Sometimes ministry burnout crashes into a life like a meteor, impossible to ignore. Other times, it creeps up day by day until we think the exhaustion and imbalance are normal.
Find out whether you have burnout—and what you can start doing today to treat it.
Here are 10 signs of ministry burnout adapted from Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture.
- Concentration is hard; distraction is easy.
- You think obsessively about certain difficulties in your life. Jim described it to me like this: “Even little things began to fall on me with great weight. I would try to put them out of my mind, but it was like my brain was stuck. The thoughts kept spinning over and over. Nothing new was added to the process, no new solutions, no new information. Just the same cycle.” Another man said it was like “trying to swat mental flies.”
- You forget things you used to remember easily: appointments, birthdays, anniversaries, phone numbers, names, deadlines, etc.
- You find your attention drawn to negative subjects, and you are developing a hypercritical and cynical spirit.
- Your brain feels fried.
- As soon as you wake and think about the day ahead, your heart starts pounding and your stomach starts churning over the decisions you face and people’s expectations.
- You find it difficult to rejoice in others’ joy, often forcing yourself to fake it.
- You have little joy in your work, you dread it, and you are so miserable that you would consider doing anything else but your present job. “I was confused,” one pastor wrote to me, “and soon my confusion turned into bitterness toward God. ‘What do you want from me? I work all the time. I have no hobbies, no downtime, no joy, no life.’ I began to hate the ministry.”
- You are falling behind, feel constantly overwhelmed, and have begun to cut corners, take shortcuts, and drop your standards.
- You draw only on past knowledge and experience rather than present. As Aaron Armstrong put it: “We can rely on the backlog of information in our heads from years of reading, and not notice that something’s wrong—that our metaphorical tanks are getting low—until we stop in the middle of traffic.”1
If you’re still not sure whether you suffer from burnout, check out the book for more signs—and what to do once you’re diagnosed.
In The Ministry Leader and the Inner Life course, Dr. Justin Irving of Bethel University guides students through vital issues like emotional intelligence, calling and purpose, and spiritual gifts. If you’re in need of renewed passion and a refocus, start here.
Read on for an excerpt adapted from the course: aspects you can address today to better your life and your ministry.
Isaiah 64:4 emphasizes the fact that God is the God who works for those who wait. This verse reads, “From of old no one has heard or perceived by ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him.”
The reality is, as leaders, we often change the words of this verse in our actions. We operate just the opposite of what Isaiah 64:4 is pointing us toward. We believe that God waits on us to work for him when the reality is that God is a God who longs to act for—to work for—those who wait upon the Lord.
The need to pause
In our lives of pursuing personal and spiritual formation, are we so busy with trying to do things—reading the next book, engaging in the next seminar—that we actually do not pause to put ourselves quietly before the Lord to wait on him to work for us? Isaiah 64:4 indicates that he is a God who works and acts for those who wait for him.
There also is a challenge we can have in trying to pursue balance. . . . With any of these areas of personal formation or spiritual formation, it can feel like we have a dozen or more plates that we’re spinning, trying to keep in balance. When this happens in our lives, a focus on trying to balance everything—or another metaphor, to juggle everything—that’s going on in our lives, inevitably, the plates drop and the balls are dropped. The plates come crashing down, and the balls we’re trying to juggle find their place on the floor alongside those plates.
I’ve received some wisdom from leaders who have walked before me who argue that it is helpful to change the metaphor and change the perspective from trying to pursue a balanced life to trying to pursue a centered life— meaning, what are the primary/central features of your life that deserve the attention and focus? How are you to center on the core functions and practices that will help you have a life of personal wholeness and personal formation? And what are the central elements to focus on that will help you have a life of pursuing Christ and having a spiritually formed and holy life before the Lord?
. . .
Another angle on this that another leader and friend of mine has talked about is the concept of managing energy over time. Rather than trying to just look at our day planner, trying to look at our calendars to manage the time before us, how are we also managing our energy?
There are times where we might invest ourselves in something for four or five hours that completely wipe us of our energy. There might be some times where we’re engaged in an activity for eight, nine, ten hours and yet it is energizing in our day. So, it’s a priority to not simply manage the time of our life but to manage the energy of our life as leaders.
This helps us to avoid the chaotic living that we were warned of and cautioned of earlier, to keep a life that is centered and to keep a life that is focused on managing our energy in the midst of centering our priorities on what matters most.2
Check out the 11-hour course by Dr. Justin Irving, The Ministry Leader and the Inner Life.
- David Murray, Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture (Crossway, 2017), chapter 1.
- Justin Irving, The Ministry Leader and the Inner Life (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), segment 87.