In any job, burnout is inevitable. You’ve seen it—people get tired & frustrated over the years, and it slowly wears them out. What did that look like for me? As a senior pastor for 16 years at a church I started, I found myself constantly battling anxiety & depression. When you’re leading a ministry, running the meeting, or teaching on stage, it’s easy to hide your struggles. But you can’t hide everything from everybody…believe me. My wife endured things that no one else saw. I would wake up at 4am too depressed to function and too anxious to do anything about it. I was worried about things that would rarely happen but John Eldridge said it well “The number one fear most men have is that they don’t have what it takes”, and this fear started to take over the form of burnout in ministry.
When someone goes into ministry, their primary motivation is helping people. Regardless of the the toll it takes, it’s their calling so they push forward. I often think of Martin Luther who posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church and other churches in Wittenberg, Germany. The dialog he had with the religious leaders of the day was “Here I stand. I can do no other”. If you’re called to ministry or have a dream to run a non-profit, in some ways, you can relate to that statement. Here you stand, you can do no other. You fight the fight, you expect being worn down, and you know it’s not easy doing what God has called you to.
While it is important to push forward in your calling, I have seen too many friends burnout to the point of hurting their ministry, their family, and their faith. So what does it look like to be preventative? How can nonprofit leaders work proactively to fight this overwhelming feeling of burnout?
Know and be assured of your calling
Most often, burnout comes when you’ve lost hope because you’re doing the wrong thing. Burnout is deeper than being tired or needing rest. We ALL need rest and time away. Instead, t’s when your work becomes something you have to do instead of something you want to do. When fatigue combines with doing something you’re not passionate about, burnout happens.
While there are parts of our job that are always challenging, if it comes out of your passion, you will be motivated to work through a hard task or season. As a leader, you need to be able to be sustained by something other than “I woke up today and feel really good”. Having a confidence in your calling will be that sustaining passion.
Let me ask you a question- Do you know what you’re called to? If that is foggy for you, please unplug for a while, spend some time with God, and ask Him to show you. Without clarity and passion from him, you’re going to find yourself constantly exhausted.
Be in the Word of God every single day
Can I be honest? As a pastor of a growing church and the leader of people, I have always struggled to regularly be in the scriptures every day. I had all the right answers, I just didn’t prioritize time with God. In February 2016 (after stepping away from my role as a senior pastor for several weeks), I haven’t missed a day of reading the word. I’m not saying this to brag or show off what I’m doing, but to explain to you how different I am now. Why didn’t I do this in all the years I was actively doing ministry? It’s a game changer.
When I meet with other leaders who are feeling burned out, I encourage them to return to their first love. You can be so busy leading others, running a church, and organizing a ministry that you don’t spend time just you and Jesus. One of the great secrets I’ve learned as a believer is the word “discovery”- always discovering and learning new things about God. Are you proactively doing this in your life?
In your marriage, in your personal struggles, and in your ministry, don’t wait until it’s too late. You’ve seen this countless times in your own ministry and families you work with- people wait until the very last minute and throw the Hail Mary pass hoping everything can be fixed through last minute counseling. While I believe so strongly in God’s unexplainable healing, I can tell you I see the greatest success when people ask for help before they are hanging by a thread.
As a leader, I want to encourage you to do the same thing. How can you get help in these feelings you have right now? Can you seek a counselor, open up to your trusted friend, or begin to meet with other ministry leaders and share vulnerably? It’s easy to block off relationships that require honesty and transparency, but I encourage you to put yourself around people who can see into your life. Take a risk in relationships and let other people speak in your life. While it may be painful at the beginning, it can prevent such pain and burnout down the road.
If you are working in a non-profit, ministry, or church, you need to understand that this feeling of exhaustion is the norm. Stress and questions are normal, and if nothing else please tell yourself “I’m not the only one who has gone through this.” Instead of pushing through and sacrificing yourself or the health of your family for the sake of ministry, I encourage you to step back and start working on these areas. God doesn’t need you to accomplish His work, but He has chosen you. As Paul encouraged us in Ephesians 4, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”
Not sure what to do next?
No problem. Here are a few things to try.