Some years ago, I recall hearing our former Indiana Bishop Woodie W. White say, “I never get tired of ministry, but I sure do get tired in it.” For most of us – whether lay or clergy, helper or leader – Bishop White’s words would ring true.
Ministry at its best is energizing. We have all experienced the elation of being in the right place at the right time, with that overwhelming sense we were riding the Spirit’s energy, being swept along toward those greater ends, where hearts and minds are changed and momentum is born.
But all of us have experienced ministry from the other end as well – the drain of the tedious, the same-old problems visited upon us in the same-old ways and, perhaps, a feeling of listlessness that can only be described as “burn out.”
Pastors are not the only ones to experience the church in these two opposing manifestations. We often receive news from key leaders that they want to “take a break” and often we see entire families disappear from the church for months at a time. When pastors inquire, we are often told, “I’m tired” or “I need a break from the church so I won’t lose my faith.”
It is easy to see why burn out is so common these days. Our pace is breakneck. Our juggling acts are much more extravagant and now performed on a high wire where we attempt to balance career, family, friendships, finances and faith without losing a step. But there are times when everyone needs to step away and say, “I’m not getting on the high wire today. I’m not juggling these fifteen heavy expectations.”
Easier said-than-done, right? The fact is a high percentage of pastors leave pastoral work in the first seven years. But the same holds true for teachers, nurses, social workers and just about anyone who is in a “helping” profession. Those who have longevity seem to have a certain approach and attitude in common.
First, there is the recognition that one can’t do everything, and there is the freedom of being able to let go of other people’s pain, of not falling into the trap of setting ourselves up as redeemers. It also is helpful to remember the church has survived for thousands of years (and through tougher times than our own) not because of us, but despite us.
Second, those who persevere seem to have a sense of joy in their work, which is ultimately God’s work. When it’s not about us, but about God, then we are released from having to be the solution for everyone. We are free to find joy in service.
And finally, we won’t burn out if we “burn up.” Everyone needs those pursuits that add passion, zest, creativity and renewal to one’s faith and life. These pursuits may be tangential to ministry, but add so much to our emotional, relational and physical strength. Healthy people have healthy pursuits.
So burn up. Burn calories. Burn an evening. Burn a paint brush. Burn shoe leather.
But please don’t burn out.
Todd Outcalt often burns the midnight oil writing essays and books. He also enjoys hiking, kayaking, and eating donuts after his workouts at the gym. His wife burns rubber on her motorcycle and carries a large life insurance policy. He is still burning with energy serving at Calvary United Methodist Church in Brownsburg, Ind.