Avoiding Burnout as a Ministry Leader

All ministry leaders are susceptible to burn out. Here's what we can do to recognize the signs, recover if we're suffering, and prevent it from happening in the future.

Signs of burnout:

Those of us who have been in ministry for any period of time know the ebbs and flows, lows and highs of ministry life. But when the lows are more frequent than the highs, and minor irritations become huge issues, you may be experiencing ministry burnout. This burn out could be physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, or a combination.   

Although common in any profession, those in ministry are prone to burnout because of the constant expectations from other people. When we read Matthew 11:28-30, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” and can't remember the last time we truly rested and believed the burden was light, we may be experiencing burn out.

Here are easy signs to recognize. If these are becoming a pattern in your life, you may struggle with burn out.

  • Exhaustion

  • Weight loss or gain

  • Irritability

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Apathy

  • Anger

  • Resentment

  • Jealousy

  • Depression

But Psalm 46:1 says, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." We can trust Him to lead us to recovery. 

How to recover:

The best ways to recover are based on your personal struggles and the symptoms you're experiencing. You may need the help of a Christian counselor or psychiatrist. But this list is a good place to start: 

  1. Rest. Evaluate the rhythms of your day and your week as a whole and build in times of rest. Those in ministry often get a week day off since we work on Sundays. Use that day or other times in the week to truly rest. Also, go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. Create a nightly routine that tells your body it's time to rest, like not being on your phone or computer one hour before bedtime.

  2. Take a vacation or sabbatical. Jesus Himself would get away from the crowds to recharge and connect with His Father in prayer. Wayne Cordeiro writes, “Solitude is a chosen separation for refining your soul. Isolation is what you crave when you neglect the first.” If it can't happen right away, plan a time in the future when you can truly take time away.

  3. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you have lost or gained weight, if you have reoccurring pain, if you have become addicted to caffeine, talk to your doctor about getting healthier.

  4. Remember to abide in Christ. John 15 tells us apart from Christ, we can do nothing. Jerry Bridges writes about the sin of ungodliness, "it may be defined as living one's everyday life with little or no thought of God, or of God's will, or of God's glory, or of one dependence on God." We are all guilty at times, but the spiritual disciplines of prayer, study, confession, and praise remind us of our dependence on Him.

How to prevent it in the future:

Once you've recovered from burn out, you want to avoid it in the future. Here are ways to change the patterns in your life and ministry to keep from going down this path again.

  1. Delegate. Pastors and ministry leaders can be guilty of taking on too much. We must learn the different between what only we can do and what can be delegated to others. Wayne Corderio writes, "5 percent of what I do, only I can do! This the most important 5 percent for me. I can’t delegate these initiatives to anyone else. I can’t hire someone else to take my place in any of these activities because they require that I be there!"

  2. Get regular exercise. Moving your body and gaining endurance and strength will help increase endorphin levels and keep your mind and body in balance.

  3. Share your struggle with someone who will help hold you accountable. This could be a coworker, friend, or professional counselor. Confess to this person the early signs of burnout you experienced, like jealousy, anger, or apathy. Invite this person to speak truth into your life when he/she sees these signs coming up again.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. 1 Cor. 15:58

Remember your labor is not in vain! When you reach a point it feels hopeless, remember we serve the God of hope. He will guide you to the still waters mentioned in Psalm 23 and He will comfort you. Just give Him room to work in your life. 

Sandra Peoples (M. Div) is a special-needs mom and sibling. She and her family live outside of Houston where she serves her church as co-director of the special-needs ministry. She’s the author of Unexpected Blessings: The Joys and Possibilities of Life in a Special-Needs Family