Chances are good you’ve experienced it…if you’ve got a ministry, you know what ministry burnout feels like. Whether you’re a missionary, a pastor’s wife, a counselor, a teacher, a mother, a wife, a worship leader, a Sunday school teacher, a writer, a nurse, an evangelist, a manager…you know what I’m talking about when I say that some days, despite the fact that you’re following your calling and despite the fact that you fervently want to live out God’s will for your life with joy and perseverance and despite the fact that really, you honestly do love what you’re doing, some days you just feel done.
You feel like you’ve been working so hard for so long, you feel like you’ve put your everything into this and nobody has even noticed. You feel like you have given it your all, everything you have, and despite that fact (or maybe because of it) you find opposition all around you. You’ve spent years, money, sweat, blood and tears on this venture only to reach a point where you’re wondering if it was all in vain, all for nothing. You’ve done your best to do the right thing and it’s been hard and it’s meant sacrifice and you really didn’t want credit for that, you never expected a parade in your honor or even a “thank you,” but on the other hand you also didn’t expect dishonest gossip and backstabbing from the very people you were serving. You’ve run the marathon and you’ve spent the last shred of energy you had left to reach the finish line, only to find that the line’s been moved another 3 miles away and yeah, maybe that’s the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Maybe you weren’t cut out for this.
Maybe this just isn’t your calling.
Because if it were, if it really were, wouldn’t this kind of opposition be easier for you? Wouldn’t you be equipped to deal with it? And while we’re at it, would you even be facing this sort of trauma, drama, and grief if you were on the right path? If God really were calling you to continue on in this crazy, hair-brained scheme of His, wouldn’t you be stronger/better/more patient/thicker-skinned/smarter and in general just plain more than you are right now? You started out feeling confident that this was the path you were supposed to take. You prayed about it, and it seemed like God opened doors. But now, you’re wondering if maybe the whole thing was just a big mistake. Maybe you misread it all from the beginning.
You’ve had enough, and every fiber of your being is exhausted.
Christian, I understand. I’ve been there, been in the thick of it, been right there in the middle of it. And the thing I’m learning is, it’s not failure to feel burned out. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s not happening because you’re not good enough, or because you’re not strong enough, or because your faith is lacking. You’re not struggling with burnout because you’re not cut out for this.
If you’re feeling burned out, it may simply be because ministry burnout is part of ministry. (click to tweet)
And if you’re feeling burned out, you’re in good company. Consider this:
Elijah, the prophet, had just come down from an amazing showdown between God and the prophets of Baal. Do you remember the story? If you’ve got a moment, go read it again (1 Kings 18). In a spectacular act of faith and courage Elijah, the lone prophet left in Israel, set the stage for God to show His people that He was the one true God. The Lord was vindicated, the false prophets were destroyed, and surely that must have been the most triumphant moment of Elijah’s career as prophet. Surely, this was the moment that the music swelled, the triumphant hero raised his hands in victory, and the credits rolled!
What really happened was that Elijah, who by all rights should have been basking in what must have been the conference high of all time, was forced to run for his life because of the wrath of the wife of king Ahab. A prophet at the peak of his powerful career, with the image of God’s consuming fire still etched on his retinas, was forced to turn and run for his life…from a woman. The very next chapter of 1 Kings finds him cowering under a broom bush, feeling utterly spent and worthless, praying for God to take his life.
Yeah, burnout happens.
What I find helpful is how God dealt with Elijah’s burnout. He didn’t get angry with him, he didn’t roll his eyes in frustration. God didn’t tell Elijah to snap out of it, to pull himself up by his bootstraps and get on with life for crying out loud. God, the same God whose awesome power and wrath condoned the destruction of the prophets of Baal, treated Elijah’s broken spirit with gentle compassion. The Lord let Elijah sleep, then gently woke him and fed him. He let Elijah rest some more, then once again strengthened him with food and helped him on his journey. When Elijah hid in a cave, God didn’t throw up his hands and walk away from him, he didn’t give up on him and choose someone else to finish his work. Instead, he pursued Elijah.
And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” 1 Kings 19:9-11
The Lord allowed Elijah to rest, gave him food to build his strength, and pursued him when he retreated. He listened to Elijah vent his frustration at the situation, and then, rather than chastise him for being weak, or for lacking faith (and hadn’t Elijah just witnessed God’s miraculous power in a way most people can never hope to see?) He chose to give Elijah the greatest gift imaginable…to surround him by His presence, to show him a glimpse of His great glory.
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. 1 Kings 19:11-13
I find it fitting, and so very comforting that despite His capacity for awesome power, despite His righteous consuming wrath, the Lord came to the exhausted servant of God in a gentle whisper.
God’s example of dealing with Elijah should speak to all of us when we’re struggling with burnout…whether it’s our own or someone else’s. After all, Elijah’s ministry did not end there under the broom brush! He went on to do more for the Lord, eventually training his own replacement. I believe he was able to carry on fruitfully because God knew that what was needed was a gentle touch and rest, not ridicule or harsh discipline. Some lessons we can take away from Elijah’s story:
- When dealing with burnout, treat yourself gently. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling this way, just realize that burnout is part of ministry.
- Allow yourself to rest. When you feel the signs of burnout coming on, schedule a break! It’s OK to tell people that you need some personal time in order to be more effective in your ministry. Even a few days at home with your phone and computer turned off can make a huge difference.
- Allow others to help you. Share your situation with a few people you trust, being honest with your feelings. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and (I know it’s hard!) say “yes” when help is offered.
- Get some extra sleep…take a nap, schedule a day to sleep in (have someone take your kids for the day if you need to). Lack of sleep due to stress or the pressures of care-taking can really interfere with your ability to keep perspective.
- Feed your body well. God sent an angel to feed Elijah…allow someone to bring you a meal or two, eat out, or order in. Take a moment to evaluate your diet; sometimes stress, time or financial restraints can lead to poor eating habits which also contribute to exhaustion and depression.
- Feed your soul well. Spend some quality time in the presence of the Lord. Take a day dedicated to just you and God, with no distractions! Just spend that time in prayer and quiet mediation, reading the Word and letting the gentle spirit of God wash over you.
- Find a helper to work alongside you. God sent Elisha to help Elijah in the last part of his ministry, and it must have helped immensely to know that he was not alone and that the work would carry on after his time in ministry was over.
- Don’t give up! Just because a person has gone through a difficult period of burnout doesn’t mean that they’re not right for the job. Pray for guidance on whether to stay in the situation, but know that often it’s a case of naturally needing rest and refreshment and not a case of not being in the right line of work. Unless you have clear direction otherwise, trust God to be able to refresh your spirit and turn the situation around.
A post from the archives, first published June 26 2014