This coming November my wife and I will celebrate 30 years of full-time ministry.
In our day we have seen many leaders lose their zeal for God and leave the ministry. Often this occurs because they did not take adequate time to seek the Lord on a daily basis for self-renewal. Other reasons include not having a balanced life that incorporates things that advance physical and emotional health (instead of just focusing on work and ministry).
I also have been guilty of not taking enough time off, having never taken more than 10 days straight for vacation in over 30 years of hard, grueling ministry (with 95% of my vacations being only 5-7 days long). Up until the past year I never took one full day off per week to rest my mind. At the age of 52 I am now being forced to change my patterns because I have exhausted much of my mental energy and can no longer cheat. (The main reason I have lasted this long without regular time off is because I keep a strict diet, exercise regularly, and spend time seeking God every morning.)
I knew it was time to stop cheating because of some burnout symptoms I came perilously close to experiencing. Over the years I have done much research on this subject and also have ministered to many leaders suffering from burnout.
The focus of this article is not how to recover from burnout but some of the signs of burnout. (I will mention a few points at the end that will aid in recovery.)
The following are signs of emotional and mental burnout.
I. You lose focus and clarity of thought
When experiencing burnout your mind hits a wall and you have fogginess of thought instead of clarity. Sometimes your short-term memory even deteriorates because of the mental overload.
II. You lose your passion for work and/or ministry
You dread going to the office or conducting meetings. You do it because of a commitment more than because it is a passion in your life.
III. You go from being a leader to being a maintainer
The primary calling of a senior leader is to be a visionary. Visionaries are at their best when they receive instruction from God at the top of the mountain and then come down and give vision to their congregation or organization. When in burnout a leader doesn’t have the capacity for any more vision. Hence all forward motion grinds to a halt and the leader goes into maintenance mode, trying their best to hold everything together while hoping they will once again get back the energy needed to take their organization to the next level.
Unless they take adequate steps for restoration, leaders like this will only get worse and not better. They will begin to see people leaving their church or organization because unless there is a compelling vision coming from the leader the people scatter (Proverbs 29:18).
IV. You have a continual sense of hopelessness
In burnout your hope for the future grows dim, depression begins to set in, and you begin to view the world with dark, grey lenses because everything negative is highlighted in your mind.
V. You isolate yourself from others
When in burnout you start creating more and more emotional space from others because you lack the emotional and mental capacity to carry on extensive conversations and/or minister to another person’s needs.
VI. You run from new challenges
One of the main reasons a church needs to ensure their senior pastor takes regular sabbaticals is because, unless the senior leader goes away for an extended time to renew and refresh themselves every several years, the vision of the church or organization will be limited because the senior leader will begin to shy away from new challenges, new vision, and forward motion. An unrenewed senior leader will greatly limit the capacity of a church to expand and grow.
VII. You don’t want to problem solve
A person in burnout doesn’t want to strategize or problem solve because it takes too much mental energy.
VIII. You dream more about retirement than taking a mountain
I knew I was starting to get too close to the edge when I kept envisioning the scene in the movie Gladiator when the lead character Maximus is about to die and he keeps envisioning the next life in paradise when he would rest from war and enjoy life with his loved ones.
When you are dreaming about laying down your weapons instead of going off to war to defeat your foes, then you know it is time to get recharged! Anyone who lives for retirement is a person who has already stopped living! For example, when a senior pastor gets to the place when they are looking at their own watch on Sunday because they can’t wait until the services end so they can go home and relax, then you know they need to be retrofit and recharged! God has called leaders to minister out of their abundance and overflow, not from the fumes of an empty tank!
IX. You lack patience for all things mundane
Those in burnout lose their patience for all things petty when dealing with relational challenges. (In the past they had grace for the immaturity of the saints but in burnout they have no patience for it.) They also lack the patience to deal with average things needed to maintain oversight of their staff and organizational business.
X. You view ministry as work rather than a calling
The greatest privilege I will ever have in my life is to represent the Lord Jesus as the overseer of a local church. It is not a job but a calling. When in burnout, sometimes the only thing that stops a pastor or leader from leaving the ministry is economics (their paycheck). The moment I stay in a church for the salary I will have gone from being a shepherd to a hireling. It is not a job but a holy vocation (1 Corinthians 4:1)!
How to Recover
I. Honor the biblical sabbath
Take time away to pray, study and refresh yourself. Take at least one day off in seven. For pastors, they can’t count Sunday as a day off because it is a work day. What has worked for some pastors is to take a weekday off, or from Friday night to Saturday night (but Saturday is often spent in sermon preparation so that may not work for some).
II. Spend time enjoying the Lord on a daily basis
I believe that burnout comes the quickest when we stop spending adequate time with the Lord. Hebrews 4 teaches us when we enter God’s rest we cease from our own labors; when we attempt to lead in our own strength God allows us to lose our energy because unless the Lord builds the house we labor in vain (Psalm 127).
III. Prioritize the things that are life-giving to you
God has wired each of us so that certain things we do are life-giving while other things deplete life. For example, extroverts are energized by being around people while introverts are sapped of energy when with people. Introverts need to schedule regular time alone to recharge in order for them to meet the challenges they face daily.
Prioritize time with God, reading the Bible, church gatherings for spiritual renewal, time with key friends, time with family, exercise for physical health, hobbies, good music and literature for mental renewal.
IV. Recapture your original calling and vision
When lost at sea a person must read their compass to get back on course. When we lose clarity of vision and focus we need to read our journals and recapture things God has told us that enable us to recapture our original calling and commission.
V. Stay in accountable relationships with a leadership community
We all need spiritual mentors and spiritual oversight. If you are a pastor, find a pastoral community of leaders in which you can experience peer-friendships, coaching, accountability, and covenant. If you are in a local church and you are a leader, attach yourself to the leadership communities that are available to you.
Proverbs teaches us that as iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another. Being in a community can hasten your restoration; isolating yourself from other leaders and from the Body of Christ is one of the devil’s strategies to destroy us since during fragile times in our lives we need wise input from others more than ever!