The following post is written by East-West’s Director of Member Care.
Ministry burnout is the subject of numerous articles and books. Those called to any caring profession—teachers, health care professionals, counselors, church leaders, missionaries, and more—are at risk of overextending their capacity for productivity. And they’re prone to do so to the point of physical, mental, social and spiritual collapse.
Whether it is called burnout or compassion fatigue, the result on one’s soul is similar to running headlong off a cliff. You might survive the fall, but you will never be the same again.
And let’s not spiritualize this by suggesting that what you learn from your fall will be so valuable that you will look back on burnout as a gift. No, burnout can wreck your soul, wreck your faith, wreck your relationships, wreck your health, and your witness.
Ministry burnout is not admirable, and it is definitely not a fruit of the Spirit. Burnout is tragic, and all the more so because it is preventable.
Our tendency to burnout is fueled by many sources. Our secular business culture elevates examples like Elon Musk’s 100 hour-a-week pace. Our American pride in self-sufficiency is also a covert collaborator. Even within our faith, it is easy to slip into thinking that our efforts can save the world.
How many times have you found yourself believing that “If I want to earn God’s favor, I need to try even harder.” Or maybe you are striving to earn the respect of your significant other, team, family, friends, and supporters by trying harder, ever harder.
From my experience, missionaries are perhaps more vulnerable to burnout than those in other ministry vocations or caring professions. The sacrifices they’ve made to get to the field, the lack of social, family, and spiritual resources in their isolated locations, and the overwhelming needs of the lost around them all conspire to ambush the overseas missionary, potentially wrecking their health, ministry, and even their faith.
Burnout is not a sign of greater zeal or greater commitment.
To be blunt, the attraction to a burnout-prone lifestyle is more likely the result of a subtle idolatry. This idolatry can take the form of an arrogant belief in our own capacity, thinking only we can meet others’ needs. Idolatry can also manifest itself as unbelief or wrong belief that we need to earn the favor of God or others.
But is it our capacity to be productive that God desires from us?
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” -Hosea 6:6
God wants our hearts, not our efforts.
To be sure, we are designed for work. That is made clear from the very beginning of Scripture. Even before the Fall, Adam was given responsibilities in the Garden. But in creation, God Himself rested on the seventh day, and He repeatedly reminds us in Scripture to do the same. Resting involves our learning to trust God to provide for our needs.
Do we really trust Him to care for us, to provide the manna we need even on the seventh day when we don’t go out to gather? Do we really trust Him to care for those we are serving? Or is it all up to us? Are we putting ourselves in God’s place?
My hope is to clarify why we are so inclined to work ourselves right off a cliff, to our own ruin. The Sabbath was an exercise in trusting God to provide the results. Burnout happens because we think the results depend on us. Whether the results we pursue are souls saved, funds raised, or favor earned, only God can actually deliver.
How quickly we forget to live “in the grace of Christ” and turn to “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all” (Galatians 1:6-7)! It is so easy to turn to this un-gospel and believe that somehow we need to do more to earn God’s favor.
Jesus Himself is our model. He certainly did strive and persevere, but He also rested, sought solitude from the masses, prayed, and slept.
Take a moment to pause and ponder Hebrews 12:2, where the writer describes us, the faithful, as “…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God”.
Jesus didn’t go to the cross hoping that maybe this would earn God’s favor. He endured the cross “for the joy set before him”. And joy, unlike burnout, is a fruit of the Spirit, along with peace, love, and a host of other virtues that are all too often set aside on the path to self-sufficiency.
If we find joy in Jesus, beautiful results will certainly flow out of His deep, refreshing spring.
With our focus and joy in Christ, we can be joyful in rest or in service—as He leads.
And He is not in the business of wrecking souls, but of redeeming them from slavery.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” -Galatians 5:1