In the last post I wrote about an issue which has been termed “ministry burn-out,” that point when a person involved in ministry becomes so overwhelmed that their motivation to continue in ministry is exhausted. I pointed out that ministry burn-out is really a problem for all believers not just pastors since we are all called to minister. I also wrote about the problems I see in how burn-out is being addressed in the church today. Advice is often aimed at externals and not at the heart. The assumption is that burn-out is always just the result of working too hard. This is a mistake. The cause of burn-out should be traced deeper past overwork. Because often the root of ministry burn-out is hidden sin, flesh-fueled effort, and just plain pride.
In this post, I want to explore the relationship between pride and ministry burn-out a little deeper. Here are the three most common ways pride leads to ministry burn-out.
Pride leads to an imbalance in priorities
One way in which pride leads to ministry burn-out is when we allow our pride to put our priorities out of balance for an extended period of time. Typically for church leaders, this happens when we trick ourselves into thinking that our responsibilities to the church justify sustained negligence in other areas of life.
Your life is a complex matrix of responsibilities and you have been charged by God to steward all of your responsibilities well. Ministry to the local church is important, and at times we do temporarily have to make sacrifices in other areas of responsibility for this important stewardship. Sometimes dinner with the family will be cut short by news that a brother in Christ is in the hospital. Sometimes duties around the house will have to wait another week, because of an urgent matter with a board you serve on at church. But, there is no excuse for the perpetual neglect of your other responsibilities in the name of ministry. God expects us to balance all of our priorities, and to steward them all with wisdom.
Here’s a heart-check question: Why is it that we are so prone to gravitate toward certain ministerial activities? Why are we so quick to drop one responsibility thing for another? Certainly, it often is because the relative importance of the interrupting task is greater than the importance of the task being set aside (the death of a loved one should trump date night). But isn’t it more often true that our sinful hearts simply seek out those ministerial duties which are more apt to result in our praise? We say “people are depending on me,” but we really mean “I need to make sure I don’t look bad.”
Early in my seminary training professors would scare us with those terrible stories of families that were torn apart by the ministry. You know how they go, it all comes to a head one day when the pastor comes home from church, and his wife is loading the luggage and kids into the van. She’s had enough, “it’s the church or me!” And you think, how did it come to this? A little digging reveals that this pastor had frequently stayed at the church office until well after dinner. He had repeatedly missed important events in the life of his children. When he was home and the phone rang, he always answered. And his response to the annoyed look of his wife was always the same. With hand over the receiver he whispers, “it’s a church matter, honey.” Now she’s gone, and so is his ministry. How did it come to this?
Perhaps the problem was that the pastor much preferred the adoration and respect of being known as a hard-working servant to his congregation—he preferred that to the low-profile daily plod of being a loving husband and father. He preferred the praise of the congregation to what he would never (out loud) call the nagging of his wife. And inch-by-negligent-inch he simply pulled away from priorities like family and justified this by telling himself he was doing it for the sake of ministry.
Not long after she leaves him, the pastor “burns out” and quits the ministry. And the whole thing is framed as another sad tale of ministry burn-out. But the truth is much simpler than that: pride claimed another pastor.
Pride leads to a vicious cycle of broken promises
Another way in which pride is often the source of burnout in ministry is evidenced by a condition we might call the vicious cycle of broken promises. When our ministry is driven more by the fear of man than the fear of God, we will overextend ourselves in order to meet the demands of those to whom we minister.
This becomes especially nasty when a man-pleasing pastor meets an extra-needy congregant. The result is what secular psychologists call co-dependency. The pastor’s insatiable need to be needed is met by the needy person’s insatiable fear of personal responsibility. And like in the meeting of warm and cold fronts, a destructive tornado forms.
For a while, the pastor keeps up with the demands of the needy person. But ere long he begins to slip—oops, a broken promise. Then, another, and another. This only causes the needy person to become more exercised. Their desperation drives them to become more demanding. The cyclone of promise-breaking then expands to other spheres of the pastor’s life as well. He always feels behind, unable to meet the demands of ministry. Maybe, he thinks, I’m not cut out for this. He starts to think more carefully about his “call” to ministry. “Why did I get into this to begin with?” Casual perusals of online job boards turn to brushing up the old resumé.
The timer is about to ding on another case of ministry burn-out.
But what went wrong? Again, it was pride. The pastor did not have faithfulness to God as his driving motive and that led him down a path which was neither healthy for him nor for the needy person, whose real need was for a faithful minister who knew how to be caring yet stern. He needed a pastor who would hold him accountable to take personal responsibility in his life, not a butler who would cater to his every whim.
This is just one example of how a cycle of promise-breaking can begin. The point is when you notice a vicious cycle of broken promises beginning to form in your life, take that as a warning. Something is wrong. Say “no” to some things, recruit some help, repent of the pride that tells you you’re everyone’s savior and you can do it all.
Pride leads us to reject our need for rest
I think one of the reasons ministry burn-out is only treated as an issue of overwork is that often it is an issue of overwork. But people do not move deeper to ask the question, why are you overworking yourself? Rest alone will not help you address the heart issue that led to your burn-out. We need to look at the pride which leads us to reject our need for rest.
It is God and God alone who has been working from the beginning, whose infinite power never runs dry, and thus he never needs to rest. Even the rest which is described in Genesis, which the Lord took on the 7th day, was the rest of completion, not weariness. And it was set down as an example for us.
The problem with many Christians, especially those engaged in ministry is that we think we are everyone’s savior. We think that we must be always on no matter what. And often we will paint this picture in noble hues, responding to the astonishment of others at our ceaseless hard work with humble brags like, “Just serving the Lord,” “There’s no tired like gospel tired!” And while it is true that the minister must always be about the work of the Lord, and in many ways should always be interruptible in an emergency, it is eternally worthwhile to question our motives for perpetually running ourselves ragged.
Do I work out of love for the Lord and for His people? Or do I secretly cherish hearing “Wow! Reagan never stops!” “It’s early! Weren’t you here late last night, too?” Is your goal to be a servant to God’s people or to be their savior? Because I’ve got news for you, the position of savior is already filled.
What a stupid way to burn out! To fly pedal to the metal, ostensibly working for the Lord but really in it for the praise of men. Then to finally crash and burn. For what? You didn’t do it for God, so there’s no heavenly reward for you. You neglected your health, your family, and integrity before the Lord for the sake of the praise of men.
Our Lord spoke against this very type of prideful hypocritical ministry and guess who he condemned for it, the Pharisees! “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” (Matthew 6:2).
So, if the reason you refuse to take a break is that you want to be known as the guy who works hard, just be honest with yourself that it is not magnanimity which drives you, but pride. You are not their savior, God is. You are not infinitely powerful, God is. Or as Christopher Ash writes in his book Zeal Without Burnout, “God needs no day off. But I am not God, and I do.”
I am convinced that much of what we call “ministry burn-out” is really just pride come home to roost. Too often the first reaction is to assume that lack of rest is the only thing that needs remedying. But if we would really overcome ministry burn-out, we must begin by doing the heart-work of examining ourselves closely to see if something deeper doesn’t lie at the core of our burn-out.
Be on guard. Catch the signs of burn-out early, stop pride cold in its tracks, take the rest you need, and avoid the arrogance of ministry burn-out.