The word burnout means “the reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion.” It can also mean “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” Both definitions are applicable when it comes to ministry burnout.
Ministry can be all-consuming. A true spiritual ministry does not exist for the benefit of the ones ministering. It is a call of God to continually give of oneself—to invest time, resources, and energy in work that often has only heavenly reward (Mark 9:41; Luke 12:34). As the above definition states, burnout can happen when we are “reduced to nothing through use,” or overuse. The result of being reduced to nothing is “physical or mental collapse.”
In order to avoid or recover from ministry burnout, we need to ask ourselves a few questions:
1. “Do I know for certain that God called me to this ministry?” One of the foremost reasons for burnout is the lack of “fit.” Sometimes, enthusiasm or need propels someone into a ministry for which he or she is unsuited.
Whether in response to an impassioned plea for help or a personal eagerness to be used, people often take on ministries that God has not gifted them to fulfill. Lack of fruit or a dwindling of enthusiasm can bring on great discouragement and even depression. Burnout victims may feel God is disappointed with them or that they have failed, when in reality, this particular ministry was not God’s plan for them.
Determining “fit” for a ministry is not dependent on talent alone. Scripture is filled with examples of the least qualified being chosen by God for His work. God called the inadequate Gideon (Judges 6:12, 15), the aging and cowardly Moses (Exodus 2:14–15), and the murderous Saul who became the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1–2, 14-15). Jesus’ twelve disciples did not appear to be the kind of men who could change the world with the gospel (Matthew 9:9; Mark 1:16). Yet God calls whomever He wishes, and He empowers those He calls (Isaiah 46:11). He also gifts us with different abilities, which enable us to supernaturally accomplish what He designed us to do (Exodus 35:20–25; 1 Corinthians 12:4–5). We must be so in tune with God that we know His voice and recognize His call on our lives (John 10:27; Acts 13:2). When we purpose to do only what He asks and nothing more, we can avoid situations that invite burnout.
2. “Where am I getting my strength to serve in this ministry?” A real problem arises when we try to do God’s work in our own strength. We often rush into a ministry because we see its potential and believe we possess the skills and abilities to do a good job. We assume God has called us to this because we are available and we can do it. We forget that God doesn’t need our natural skills and abilities. He knows what He has designed each of us to do, and He wants to do it through us. Jesus modeled the perfect ministry attitude when He said, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19, 30).
Jesus was the Son of God, yet He did not attempt God’s work in His human strength. He relied totally upon the Holy Spirit in everything He did. The apostles did the same. Many times in the book of Acts, before a mighty work was performed, Scripture records that they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 4:8, 31; 7:55; 9:17). Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the known world in a very short time, due to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:41). The same men who had deserted Jesus in fear (Mark 14:50) now spoke boldly in the public square (Acts 2:14), traveled extensively sharing the good news, and were martyred for their boldness (Acts 12:2). When they waited for the Holy Spirit, they accomplished what they could never have done on their own (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4–5). If the disciples could not begin God’s work until they were filled with the Holy Spirit, neither should we. We must allow God to empty our hearts of selfish pride and fill them with the Holy Spirit before we ever attempt any work for God. D. L. Moody said, “Before we pray that God would fill us, I believe we ought first to pray that He empty us.”
3. “Am I taking time to stay filled and balanced?” Another reason for ministry burnout is lack of self-care. Those who minister are often selfless in their desire to serve. When needs are so great, resources so small, and fellow servants so few, those in ministry do not always put healthy boundaries on their time, energy, and efforts. They give and give without rest until there is nothing left of them. That may have been the case with Paul’s co-worker, Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25, 30).
God established the idea of a Sabbath for our own good. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). A Sabbath is a dedicated time of rest and refreshment. We all need times of separation from our daily work, or even ministry can become an idol. Jesus was the most dedicated servant who ever lived, yet He never neglected His time alone with the Father. Many times Scripture records that He rose early in the morning to meet with God (Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42) or that He went away on the mountain by Himself to pray (Luke 6:12; Mark 6:46).
Ministry drains us spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Paul said that he was being poured out as a drink offering before the Lord (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6). Anyone who has poured himself out in service to the Lord understands what Paul meant. When we constantly bear the burdens of others (Galatians 6:2), win the lost (1 Corinthians 9:2), and feel the responsibility for meeting physical and emotional needs, we can quickly run dry. Variety helps fill us up. Spending time with family, enjoying hobbies, remaining accountable to trusted advisers, and indulging in spiritual retreats can keep our cups full.
The secret to resisting burnout is to understand how to be refilled. Unless we stay plugged into the eternal source of life and power, we will quickly exhaust our supply. We must follow the example of Jesus. He also gave and gave until He was worn out. But He knew where to go to be filled back up. He spent time in prayer, fasting, consecration, and crying out to His Father, pouring His heart out and receiving answers. He spent time with close friends and also slipped away for solitude. In doing so, He had strength to complete the purpose for which He was sent. Even the Son of God never neglected prayer or God’s Word. He modeled for us what it takes to stay filled so that we can persevere in the callings God has placed upon our lives (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13).