How Not to Burn Out

Several years ago, I sat bewildered in the office of a Christian psychiatrist.

I was exhausted in every way — physically, spiritually, emotionally and relationally. After a series of weekly meetings, counseling sessions, and evaluations, it was time for a formal diagnosis.

Speaking softly and deliberately, the psychiatrist said, “Les, you are suffering from clinical depression, high anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. If it were in the diagnostic manual, I would also add burnout to the list; that condition has just not been formalized as diagnosable ... yet.”

“That’s not possible,” I replied. “What you describe is typical of wartime combat veterans. I’ve never even been in the military!”

With godly wisdom, the doctor said, “Les, you must remember in whose army you have been serving.”

As a pastoral counselor, I was accustomed to advising others on these issues. I now found myself in need of guidance.

The term “burnout” refers to emotional and physical exhaustion resulting from long-term, repeated exposure to both external and internal stressors.

External signs of burnout can include chronic fatigue, insomnia, intestinal upset, forgetfulness, a sense of uselessness, increased cynicism, and addictive behaviors. It is not a sudden-onset condition. It occurs over time, often as a byproduct of inadequate coping and adaptive skills.

Burnout preys on the most dedicated individuals. Its insidious and stealthy nature slowly consumes their identities and depletes their energy.

By the time I recognized the signs of burnout in myself, it was almost too late. Suicidal ideation had intruded my thought life, and there seemed no other — or no better — way out of my dilemma.

Each case of burnout, and the circumstances that lead to it, are unique. In my own case, I came to realize how performance-oriented my life had become. My upbringing immersed me in a Protestant work ethic that suggested good Christians work hard, and when they do, God is pleased.

This ideology originated with John Calvin, who believed hard work, thrift and frugality are evidence of a person’s election. Calvin’s adherence to this ethic seems contradictory, considering his otherwise distinct emphasis on unmerited favor.

In the Assemblies of God, we do not accept Calvin’s doctrinal framework. Yet we often embrace his work ethic. Over the years, I’ve heard preachers passionately declare, “I’d rather burn out for Jesus than rust out for the devil.”

Like so many colleagues, I hitched my Christian identity more tightly to my performance than to God’s unmerited favor. This is a recipe for burnout.

It would be easy to oversimplify the causes and cures for burnout. If overwork is the problem, it might seem the solution is simply to establish more healthy boundaries, work less, and relax more.

Those are important considerations and part of the remedy, but they do not address the heart attitudes that lead to overwork and burnout.

Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” To curb unhealthy patterns in life and ministry, we must examine their origins at the heart level. We need to prayerfully consider what compels us to stay on a collision course with burnout.

In the Assemblies of God, we do not accept Calvin’s doctrinal framework. Yet we often embrace his work ethic.

Fortunately, burnout and its consequences are both avoidable and reversible. But we must be willing to pay attention to our heart and take deliberate, responsive steps. Here are five ways to guard your heart and avoid burning out in ministry:

1. Seek Help

Find a trustworthy counselor or colleague, and talk about what you are experiencing.

Every minister should have someone with whom he or she can confidentially process critical issues. Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Pastors often try to bear their own burdens — and everyone else’s. That is unbiblical and unsustainable. Find someone to help you shoulder the emotional load. God will honor your vulnerability and transparency.

2. Invite Accountability

Once you find a trustworthy confidant, work with that person to establish healthy boundaries.

Ministry demands can be intrusive and unrelenting. Healthy and appropriate boundaries are essential for overworked ministers. Yet many leaders don’t know how to set boundaries for themselves.

Often, others can spot signs of burnout long before you will notice them. That’s why you need not only wise counsel, but also accountability. An accountability partner can help you maintain balance and process the false sense of guilt you may experience when you scale back responsibilities or say “no” to new ones.

3. Acknowledge Limitations

Sidestepping burnout also requires a healthy embrace of our humanity. There is a limit to our personal energy and strength, which means we are vulnerable to the negative effects of overwork.

Thankfully, none of us is the only laborer in the field. We need to recognize when it’s time to step back and delegate ministry tasks. Not only does this give us a break, but it also lets others utilize their gifts.

We know all this on an intellectual level. Yet we often ignore our limitations and work as though we are indispensable. In Isaiah 40:30–31, God reminds us that even young people grow weary and tired. Only He can truly renew our strength.

4. Receive Grace

Ignoring the Sabbath principle greatly contributed to my burnout. I often worked seven days a week. And I unwisely refused a much-needed sabbatical in deference to what I perceived as the greater needs of others.

As a result, I robbed myself of space to recharge and hear from God. I also missed out on experiencing grace.

In the midst of my crisis, a trusted counselor said to me, “Les, you understand grace — for everyone except yourself.”

It was true. I had ample grace to extend to others, but little for myself.

To avoid burnout, you must give yourself both space and grace.

5. Accept Love

One of the most important pathways out of burnout is to recognize that God loves you, regardless of your performance.

God’s love is not dependent on productivity or perfection. He loves us because we are His children, and because it is His very nature to love.

Before he became a Christ follower, Paul was a slave to performance, with the Law as his taskmaster. After his conversion, Paul embraced God’s love as a gift that transcended his own efforts.

In Romans 5:8, Paul declared, “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

When we fully accept that God has always loved us just as we are, we are free to live joyously for Him — rather than striving to live up to expectations. God’s love can restore even the most severely burned-out soul.

This article appears in the April–June 2021 edition of Influence magazine.


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