How can I avoid ministry burnout?God created us to need rest and respite from our activities, even when those activities are a part of ministry and honor Him.
He set the pattern for us by creating us with the rhythm of sleep—we sleep about one-third of our lives. He set the pattern for us by taking the seventh day of creation to rest. "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation" (Genesis 2:1–3).
When we experience burnout, or reach the end of our rope, even in professional ministry, it is helpful to review three aspects of our lives and work—our rhythms, the source of our strengths, and our calling. Each of these aspects is rightly rooted in our relationship with God.
First, do you take time to care for yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually? If we empty our tank and never refill it, burnout is likely. Ministry requires us to give selflessly and often we receive from it only a heavenly reward (Mark 9:41; Luke 12:34), but we must nourish ourselves for the journey.
Take time each week to worship God, have someone else speak words of truth from the Bible to you, and rest. Jesus implied that Sabbath is a gift (Mark 2:27). Do not replace worship of God with idolizing your ministry work. Jesus took time away from His ministry to spend time alone with God (e.g., Mark 1:35; 6:46; Luke 4:42; 6:12). Follow His example.
Paul likened his ministry work to being "poured out as a drink offering" (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6). Ministry involves bearing the burdens of others (Galatians 6:20), which can be draining. We need time with family and friends, time to focus on other pursuits or hobbies, time to check in with spiritual mentors, and time to retreat for blocks of time and be refreshed and refilled.
Second, check to see where you gain your energies, direction, and focus. Jesus modeled this for us. He stayed energized by spending time in prayer with God. We need God's help to avoid weariness (Galatians 6:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:13).
Our own strengths, insights, and fortitude are not enough to sustain ministry. Many times, we enter a ministry based on our gifts and personalities, or even just on ability to meet what seems to be a pressing need. God, however, does not need these natural or learned skills and abilities. And a need for something to be done is not necessarily a personal call to do it. Often God places us in a ministry that matches our natural abilities and personalities, and often we are called to fill a vacancy. But sometimes God puts us in a place we would never expect. And sometimes God is calling someone else to fill a particular need, even if we are able to do so. No matter the case, our abilities alone will never be enough. The work of God requires the power of God. The best ministry fit is the one to which God has called you, and it can only be fully accomplished in His strength. Recognizing God's call and responding to it is what is important. When He calls us, He also equips us. Even Jesus, on earth, required a close connection with God the Father. "So Jesus said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise'" (John 5:19).
The apostles and early disciples also learned not to trust in their own strength and understanding. The book of Acts records several instances of leaders first being filled with the Holy Spirit before ministering (e.g., Acts. 4:8, 31; 7:55). It was the Holy Spirit who was credited with the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church (Acts 2:41, 47). The leaders involved relied on the power of God to accomplish what they could never do on their own (Luke 24:49; Acts. 1:4–5).
Do you want to see what you can accomplish or what God can accomplish through you? The importance of ministry work and our abilities to do that work can easily lead to pride. D. L. Moody instructed us well when he said, "Before we pray that God would fill us, I believe we ought first to pray that He empty us."
Thirdly, we must know for certain that God called us to the ministry we are involved in. We should question this leading and guidance regularly, for pride and vanity will creep up to us. It is the calling and empowering of God that is critical to our ministry success, not giftedness or even results. Remember Moses? He was called to be a spokesman for the Israelites in captivity, yet he had a difficult time speaking (Exodus 4:10). It is often said that God equips the called, not calls the equipped.
There are many examples of this in the Bible. Gideon was inadequate (Judges 6:12, 15), Saul was a murderer who became the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1–2, 14–15), and many of the disciples were common men who didn't seem a likely group to change the world (Matthew 9:9; Mark 1:16). Ministry work can be daunting, but we need not fear because we know it is a work of God, not a work of our own strength.
When we are called by God to a certain work, we can weather long stretches of stagnation in ministry, loneliness, and difficulty because we don't have to question our own abilities and strengths. We can trust that He will give us the ability to accomplish what He has planned for us (Exodus 35:20–25; 1 Corinthians 12:4–5; Ephesians 2:10). We also know that in ministering, it is Him who receives the glory and not us. We need not bear burdens that are not from God, nor do we attempt to take His glory. Rather, in ministry, we simply seek to obey God, looking to Him for direction and filling. We recognize His call (John 10:27; Acts 13:2) and obey.
As we trust in God as our Source, relying on Him for strength and direction, as well as joyfully accept the rest and refreshment He provides, we can avoid burning out.
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