Stressed out. Worn out. Burned out. This has described me and a lot of my friends in ministry. The cares of life plus caring for others feels like a recipe for not only being used by God, but also used up. How can I continue to care without it wearing me out?
What Wears Us Out?
Is it the volume of needs surrounding us? Is it failure to take adequate breaks? Is it that we mistook God’s call to this ministry? Does God desire to use people made out of stouter stuff? Here’s a little of my story and how I got so interested in burnout and stress!
“Everything I Learned about Stress I Learned in the Rearview Mirror”
Looking at my library you would think that I learn through books. Wrong. I tend to learn through hard experience tenderized by the grace of repentance. This was the case with my pastoral burnout.
I was a young pastor in a small church with a wife and four small children in a place very different from the California desert and beaches of my youth. Increasingly I felt (and articulated to others) “there’s not enough Starbucks to touch the kind of tired that I feel.” I had trouble getting a full breath. I would walk around the house sighing trying to remember what I was about to do. Even “vegging out” no longer helped me relax. I often felt too tired and distracted to pray. As I “stressed out” and turned inward, I found myself burned out.
In 2010 I resigned my pastorate, moved close to family, and studied almost full-time to complete my Biblical Counseling training from CCEF. As I began counseling people around the San Francisco Bay Area, I was increasingly concerned for counselors, missionaries, and pastors (like myself) who had outward ministries of impact and compassion, but who were unprepared for the stress and strain that ministry places on our bodies, hearts, and relationships.
This January, I began serving as Staff Care and Well-being Specialist with Food for the Hungry, a Christian aid, relief, and child focused development organization. My role is to ensure that our staff who serves in areas of extreme poverty and civil unrest and in times of natural disaster is able to be resilient and continue to respond to the needs of children and other vulnerable people around them with Gospel compassion. Ministering to these high-risk servants and experiencing burnout firsthand has made me a student of stress and how the Gospel empowers us to react proactively and holistically.
What Is Stress?
Stress is the reaction to any real or perceived challenge, demand, threat or change to which you must adapt (Headington Institute, Helping the Helpers).
A crying child. A raging bull. An email. An alarm clock. God has designed our body to be triggered by external stimuli. This is for our survival and to enable us to live relationally in a world of people, things, and mission requiring our attention and response. We are meant to be triggered to action by the needs of others and the world around us. We tend to automatically view stress negatively because we increasingly have more sensory demands placed on us than ever before in human history.
My wife and I have occasionally laughed at ourselves as we thought that our phone was vibrating in a pocket. It wasn’t. Our body was twitching and we were “on alert” to receiving a phantom call that wasn’t there. In our increasingly connected, high speed internet lives, our bodies are on high alert for longer amounts of time and almost all the time.
What was the missing piece in my ability to handle stress and bounce back in a healthy way? Resilience. Resilience is the quality of having the physical, emotional, and spiritual resources to spring back from the pressure of stress. Burnout is the collapse of a person who has no resilience.
Maybe a word picture will help. A submarine has to equalize pressure as it goes deeper. As we go deeper into people’s lives and the brokenness of the world, we must find equal resources to press against the pressure of stress in our lives. This ability to press against and meet stress in a healthy way is what we mean by resilience. We must retain our shape as followers of Christ and merciful “incarnations” of the Gospel. When we lose this shape and our resources are overwhelmed, we are experiencing distress and are candidates for burnout.
When we are feeling pressured and mishandling stress, one of the greatest temptations in ministry is to maintain just enough of a soft exterior that we are seen as approachable and compassionate. Then we find that to survive the constant pressure of people’s needs and our requirement to respond with diligence and grace, we can sometimes harden our hearts to minimize the pain from sharing in others’ sufferings and caring for them. Ironically, to be impervious to suffering is also to be resistant to grace.
The Apostle Paul: Resilient Not Impervious
If ever there was a highly effective, highly relational minister/counselor/church planter it was the Apostle Paul! If anyone was ever ripe for burnout it was him!
Listen to him describe his “stress profile”:
- Jesus personally hand-picked this “ministry verse” for Paul: “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16 ESV).
- “And, apart from other things (like stonings, beatings, shipwreck, imprisonment!), there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28 ESV).
- Physical needs and well-being. Paul wasn’t afraid to ask for a coat while he was in prison. He treated himself like an “embodied soul.” He was not hyper-spiritual or hyper-physical. He gave proper attention to both the outer and inner man.
- A great network of prayer, physical and relational supporters.
- Bringing a coat and reading material
- Close friends
- Even highly complicated relationships from his past were sources of encouragement and mutual ministry (e.g. John Mark)
- He viewed others not merely as beneficiaries of his ministry. He viewed them as peers and as sources of spiritual refreshment, not as the ministry machinery of his church planting movement.
- Constant inward renewal (2 Corinthians 4:6) as he lived as a jar of clay under great pressure containing great Gospel treasure.
- The word for care or anxiety in 2 Corinthians 11:28 (Gk. merimna) is the same word that is used in Jesus’ parable of the Sower (Mathew 13:22; Luke 8:14). The cares of the world choked out the growth of the Word. But this same word is in God’s gracious invitation to us: “Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you.” As Paul prayed repeatedly for his thorn in the flesh to be removed, he received a practical and powerful understanding of God’s grace “perfected in weakness.”
- Paul wasn’t made out of different stuff.
- Paul wasn’t receiving different grace than we receive.
- Paul admitted that he was actually weak, and he saw the danger of strengths, background and privilege, counting them as things worth trading for the surpassing greatness of knowing and boasting in Christ.
- Paul was under great pressure for the sake of Christ, and found much grace to withstand and be fruitful in the face of stress.
Join the Conversation
- Where have you guarded yourself against the needs and demands of people?
- Could this be a sign that you do not have adequate spiritual disciplines and joy in Christ to meet the pressures of ministry?
- How often do you refer to yourself as the “only one” who can do this job or who suffers in this way? Consider Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Study Elijah’s responses and God’s provision and consider what God has provided for you in your ministry stress.