inflicted on the family. The recovery can take anywhere from months to up to 5 years, depending on the severity of your situation and barring a miracle from God. And once you are half-way recovered, if you push yourself to your full limits, can fall back again in the same pit of burnout. 
 
 
I know of a big pastor in Canada, who did burnout so severely that he even considered killing himself in the mist of the darkness he experienced, but thankfully recovered (after 5 years!) and now he regularly checks himself regularly to make sure he is not going back into burnout.  He said that for him is a must to regularly check himself to make sure he is safe, and he does it using 9 signs that are usually present when you are burning out:
 
 
Those focus more on your heart and your emotions, but there are many other signs you can experience in your body as well, that alert you in advance you are moving towards danger. Yet the tendency is to think:I must sacrifice for Jesus, I must push through the tiredness barrier and I will be alright, because God will sustain me, after all He promised He will be with me. I will rest for 2 weeks and then I will be fine (not if you return to work at 120% speed). 
 
Another lie I have believed myself and heard coming from other leaders as well was that I can’t stop because so many people depend on me, so many baby Christians will die if I left the scene, or the ministry will fall apart if I stop. 
 
First of all, this is saying that I am indispensable to God and God cannot run His Kingdom, or this small part of it I run, without me. All the people who burnt out found out by experience there is nothing further from the truth, God will find someone to replace you and you are not that important. It’s actually pride bordering on idolatry. And if the people are dependent so much on you, then there is certainly something you are doing wrong, you are supposed to teach them to depend on Christ more and not make them dependent on you. And if you burnout, who is going to look after them anyway. You either rest or burnout, in which case they have to do a little bit or a lot without you, and that is your choice. Burnout recovery takes quite some time, it’s better to rest on a regular basis, take things slower and trust God with the people. After all He promised to keep them from stumbling, if they have Jesus inside and are sincere, God will keep them even with less input from you or He will send them other help as needed.
 
Secondly, the lie is that I have to respond to every demand for ministry, because there is a need. But the truth is, we are to be led by the Holy Spirit, not by need. Jesus did not let needs force Him to minister. There were still sick people in Israel after He died that He did not heal, and He did only what He saw the Father doing. Obedience is better than sacrifice, you can sacrifice yourself into a burnout, feel like you are a martyr and end up one as if you were one – with no energy to move, yet still alive and useless for a while. Or worse, with the mental torment of depression and anxiety.
 
Another lie that pushes many ahead beyond what is wise, is the need to feel good about themselves that they are high achievers, and the need to be seen by others as great performers, the need to be appreciated and honored for the great achievement. If those issues of low self-esteem, people pleasing, seeking honor and approval from men aren’t dealt with, people can work themselves into a burnout. 
 
Pride can also lead you in a burnout, the pride that makes you feel that you are special, and you are better than the majority others around you and you have a special favor and enabling from God to achieve far greater results than those around you. This kind of pride will motivate you to push hard so you prove to yourself you are that guy.
 
When you are full of vision, passion and zeal, you tend to push a little bit more to fit that one extra thing in a day. And the reality is, that the time you think you save by pushing that much more, after a while, if there is no rest, you will pay for it double or triple in recovery time.
 
I remember asking Clark Taylor, the founder of the Christian Outreach Center in Australia, who himself planted around 200 churches in Australia, 11 in one year at his peak. I asked him how he managed to achieve so much in the past, planting so many churches, seeing so many miracles, etc His answer shocked me:He said to me: ‘I loved Jesus, I did it out of passion for Him, but I was a fool’. I asked why, stunned. Then he proceeded to tell me that he would get up at 4 am and stay up till 1 am most nights praying and ministering, fellowshiping and training pastors. After a few years, he started to develop heart problems, which led him to spending 10 years in and out of hospital sick and therefore the result was that the time he thought he saved he lost and a lot more by being sick for 10 year later on, plus it led to a burnout. That was a life lesson for me.
 
I found some excellent questionnaires that are a great tool to assess yourself so you can find out how you are doing at any given time. where you are at in various areas  of your life(good for business people too):
Self-care Assessment:
Are you Stressed:
Life Stress Inventory:
Compassion Satisfaction and Fatigue Assessment:
Are you Burning Out Assessment:
I like these questionnaires because they are detailed and it can pinpoint small areas you might have overlooked that needs some change. I encourage you if you are in ministry or in a very demanding work situation to take these tests seriously and make notes of the things that are out of balance in your life. Then formulate a plan for which you can use your drive and determination to recover lost ground in any area you have neglected.
 
I am doing this myself right now. I am still recovering from my burnout and I want to get to a place where I break any unhealthy habits and live in wisdom so I can be useful for many more years to people around me.
 
Looking after ourselves should be on our non-negotiables task list, things that cannot be ignored or neglected. If you break down, all your plans go down with you and probably your family will be affected severely as well. So be a little selfish if you will, do what Jesus said: Love others AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF. As Christian leaders, we want our lives to be an example of a pattern others can follow that is healthy and leads to long term fruitfulness. If we truly loved others like we sometimes love ourselves, we would have no ministry, because people would feel ignored and neglected, just as we ignored and neglected ourselves. Let’s become those examples we want to be by starting to love ourselves as we are meant to and hopefully with this life change we can minister even in our eighties and tell others of the wisdom the Lord has imparted to us.
 
I encourage you to act by taking those questionnaires seriously and devising a plan that is non-negotiable and followed through so God can be glorified through your life. Feel free to write to me at mari @ christian-faith.com if you are having a rough time and need some encouragement on this course. 
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About Marilena Fackerell

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