Ministry burnout is one of the saddest things I’ve seen. Psychological burnout, according to Wikipedia, is “long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work.” It’s not just tiredness. It’s when that tiredness, that exhaustion, seeps way deep down in your bones and settles around your heart. You don’t just lose interest in work; you lost interest in people. You lose sight of your purpose. You stop caring. You’re resentful of everything and everyone. Your fuse is short. You feel trapped and you feel alone.
Burnout happens to people in the ministry for many reasons. It’s not necessarily a reflection of their relationship with God. We can love the Lord and our hearts can long to serve Him, but still burn out. It’s from long-term exhaustion. It’s an accumulation of different things, like little rocks chipping away at an armor. One rock might not make a difference, but overtime, many little rocks can destroy the armor completely. That’s how it was for me. Little and big things chipped away at me until I was defeated.
And the baffling thing was that my relationship with God was in a good place. That’s a big reason why I didn’t see the burnout happening until it was too late. I thought I would be okay. I thought I was just tired. I thought whatever I was feeling would simply pass through like a phase or a spiritual hurdle. But it was more than that and it didn’t pass through. Then, when I was down and felt like I was out, that’s when my relationship with God started to suffer. Not before, but after. That’s why burnout is important to address and prevent, because it can shake a person to the core. It affects every facet of a person’s life, including his/her faith. And for a person in the ministry, it can be shattering to love God and want to serve Him, but be so exhausted and unmotivated to do so and, in many cases, don’t understand why.
So how to prevent burnout?
Appreciation and recognition. Like I said, it’s not to bolster ego, but to show love. Both ministry leaders and volunteers need to be appreciated and recognized. This makes them feel the love that’s around them, and helps them continue the work of God. We need the actions and the words. So tell someone what a great job they’re doing. Be specific. Tell them how much you appreciate their [fill in the blanks]. Show them your appreciation with a simple card or note or email or Facebook wall post or Twitter mention. Recognize their efforts in front of other people, or by giving them a little gift like a cup of coffee or a gift card or by cleaning their room or office.
Rotation. It’s a must for our Sunday School classes. Teachers must be rotating every week or every two weeks. This gives them time to listen to the sermon and be spiritually fed. You can’t give something you don’t have.
Ministry breaks. I tell my volunteers that if they need it, they can take a break from the ministry. I know this can be a scary option to make available for ministry volunteers because just about every ministry I know needs more volunteers, not less. And it can be very challenging when several volunteers take you up on the offer at the same time. We’ve come to a point where I can be open and ask my volunteers to take turns taking a break. And they understand, and they take turns or they take on less responsibilities. It helps me plan out the teaching rotations when I get a heads up if a volunteer wants to step back. It also communicates the understanding that if we want a break or we want to do less in the ministry, it doesn’t mean we’re abandoning ship.
Personal breaks and vacations. When burnout already happened, a vacation won’t solve the problem because there are deeper underlying issues. But having constant personal breaks and vacations can help prevent burnout. We need time for relaxation, recuperation, and recreation. It helps our overall health (mental, physical, emotional, spiritual). We need these times to step back, breathe, smell the roses, get pampered, and just have fun. It releases the stress and gets us out of our own head space or rut. Travel. That’s what I’m saying basically. Don’t take a week off and just stay home where everything (every worry, every problem) is percolating or can arrive at your front door or call you and ask you to do something. Go out of town or go someplace that will disconnect you from the Internet. Get away so you can get a new perspective.
Talk to a friend. Having someone to talk to is important. Find a confidante, someone who won’t break your trust. Talk to someone you can be real to and share what you’re going through. We need a sounding board for all the things coming at us. The ministry has a lot of challenges and hurts. Find that person you can groan out your frustrations to, as well as share the LOL moments with.
People in ministry pour out our lives and can end up wrung out. Burnout is a serious and real problem that affects everything. It affects our health. So take your health seriously. Prevent burnout and if you have ministry volunteers under you, give them options that will prevent their burnout.