A teenager in a high-powered sports car is definitely prone to burnout! However, the burnout I am thinking of is something different: any believer working in any type of caring profession, including serving God full-time, is prone to personal burnout.
Burnout is a particularly relevant concern for commended servants of the Lord, whether working within their own culture or in another culture. Those who are younger and in their first few years of full-time labor are particularly at risk: as they move away from home they lose the close contact of a very supportive group of friends and family. They tend to have more idealistic and less realistic views of what missionary service will be like, which sets them up for disillusionment and disappointment. Regardless of age, other factors such as a lack of support systems, possible financial struggles, sensing high expectations from others, and feeling the need to please all, put the missionary at greater risk. Internally, those who often think negatively about themselves or others, who have very high expectations of themselves, and who feel strongly their need for admiration and appreciation from others, are also more prone to burnout.
As they face the constant demands of caring for their flock, overseers also experience many of the same challenges confronting full-time servants. While providing care for others they may fail to care for themselves and may not be receiving much care from others either. The constant giving without replenishment is extremely taxing on a person.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is not something that one just falls into—it happens over time and is a process rather than a state of being. Its symptoms are different for every person but are typically identified by feelings of irritability, fatigue, sleeplessness, boredom, emotional exhaustion, and dissatisfaction with life. Understandably, this seems to go against one’s expectations of blessing and personal growth as part of serving God. Though they continue to function, burnt out saints feel ineffective and may be surprised as they find themselves acting out of character toward others, perhaps snapping at people they care for or even resenting them. The demands of life become so intense that they seem to exceed the Christian’s ability to meet those demands and so a sense of being chronically overwhelmed follows.
Burnout may include or look like depression but is distinct in that it is experienced over time as a consequence of unrelenting stress and emotional draining. It also differs from depression in that it usually can be quickly resolved by quitting the area of service that is fueling the burnout—an option that is rarely appealing to those who are convicted about their God-given labors.
How Can Burnout Be Prevented?
One of the benefits of understanding burnout as a process is that one can look for early warning signs and take corrective action to prevent further deterioration. Indeed, this is again one of those situations in life where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The Scriptures provide a number of helpful examples and ideas of how to prevent burnout:
As demands increase, proactively take time away and set aside time between commitments (Mark 6:30-32, 46). The apostle Paul typically had anywhere from a few days to several weeks between major arenas of service, often spent traveling by foot or boat—the efficiency of modern travel is not always a blessing as it provides no respite between areas of service.
Exercise regularly (1 Tim 4:8) and eat healthily. While the exhortation to “glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20) is part of Paul’s argument to restrain from fornication, it is also equally applicable to the obesity which results from overeating and lack of exercise. A healthy body goes a long way towards maintaining a healthy mind.
Delegate wherever possible. Jethro taught Moses this vital lesson in Exodus 18 and the Lord Jesus modeled this as He gave the disciples specific tasks or sent them out with the gospel. God shares His work with us but we are often all too reticent to share ours with others.
Resist the results-oriented attitude of the world (1 Cor 3:6-8). It is God Who gives the increase, and the pressure to produce results is often more about protecting or exalting my own pride rather than seeking glory to be brought to God’s name.
Schedule marital, family, and personal time on your calendar. If others ask for that time, simply tell them that time is booked already (Prov 21:5 contrasts planning to hastiness). Time boundaries protect you and your family: make the calendar your ally, not your enemy!
Be very protective of your personal time with God: the Lord often withdrew to pray (Mark 1:35).
Prioritize your care for your own spiritual needs above those of others. Paul was very particular in instructing Timothy along these lines (1 Tim 4:6-16). Perhaps paradoxically, this will enable you to care for others more effectively.
Foster mutual friendships with others. There are many lonely overseers who find they only relate to their sheep as a shepherd. Overseers need friends as well (Prov 27:9).
How Can Others Help?
There are many ways but here are a few suggestions: firstly, the rest of us can respect the intense demands placed on our full-time workers by giving them time and space between engagements in order to become refreshed and take care of domestic responsibilities. Secondly, we can support them personally through maintaining friendships with them even when they are at a distance, encouraging them and praying for them. Finally, when they say “No” we need to respond in a way that does not make them feel guilty for saying “No.”
We can support our overseers by praying for them privately and publicly, as well as encouraging them in their work. The overseers care for the flock. Who is caring for the overseers?