How I will crash and burn (out) in ministry

Burnout in ministryI’m going to be honest: every item I list here is based on tendencies I’ve noticed in myself over the past several months. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, maybe you’ve even noticed some of them pop up in my previous writings. When I take a step back and write about it, it’s so easy to see how foolish I am. Burning out in ministry is not a sudden event in time that will take me by surprise, like a bursting firecracker on the 4th of July. Instead, it’s a slow process over time, like holding a burning match. If I’m not careful these things will eventually creep up on me, burn me, and render my leadership useless.

I doubt I’m alone in this. Here’s how you and I will crash and burn-out in ministry:

1. Ignore spending time in the Word and in prayer. Ministry is easy — you can do it all in your own strength. It shouldn’t be based on God anyway. Spend all your time teaching others how to develop their relationship with God instead.

2. Accept responsibility for everything. Say “yes” to whatever is asked of you and your time. It doesn’t matter if it could easily be handled by a volunteer, take it on anyway because you’re the guy they pay to do it. Besides, there may be no one else willing or available to do it besides you, which obviously indicates how important it is to everyone else.

3. Become emotionally attached to every situation. Whenever someone has a need, be the first to jump in, provide all the emotional support they need and rescue them from the problem. After all, everyone needs a savior.

4. Always serve God in ministry. This is so important that you must sacrifice all personal down-time and fill it with good things like meetings, events, Bible studies, evangelism, mission trips, prayer groups, small groups, and knitting groups.

5. Attempt to control everything. Control all the planning, the results, the future, the people, the workplace, the weather and God. You are the sustainer of the ministry on whom it is all built. If you take your eyes off of any of anything it will collapse and fail miserably.

6. Base your self-worth on the “success” of your ministry. You’re investing your life into this ministry thing! How it grows and flourishes indicates how important you are and how pleased God is with your labor. If your ministry is struggling, there must be something wrong with you.

7. Feed spiritual consumerism. So-and-so left the church and is attending the “mega-church” down the street because they have a better youth ministry. Now you need to quickly compete by offering the same programs but better. Otherwise, the entire congregation will migrate and leave you out of a job.

8. Focus your ministry on programs. This may come as a result of #7. Remember that vision and relationships are secondary to programming. Look at Jesus for example: His ministry was all about getting things done, not about growing disciples through relationships or communicating His vision for the world.

9. Dwell on all the problems. So it turns out that your ministry is the only one in the world that isn’t perfect. Let it consume your thoughts, your heart and your emotions. It’s important to focus on internal problems so there’s no time left to reach the lost souls that are dying all around.

10. Avoid transparency at all costs. Vulnerability brings the potential for rejection, criticism, and people losing respect for you. As a church leader, everyone must think you’re perfect, strong and invincible. Otherwise, the perfect people in your church will have no reason to follow you.

11. Focus only on what’s in front of you. Dreaming a huge vision for the future only makes people feel uncomfortable, probably because of item #5. Passion can become contagious and take the ministry in scary and risky directions, so it’s best to avoid these dreams altogether. It’s always safer to wander aimlessly by staring at your feet than it is to walk toward God’s beautiful horizon and risk tripping.

Posted on February 6, 2007

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  • Great Post Tim…it always helps to keep it real…this is something we all need to be reminded off often.

    Making Difference Makers

  • That is a great list Tim. I especially relate to numbers 5 and 6. Might I recommend a post on how to come back from a burn out? I had it big about a year ago. I took a stress test and maxed it out and then an online test cinched it for me. The biggest tip I have for when I am getting burned out has to do with my driving. If I am in a big hurry to a meeting that I am not late for and could be late for even if I was, then I am approaching or are already in burn out mode.

  • Tim

    Paul: Sure, you can recommend a post on how to come back from burn out, but anything I have to say at this point would be completely theoretical. Sounds like you might be more of an “authority” on this than me. If I come across some good infro on this I’ll post a link to it.

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  • This is one of those posts that kind of pierces the heart a bit because it makes me feel in equal measure uncomfortable because it’s so real and yet heartened because there are other youthworkers out there who are wrestling with the same things. Great post, real truth. We become people who “do” rather than people who “are” all too often, but changing that so it affects the ministry is difficult because it means changing mindsets that we see all around us and are probably deeply ingrained in us. When you realise which ones of these are most relevant, any guidance on how to go about changing to become more healthy? Excellent post, thank you.

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  • Thanks Tim. Good honest stuff, we need to hear.
    The only thing I think is missing (although its kind of in number 11) would be:
    “Go it alone – you really don’t need any helpf to be accounable, or people to come round and support you. You and God is enough”!
    Now you can really mess it all up!

  • Tim

    @ Clair: “…it means changing mindsets that we see all around us and are probably deeply ingrained in us.” I think that’s true, but I think it’s also the mindset we’ve ingrained into ourselves. We tend to approach ministry like a job and feel that we need to evaluate our work by the same standards other people are evaluating us, regardless of whether they have any ministry understanding or not.

    @ Pete Lev: That’s a great addition! It’s kinda in #2, as well, but I think you stated it much clearer. Thanks!

  • Tim this is awesome (in the truest weighty sobering sense of that word) stuff! There is great pressure on youth ministers- some of it is internal and we bring it upon ourselves and much of it is external and is heaped upon us – the church can be merciless taskmaster!
    The list you have posted are real and present dangers for all of us.
    I’ve been doing this thing for around 15 years now… I’ve seen a lot of gifted guys & girls come and go during that period, many of them broken on the wheels of youth ministry, some of them even falling morally because they neglected key priorities such as the word, prayer, accountability & vulnerbility.

    My hope is that churches who employ youth staff will recognise more and more the responsibility they have to help ensure their workers don’t burn out… and while there may have been some stides forward on this (better pay, time off, role agreements etc) there is still a long ways to go (I’m referring mainly to the Irish/Uk context here).

    Personally… the big changes for me came when I got married 10 years ago and when my 2 daughters were born. It was sometimes and still is a challenge and battle to ensure my wife and kids top the priority list. I don’t want my family to become a casualty of my youth ministry passion – if you don’t have your family you don’t have your ministry. And I don’t want my little girls growing up to hate God or the Church because that is what kept their Dad busy and unavailable to read them stories or tuck them in at night.

    Some of the best advice churches could adopt to help us keep ourselves healthy and burn out free was given by Mike Yaconelli. It was in the context of the quick turnover of youth staff but it equally applies to this issue. I’m pasting it below (sorry for the length) but it is wonderful and if only Pastors and churches could see the value in doing it. I wonder how many of us have experienced these burn out reducing measures?

    “I have a solution for the long-held belief that youth workers average about 18 months in a church before they move on or are moved out. I guarantee if pastors implement my suggestions, the average stay of a youth worker could triple or even quadruple. We’re talking miracle here.

    Believe that your primary job as pastor is to care for the spiritual life of your youth worker. Support the youth worker at any cost, because it will cost you.

    Explain to the church that you expect the youth worker to be “out of the office” most of the time because a youth worker’s office is his car, McDonald’s, football stands, band hall, and surfboard.

    Remind the church that when your youth worker’s at camp, she’s working.

    When your youth worker makes a mistake, come to his defence. Help the church understand that mistakes are part of the job and that you couldn’t be more pleased that you have a youth worker who’s taking risks and pushing the envelope.

    Keep pushing to increase the youth worker’s salary and the youth budget.

    Once a year, encourage church members with means to provide a weekend getaway at a cabin or beach house or condo for the youth worker and her family. Stock the refrigerator with food, arrange baby sitting, and tell her to take the weekend off—she deserves it.

    Support his family. Encourage the youth worker to divide the day into three parts and work only two of them. Check on his marriage, and give him plenty of slack when the new baby arrives.

    Before the job even starts, meet with the youth worker and then the board to make sure everyone’s on the same page when it comes to expectations and results. Whatever you do, make sure that numbers and attendance are not the sole or primary success markers.

    Don’t expect that, now that you’ve hired a youth worker, she’ll do all the youth work. Expect the congregation to volunteer to help the youth worker, and if there’s no response, go with the youth worker to personally invite others to help. Believe that, for every five kids in the junior high or high school youth group, there should be one volunteer adult meeting with those kids on a regular basis.

    Part of the youth worker’s job description should be the expectation that she takes one day a week on silent retreat, three days every three months, and one week a year just for working on her soul. Also give her a restricted budget for books that are just about our souls.

    Ask the wisest elder in your church to attend the youth meetings and report back each month what he saw.

    Continually affirm and encourage your youth worker.

  • Tim

    Paul, thanks for sharing Mike Yaconelli’s tips. Knowing that we’re genuinely supported and backed by the church really makes a huge difference.

    What I don’t get, though, is when church leadership tells you they support you because they “have” to. I’ve heard this in an annual review before: “We don’t agree with a lot of what you’re doing, but you’re our youth pastor so we have to support you anyway.” What’s that about? That’s like saying, “We really don’t want to support you, but we have to support you now anyway because it was too much trouble to communicate with you about such-and-such earlier.”

    Mike Yaconelli’s list here would be great to send out to pastors, although it might seem weird if pastors received it from their own youth pastor. Maybe we should all send it to each other’s pastors instead? :)

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  • Fikile Poka

    Thank you for the post on Burnout. As with many other youth workers, I fully agree with your views. How does one “snap-out” of it, especially when you realise once you are in it that you are burned out?

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  • Molly

    I think you are right on about burnout, but I have a further question.

    My husband and I moved halfway across the country this summer after graduating from college because we found a wonderful church where my husband could fill a staff position as youth pastor.

    Every month since August has been darker for us, and I know as we have tried to give this church our all (being new and very naive) we have fallen into an apathy. We can't afford 2 tickets to fly home for Christmas, just the straw that broke the camel's back.

  • Molly

    My husband is so tired of giving and running on empty. It is so hard for me to watch, and my efforts hardly make a dent in his work load. We are very close to being burnt out, and just this morning he told me he would like to start looking for another job :(

    What do we do from here? Obviously we've allowed several of those 10 "ways to burn out" begin to smother our lives. I know this is a hard time, and I think we can get through it, but now that we're at this place where so many things seem hopeless, I don't know how we take back what we lost or make a change in our lives apart from leaving the church… at least for a time.

    Any comments or suggestions are greatly appreciated, as well as your prayers.

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