Let me share a scenario I experience often as a pastor. I am sitting at a table in a coffee shop with someone from the church. As I pick up my coffee to take the first sip, I hear, “Pastor, I’m done! I’m burned out!”
It is no exaggeration to say that I have heard those words 100 times in my 20+ years of being in ministry. Unfortunately, in some of those meetings, their words pertained not only to serving, but also staying in the church. It is not unusual for these individuals to later burn out in another church, or remain uninvolved in the church altogether. Why is that?
Nobody desires burnout. Many of those who experience it genuinely care for others. Because of their love, however, they can find themselves engaging in too many activities. If the overabundance of activity surpasses our capacity to love, then these activities becomes a duty. Our reality becomes clouded when duty replaces love as the driver. Those whom we have joyfully served in the past are now viewed with suspicion, for “they only want something else from me.”
The increased weightiness of duty and responsibility causes many to seek a means of escape. Not always, but often, escape is sought out in an unhealthy relationship, over-consumption of a substance, a change of environment, or more. These means of escape, however, prove to be empty wells.
In the aforementioned coffee meetings, I often heard, “I just need to stop serving for a while,” or “that church over there won’t take advantage of me like this one,” or “I just need to take a break from church altogether.” Again, empty wells. Most who choose to act on these statements ultimately do not find themselves in a better situation. The problem with these statements is that they tend to blame the church for a greater problem in their lives. What is that problem? They have overextended their capacity to love.
Parker Palmer writes, “When I give something I do not possess, I give a false and dangerous gift, a gift that looks like love but is, in reality, loveless–a gift given more from my need to prove myself than from others’ need to be cared for…One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess–the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure but it does not result from giving all I have, it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.”
Service in the church is one of the ways God grows us. It is not optional for the believer. God doesn’t necessarily use people to get ministry done as much as he uses ministry to get people done. There are 59 “one another” verses in the New Testament that cannot be lived out unless someone is connected to a local church. It is not uncommon, however, for those who are already living beyond their capacity to jump into serving in the church, only to turn around and blame the church when it becomes too much. What most of us fail to recognize is that we are finite. We were joyfully created to have limits. We are not God. When we strive to live beyond our finiteness, we don’t cut things out, we add to our lives. This results in a deeper sense of burnout.
Before you cut out ministry, let me encourage you to take an honest inventory of everything you are doing. How much time do you give to sleep, family, work, hobbies, and ministry? What areas of your life are you overextending that are not life-giving but life-taking? Personally, when I feel burnout creeping in, it is not uncommon for me to escape by adding hours of entertainment through viewing sports or a Netflix series. This, in turn, affects my sleep, causing me to feel extreme fatigue, and leads me to falsely believe that 1 to 2 hours of service is the overwhelming problem that needs to be removed.
Rest today in the good news that you are a creature and not the Creator. God has given you all the time you need to serve your brothers and sisters in Christ and to live in a way that brings you joy and Him glory!