Time Out: The race to burn out in ministry

Time Out (by Jerry Schmoyer)

The race of ministry

Two paddle boats, both powered by coal, left Memphis about the same time, traveling down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. As they traveled side-by-side, sailors from one vessel made some critical remarks and jokes about the snail’s pace of the other boat. Heated words were exchanged between the men on the two boats. Challenges were made. So the race began. The competition was hot and heavy as the two boats roared through the Deep South. Eventually, one boat began falling behind. The problem: it didn’t have enough fuel. There had been plenty of coal for the trip, but not enough for the race. As the boat dropped back, an enterprising young sailor took some of the ship’s cargo and tossed it into the boat’s ovens. When his fellow sailors saw that the supplies burned as well as coal, they fueled their boat with the material they had been assigned to transport. Guess what? They ended up winning the race, but they burned their cargo!

Sometimes the price of being the fastest is too high. Many people don’t realize that until they are on their death beds. Then it is too late. It’s not how fast we go through life that counts, but how we enjoy the trip along the way. We are stewards for God. That means we are captains of His ship, delivering His cargo for Him. He doesn’t reward us for speed but for faithfulness in the things He wants us to do.

Many of us in ministry today are guilty of trying to do too much in too little time. We keep expecting more and more of ourselves. Others seem to have unrealistic expectations of us as well. Thus we need to work faster, harder and longer to try to attain these unreachable goals. We want our ministries to be “successful” and therefore feel if we do more and more success will come. However all this usually causes is more and more stress.

Stress causes adrenaline to be dumped into the blood stream to prepare the body for a special challenge. If there is no special challenge to burn up the adrenaline it just hangs out there, causing us to run in overdrive. This uses physical, mental and spiritual energy and drains our system of reserves. Burnout soon results.

It’s not hard to tell if you are burn out. Is your enthusiasm and motivation low? Do you find yourself developing a negative attitude to people and events? Have you lost the joy and satisfaction you once found in ministry? Do you find you have a hard time focusing, concentrating and remembering things? Is it getting harder and harder to make simple decisions? Are you starting to avoid people and ministry opportunities? Do you have a hard time being patient with your mate and close friends? Do you feel exhausted but can’t seem to sleep well. Are you feeling bored, helpless and aimless? Then you’re probably burnt out.

The Solution

The only solution is to get your energy level back. Recharging your battery takes awhile. In fact, it takes longer to recharge it fully again than it did to discharge it in the first place. Seldom do we give ourselves enough time to recharge, so we find ourselves back in burn out again and again. We switch ministry positions or drop out entirely, but that isn’t the solution. That just deals with the symptom, not the problem.

The first step in the cure to stress-causing burnout isn’t found in changing circumstances but in changing how we respond to them. We must admit that our present patterns aren’t healthy and God-pleasing. We must recognize a problem with unrealistic expectations and a wrong response to stress. Anti-denial is the first step.

The second step, then, is to rest. Overworking ourselves, stressing ourselves out, often comes from insecurity. We feel we must perform in order for others to accept ourselves, or in order to accept ourselves. Thus we heap more and more stress upon ourselves. We strive to be more and more busy, to produce more, to be more effective. We try to reach the unrealistic expectations which we place on ourselves and which others place on us as well. But God calls us to rest (Heb 4:10; Isa 26:3; 30:15; Rom 8:6). Make sure you take a full 24-hour day totally off from responsibility and stress to just relax and recharge. At first it will be hard for all the extra adrenaline flowing in your body will demand you do something to burn it up. The problem is that working to burn it up just keeps causing our bodies to produce more and more. So go for a long walk or a run instead.

The third step, one that goes along with rest, is developing intimacy with God. That’s why we have been created. God didn’t make us to work for Him but to fellowship with Him. That’s what He needs and what we need. We also need to develop intimacy with those around us. Work often substitutes for intimacy. When we are so busy we don’t feel we have to genuinely relate to those closest to us. This is all wrong.

Thus true intimacy with God and others really meets our inner needs for acceptance and security. Overwork is a poor substitute for these and will never meet our inner needs. That’s why when we start down the path of doing more and more to win approval we never dome to an end of that path. It’s like drinking salt water to quench our thirst – it just can’t do the job!


  • How can you tell when you are burning out?
  • What can you do to stop it?
  • What can you do to prevent it?
  • What stress most drives you to push too hard?
  • What motivates you to keep pushing yourself more and more?
  • What makes it hard for you to stop?

Jerry SchmoyerJerry Schmoyer has been a minister in Pennsylvania for over 25 years and has worked with teenagers for 15 years, ever since I became one myself. He authors the weekly Time Out series here at Life in Student Ministry in hopes to spiritually refresh your soul as you continually pour so much of yourself into students. God bless!

Posted on March 8, 2010

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