The World Health Organization announced this week that it is updating its handbook, International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), to include an updated definition for “Burn-out.” Burn-out will now be classified as a syndrome tied to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Specifically, they have limited their definition of burn-out to only refer to work, “the occupational context” as they put it. This got me thinking about the oft-referenced boogeyman of ministry burn-out and to consider what causes really lie behind it.
We are all likely familiar with the idea of burn-out. Most of us have come to the edge of it, if not experienced its full fury, in our lives. Overworked, under-rested, and over-committed, we finally hit the wall of emotional exhaustion—I can’t do this anymore. This can happen in many contexts, but the most tragic is when it happens to those engaged in ministry—whether pastors or just involved church members—because the consequences of ministry burn out don’t stop with the one who is exhausted, they ripple through a congregation.
Ministry Burn-Out Comes for Us All
The term “burn-out” was actually coined by rocket scientists as a description of how they shut off jet and rocket engines by exhausting their fuel supply. It was later adopted by psychologists as a euphemism to describe the point when a person’s motivation to meet life’s demands is exhausted. John Henderson writing for 9Marks defines pastoral burn-out as, “the moment or season when a pastor loses the motivation, hope, energy, joy, and focus required to fulfil his work, and these losses center upon the work itself.”
One study Henderson references found that 20 percent of all pastoral resignations are attributed to burn-out. Statistics like these, along with a more openness for pastors to talk about their personal experiences of burn-out have led to a renewed call for ministers to slow down and better pace themselves for the long-haul rather than dying out in a flash.
In his 2017 book, Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, David Murray draws reader’s attention to potential causes for this uptick in ministry burn-out. He places partial blame on the trends that encourage believer’s to have their faith manifest in more extreme living. So many believers today became serious about their Christian walk reading books which urged them to lead “radical” lives of faith and pleading with them “don’t waste your life.” And while these were and continue to be necessary proddings in a culture like ours which is so consumed with laziness and ease, Murray believes that these messages may be partially responsible for an upsurge in the pastor’s version of occupational exhaustion.
I’m talking about burn-out among pastors because pastors are the most common victims of ministry burn-out. But every Christian is called to minister to the Body of Christ with their various gifts. It is, therefore, my contention that any serious Christian is at risk of ministry burn-out because serious Christians are committed to being productive in serving their Lord.
But Should Christians Really Be Trying to Avoid Ministry Burn-Out?
So, on the one hand, we have these examples of why burn-out is bad and how we, therefore, need to slow the ministry train down. But on the other hand, we cannot simply discount those calls to a serious and self-sacrificial faith. And history is replete with accounts of famous Christians who were used by God in significant ways, people who seemed to almost intentionally drive themselves to burn-out. And many biographies and sermons speak of the dedication of these saints in hushed tones of reverence.
Charles Spurgeon, for example, was a tireless worker. He died at just 58 years of age. And even his own son, Thomas Spurgeon, attributed that early death to over-work. There are also many missionary examples of lives that flared-out young and bright for their Master, men and women like Henry Martyn, who while sitting in a Hindu temple in Calcutta is said to have prayed, “Now, my Lord, let me burn out for thee.”
This presents a question for the serious Christian. We know that we are called to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). But does that mean we should pace the sacrifice so as to get the longest life of service possible? Or should we simply strive to burn as bright as we can for as long as the Lord allows us? Should the productive Christian guard against burn-out or pursue it as a noble goal?
The Heart of Ministry Burn-Out
I’ll be honest, I think that many of the calls for Christians to “slow down” and pace themselves are misplaced. Certainly, Christians are to rest, and I’ll get to more on that in the next post, but so much of the advice to avoid burn-out amounts to self-centered coddling. I think the reason people give this counsel, however, is because they do not understand that burn-out does not simply come from working too hard. ministry burn-out begins in the heart.
Burn-out often manifests itself as depression and feelings of anxiety. Standing behind that emotional exhaustion, however, is frequently the weight of a guilty conscience over hidden sin. This is especially painful for those involved in ministry because they recognize their own hypocrisy in this. The Devil seizes upon those feelings of duplicity to make minced meat out of their ministry. “Who are you to tell people how they ought to live when you do the very things you condemn?” he lisps in our ear. “How can you even think of disciplining that young man when you are committing the same sins he’s seeking your counsel in overcoming?”
Carrying around the weight of a guilty conscience for very long can be more than enough to cause us to collapse, burnt-out, in a heap of exhaustion.
Dr. John D. Street, professor of Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University and Seminary recently wrote in a Facebook post, “After over 45 years of pastoral counseling I am convinced that many who struggle with severe depression and anxiety do so because of unresolved guilt. Sustained feelings of guilt have a physiological impact on the central nervous system. Just read Psalm 32 and 38.”
Dr. Street is describing what we often see as the symptoms of ministerial burn-out. And he is saying, in his experience, more often than not these issues turned out to be the manifestation of a guilty conscience. I would call David’s words in Psalm 32:3-4 a textbook description of burn-out, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”
But from where did David’s relief from these feelings of burn-out come? It came from confessing his sin before God.
I acknowledged my sin to you,Psalm 32:5
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
David’s unconfessed sin had him feeling as though his very bones were wasting away. His strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. We would say David was burned out! What was the solution for him but to, verse 5, acknowledge his sin before God? To not cover his iniquity anymore, but to drag it into the light of Yahweh and have Him cover it with gracious forgiveness. Hidden sin was a cancer that was destroying him from the inside out, it needed to be excised.
If you start to feel the heavy hand of the Lord on you. If burn-out seems to be creeping in. The first step is to drop to your knees in prayer. Search your heart for any unclean way. Do the hard thing and confess any hidden sin that the Spirit brings to your mind. Why continue to languish when the Lord stands ready to forgive and to cleanse?
Often, however, it is more pleasing to our ears to listen to the voices that say, “You just need rest,” “You’re just burned out because you serve God too well,” “Take better care of yourself, relax.” But if the source of your burn-out is hidden sin, these salves will not avail. There is a place for Christian rest in recovering from the weariness of labor. But rest is for the confessed. So, when burn-out seems near, start first with searching your heart for hidden sin.
The Wrong Fuel Source
I have this paranoia about putting diesel fuel in my car. It’s probably a healthy paranoia, honestly. But every time I pull up to a gas pump I very deliberately avoid the green pump handle. I double- and triple-check that I’ve selected the right type of fuel. Why? Because trying to run on the wrong type of fuel will ruin your trip and potentially ruin your car, too. The Christian life is no different. If we hope to remain faithful and productive stewards for the long-haul, we need to be filling our tanks with the right type of fuel.
God has given us a supernatural calling to fulfil but He has not demanded we fulfil it using a natural fuel source. In fact, one of the most foolish things we can do is to try and serve the Lord in our own power. It’s foolish for two reasons. First, serving the Lord in our own power is foolish because it does not bring glory to God. We doubly-magnify God when we serve Him in His strength because we show Him to be a Master worthy of service and we show Him to be a powerful God in that He Himself supplies the power for service. Second, serving the Lord in our own power is foolish because it simply does not work. We will inevitably burn out if we are not relying on abundant supernatural fuel reserves.
Archie Parrish, writing for Ligonier says, “The primary factor that helped Paul avoid spiritual burn-out was that he relied upon his union with Christ.” This is what the apostle was getting at in Galatians 2:19–20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The Christian life is a life lived in Christ. It is by virtue of our union with Christ that we receive all the promises of salvation and adoption, and by which we receive the power to serve Him.
Later in Galatians, Paul ridicules the church for trusting in spiritual power for salvation but switching back to self-power for sanctification. Galatians 3:3 says, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
If we are seeking to minister in the flesh, instead of being dependent on the Spirit’s supply of power, is it any surprise when we run out of gas and burn-out?
In many ways, pride is the source of all sources of ministry burn-out. Even the previous two sources we mentioned, like all sin, really boil down to an issue of pride. It is pride that keeps us from confessing hidden sin, and it is pride which leads us to rely on ourselves instead of on the Spirit for the fuel to serve. We refuse to acknowledge our finitude. And in the end, we are acting as if we think we are God. But these aren’t the only way pride drives us toward ministry burn-out.
In the next post, I want to further explore how it is really pride that leads to exhaustion in serving the Lord. It truly is the arrogance of ministry burn-out.