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Ministry Burnout: Is it a sin?

Updated on June 27, 2019
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Barry is the founder and Professor of the M.Div. program for Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.

Burn Out

Burn-out: Is it a sin?

I believe that burn-out is self-imposed and is, in most cases, sin. I can think back to my former days of being in the military. Everything ran on precise timing. Failure to execute accurately and timely could be fatal. Ministry is stressful but chances are that no one is going to lose their life. Ministry is hard but it is not “911.” I think we make it “911,” an emergency, unnecessarily.

We use the phrase “burn-out” to describe this feeling. But we need to ask, why. Why do we feel burnt-out? I believe the fault “is not in our stars but in ourselves.”

Below I have listed some possible sins that can lead to burn-out in our lives.

Fear of man: “I just want to serve and love people.”

Many times we are afraid that people will not like us if we tell them no. People want things from us and they want us to do things for them. Often we become consumed with being “all things to all men” that we accomplish nothing for no one. We lose our focus and forget our purpose. We can be involved in so many things that we forget and neglect the main thing. Learn to say no. Say it to your family, your friends, and the people you minister to. Say it to new opportunities, even ministry opportunities. Your daughter wants a car, the association wants you to speak, or you are invited to go bowling with your friends, all of these are “good.” But remember they come with a cost. If the word no seems harsh then try “I would love to but I am sorry, I can’t.” Saying yes to everything and everyone is a sure way to deplete your limited self-resources. This is the fear of man and not the fear of God.

Controlling personality: “If you want it done right you have to do it yourself.”

Some people think that they have to be the master of their universe. They have to be in control. They build relationships so that people are dependent upon them and this makes them feel important. They believe that no one can do things as well as they do. They refuse to empower or to instruct others to perform tasks in order that they can feel indispensable. This is pride.

Materialism/Comfort seeking: “I don’t want my family to suffer. I/we deserve a good life.”

Sometimes burnout is caused by the pursuit of goods and comfort. We need to ask ourselves “What do I need to live?” The pursuit of daily bread is Biblical. The desire for the things of the world is not. We are promised that God will meet our needs. We are not promised the affluent, comfortable American Dream. This is covetousness and can be mixed with a fear of man if your concern is for the wants of your family.

Pride: “I work 60 hours a week for the Lord.” “I stay up all night praying.” “I get up at 3 am every morning to pray and study my Bible before I go to work.”

In and of themselves there is nothing wrong with any of these statements but the issue is the heart. Ask yourself “Why am I doing these things? Is it to impress others, gain favor with God, or to feel good about me?” If so, then you are either living in pride, fear or you have a works-based view of salvation.

Martyr Complex:

“God gave me a message to deliver and a horse to ride. Alas, I have killed the horse and now I cannot deliver the message.” Robert Murray McCheyne

There seems to be an air of regret in this quote. McCheyne is not the only one who died young for his labor. We could name other men who were advised to slow down and rest but refused to do so. Some of them died untimely and perhaps unnecessary deaths. Many in the Reformed movement idolize these men. I will not cast judgment on McCheyne but I will admonish us all to remember that God has given us common sense and stewardship of health. There is nothing Godly about making work or ministry an idol, seeking an early demise or destroying our health. This is pride, lack of stewardship and idolatry.

Lack of focus:

“I have so many things to do. I have to study for my sermon, meet the deacons for lunch, counseling in the afternoon, drop my suit off at the cleaners and pick up Tommy at soccer practice.”

We have all been there. Add to this busy schedule the constant beeps, blips, and burps of our smartphone, the knocks on the office door and numerous other interruptions, is it any wonder we feel stressed out. However, most of this is our own fault. The truth is a lot of what we do is not very important and does not serve our main purpose. We are distracted by nonessential tasks and unnecessary diversions. This is a lack of wisdom and may also be the fear of man and pride.

Lack of Faith:

“If I don’t work like this then the ministry will fail.”

I can testify that there are some who see ministry and even missions as a life of ease. There is no boss to oversee us and no one to keep account of how we spend our time. Those of us who experience “burn-out,” are often at the other end of the spectrum. We think that without us the ministry would fail. We are not trusting in God. This is a lack of faith and may also be pride.

What to do:

Define your purpose. What are you called to do? Make that the priority and stay focused on your purpose. Missionaries here in SE Asia travel to other Asian countries to teach English. They spend eight hours a day in private or government schools. They are self-supported missionaries. What happens though is that their side-line of teaching consumes all their time and energy. I have seen the same thing happen with missionary organizations that run orphanages, feeding programs, etc. Soon the sideline becomes the main line and the main ministry suffers. It also happens to the bi-vocational pastor. What starts as a need for extra money soon becomes the main focus.

What is your purpose? What is your calling? Do this and trust the Lord. That does not mean that there will not be lean times, or that sometimes you will have to be creative and maybe even have to find other sources of income. But if you do, keep your focus your main purpose. When the sideline becomes the mainline we fail to fulfill our mission.

Organize accordingly. Once you have defined your purpose and mission, organize your week and day accordingly. Prioritize those things which fulfill your purpose. Minimize, delegate or eliminate everything that does not. Don’t forget to say no. Avoid being prideful and the desire to be a man pleaser. Build flexible time in your schedule for things to go wrong. Schedule rest and downtime. You must guard this time. The temptation will be to let people and tasks invade this space. Do not allow it. For you to be effective you must have rest. It is not selfish. It is essential.

Breath: Seriously, take a deep breath. Pause and look at the situation. Are you feeling stressed? Why? Is this a life-threatening emergency? Is this 911? If not, then you have no reason to feel stress. It could be you are like me, that you have been under great strain for so long that your flight/fight mechanism is very sensitive. This instinct is necessary for survival but unless you are in a life-threatening situation it is not serving you. Breath. Control your thoughts and emotions. Bring every thought captive to Christ. Let the brain chemicals that produce stress subside so you can focus clearly on the issues at hand.


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