Overcoming Burnout

By Joel Iyorwa

Burnout has become such a common experience among Christians today to the extent that some have begun to speak of it as a ‘normal’ part of the Christian life and ministry.

In other words, they expect to burn out. It is only a matter of time. Just take a break when you burn out then resume again and wait for the next time you burn out.

I conceive of burnout here as a state of spiritual dryness, emptiness or hopelessness. It is those moments when the joy of the Lord no longer seems to give strength. These are the times when the regular activities of Christian life and ministry loose meaning and become mere religious routines.

Rather than conceive of burnout as a kind of spiritual maladjustment, they see it as a sort of unavoidable outcome, especially in ministry.

As a result, many missionaries and other kinds of Christian workers are taught ‘how to cope with burnout’ rather than ‘how to avoid burn out.’ These two are not the same.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Spiritual Burnout is not a normal or expected by-effect of Christian life of ministry. It is maladjustment, or at least a sign of it.

Jesus never experienced burnout throughout His earthly life and ministry. This fact alone is a strong enough basis for an anti-burnout posture.

Spiritually speaking, there are at least three different causes of burnout:

  1. Identity in work, not in Christ: This happens when we become too steeped in working for God, in doing the ministry, and it begins to define who we are rather than deriving pleasure and identity primarily from Christ and being with Him, and spending time in His presence. The Martha lifestyle leads quickly to burnout, but the Mary lifestyle doesn’t.
  2. Lack of / inconsistency in personal devotion: Here we find one of the most frequent causes of spiritual burnout. Inconsistency in personal devotion or an outright lack of it will never sustain spiritual life. It is like attempting to keep a tree in place with no roots. It simply won’t work.
  3. Spiritual warfare: satan is the adversary of all disciples of Jesus, no matter their status or ministry roles. He is constantly engaging them in diverse ways, sometimes violently, other times subtly, to try to put us off balance. Many times this can cause despair that eventually leads to burnout.

Let us consider Isaiah 40:30-31:

“Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
And the young men shall utterly fall,
But those who wait on the LORD
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint”

Verse 30 sounds like someone suffering from burnout. The verse seems to emphasize that avoiding burnout is not a matter of physical strength or mental agility, it is not about how smart you are or how carefully planned your life is, because “even the youths shall faint…”

The way to prevent or forestall a burnout is to ‘wait upon the Lord’ or to continue to lean upon and draw from the strength that flows from Him.
Burnout is virtually impossible where the Christian, the Christian worker or the Message Bearer is living constantly in the ever flowing stream of God’s strength.

Before every burnout, there is first a breakdown in this kind of connection with God.

Another model is offered to us in John 15:1-5 where Jesus taught about the principle of ‘Abiding.’ Burnout in this context is akin to withering which according to verse 6 happens when we do not abide and in verse 2.

When we abide, we get constant care and pruning from the Lord. ‘Abide’ here connotes a kind of permanent dwelling and it is the secret of an ever burning, never burning out life.

Oh, I won’t even have time and space here to elaborate on that famous story of the “burning bush” encountered by Moses on the plains of Mt. Horeb. But Moses captured the moment very well but even more so, the principle behind it. He observed that,

“the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed” (NKJV), “The bush was blazing away but it didn’t burn up.” (MSG)

We need the burning-bush kind of Christianity. Burning everyday and aglow with the life and vitality of Jesus but never burning out. But the truth is we all are in danger of experiencing burnout, and those in full time ministry are even especially more prone to it.

There is something about fires. They tend to go out when they run out of oxygen, heat or fuel. Spiritually too, when our lives are no longer
getting a supply from God’s presence, a burnout is inevitable.

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