There are many Christians who are in no risk of burnout whatsoever. They don’t overly invest themselves in the life of the church or other people, they are not given to being at every meeting or event that is put on, they seldom volunteer and they don’t go out of their way to take on extra responsibility. To be honest, they’re not that committed.
But for the host of Christians who are not like that, the Christian life can at times seem like too much. There are so many needs, responsibilities, opportunities, burdens and concerns that they may feel constantly overwhelmed by all that should be done. They know that Christ gave his all for us, laying down his life in our place, and we are also called to live sacrificially, readily giving, serving, loving and caring. But the work is never done and so it is hard to take time out, to rest or to say “no.”
If, however, we push ourselves endlessly, living with sustained stress and pressure, and inadequate times of refreshment and reprieve, our energy reserves will become depleted. We may be able to sustain the pace for a length of time, maybe even years or decades, but over time we become susceptible to one or more of the three classic hallmarks of burnout: a sense of being emotionally drained and exhausted; a sense of ineffectiveness and dissatisfaction with what we are doing; and a sense of distance and disconnection in relationships. Along with these symptoms of burnout we may also experience feelings of isolation, frustration, anger, guilt, disillusionment, physical exhaustion, sleeplessness, lethargy, depression or anxiety.
It is also possible that even when we are still performing well emotionally and mentally, our body is at the end of the road. To our surprise it suddenly refuses to go any further and we fall in a heap physically. We succumb to chronic fatigue, to panic attacks, to heart problems, or other health issues.
Books that address the issue of burnout in ministry frequently talk about the importance of self-care, though I prefer Christopher Ash’s term, “sustainable sacrifice”. Both concepts largely focus on what we as individuals must do to avoid burnout, but in addition to that, we need also to consider the culture of our churches. Sometimes it is not our unhealthy habits that kill us, but the system that we are in. If a church culture is laden with unrealistic expectations or unhelpful structures, then we may well see a church burning its best people out, despite those people doing all they can to avoid it.
Here, then, I will outline some critical strategies for self-care or sustainable sacrifice, and next month I will take up the impact of church (or organisational) culture.
The concept of self-care or sustainable sacrifice is not to be rooted in selfishness but in recognition of the fact that we are human, not divine. As human beings we are frail and fragile, formed from the dust of the earth, subject to the effects of the fall and, because of the judgment of God, destined to die (unless Jesus should return before then). As flesh and blood, we cannot be everywhere (we’re not omnipresent), we can’t do everything (we’re not omnipotent) and we don’t know everything (we’re not omniscient). So any ministry we engage in is limited by our humanity.
What does that mean in practice?
1. It means we need to look after our bodies.
We need to allow adequate time for sleep, setting morning and evening routines that allow us time to unwind and to sleep well. We need to eat healthily so that our body is fuelled to perform well. We also need to exercise so as to stay reasonably fit for service.
Not only do we need regular patterns of sleep, exercise and a healthy diet, but we also need to compensate for times of heightened stress. If we have had a particularly demanding week (or month), a highly stressful pastoral situation, or circumstances that have taken a heavy emotional toll on us, we need to allow additional time for recovery afterwards.
The difficulty with sleep, healthy eating and exercise is that it takes time. We may well feel guilty giving it time because we could be serving, leading, preaching, teaching, reading, witnessing or doing a hundred other important things. But God has given us a body to care for, and to allocate time each day and each week to looking after this earthly tent is not selfishness but stewardship.
2. It means saying “no”.
For many of us “no” is an incredibly hard little word to master. Each thing we are asked to do seems so worthwhile and there is no one else to do it. So we say “yes”. Ironically, the more burdened we become the harder it is to say “no” because “no” takes effort. It’s easier to say yes than to delegate it to someone else, or to explain why we can’t, or to see something good lapse for want of people to do it.
Behind the tendency to take on too much, however, can lie the need to be needed, or the pride of being the most committed and hard-working person around, or the arrogance of thinking we are the best for the job, or the temptation to be a people pleaser, or the folly of thinking that we are needed to save the day.
If you are notoriously bad at saying no to other people, find people who can help you say it. Talk over commitments with them before taking them on. Sit on requests for a week or so and see how that can reduce the sense of urgency. And above all, commit each decision to God, seeking his wisdom as to whether this is something you should do or not.
3. It means enjoying time with God, time with people and time alone.
If we are to thrive in Christian service and ministry, we need to find ways of being refreshed in our souls. The foremost way is through time with God. We must not only minister God’s Word to others but also to ourselves. We need time to think and meditate. We need to pray, casting our burdens on him because he cares for us, and thanking him for his kindness and grace. Ultimately, God alone can restore our souls, refresh our hearts, lift our burdens, and carry our sorrows.
But as with sleeping and exercising, this takes time and our tendency may be to short-change time with God because there is so much to be done. We then feel bad about that and so add guilt to stress. Perhaps the key to breaking the cycle is to see time with God not as a duty, or one more thing to fit into the day, but a blessing, a reprieve from the rush of work and demands of people, as we sit quietly for a little while to talk to God and listen to him.
In his grace, God refreshes us not only through his Word, but also through people and through the good things of life. We need to set ministry boundaries so that we can spend time with those we love – with our marriage partner, our children, our wider family and good friends. If the only people contact we have is with people we are ministering to, we will become worn out. We need time with people where we just enjoy each other’s company.
We also need to enjoy the good gifts of our Father in heaven. It is not ungodly to enjoy sport or recreation, music or the arts, the bush or the sea. We need to find those things that bring refreshment, so that we are recharged to keep serving God and his people.
There can be no “one-size-fits-all” formula for how to build these things into life. Our capacities, personalities, interests and opportunities vary enormously. But whatever our situation, we must balance hard work, sacrifice and diligent commitment with those things that make such service sustainable and enjoyable.