I Don’t Do Burnout

Caring For Our Souls

by Ed Vaughan

[4 minute read]


“I don’t do burnout.” I think it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever heard from a team member.

The context in which my team and I minister is extremely challenging. We deal with people who experience homelessness, have mental health issues, live with addiction and suffer from social isolation. I am desperately keen that we look after ourselves and not crash and burn. So, I teach often on the imperative of self-care to ensure our health in the face of the massive demands of our ministry.

But on this day, one of our staff members pushed back hard. They really didn’t feel that they needed to be concerned about this stuff. They didn’t need to worry, they said, because “I don’t do burnout.”

When we set ourselves up with heroic images of our capacity, we set ourselves up to fail. No matter how talented, enthusiastic or dedicated we are, we are all human beings. We are more frail and fragile than we would often allow ourselves to admit.

If you have ever seen a colleague genuinely burnout, you will know that it is a devastating experience, one which you never want to see repeated. Ruth Haley Barton describes it as the difference between ‘good tired’ and ‘dangerous tired.’[1] So how do we develop a resiliency in the face of the daily ministry challenges we face?

A recent Australian study tracked one thousand clergy and church workers to find out what may lead to burnout and how it can be avoided.[2] The study also focuses on ‘Well-being in ministry,’ effectively the opposite to burnout. The authors ask the question, ‘What can church workers positively do which will enable them to function at their best over a long period of time.’

If you had to guess, what would be the one most powerful contributor to clergy well-being?

The answer is ‘being able to develop robust spiritual resources’. In the world of Arrow Leadership, we would use the language ‘developing Spiritual Disciplines’.

The study is rich and intriguing, and worth reading, but boiled down it’s saying that if you want to do one thing which will have a significant impact in enabling you to cope with the sometimes head-wrecking and heart-breaking challenges of ministry, then develop rich spiritual disciplines in your life.

Brisbane psychologist Peter Janetzki has been presenting a module on the hazards of ministry to the last few Arrow cohorts. Peter quotes some statistics from the USA about the level of sexual immorality and depression in church workers that are truly staggering. I have watched Arrow participants look at each other as Peter presents and say to each other, “Surely this cannot be right!”. The information smashes the naivety and arrogance that causes us to think that these things could never happen to us.

The right response is to acknowledge, with humility and wisdom that we are each vulnerable in our own ways to unhealthy practices and sin. We are vulnerable to attitudes which can cripple our ministry over time. We are vulnerable to an experience of ministry which is toxic.

It really should be no surprise that our best defence against the challenges of ministry life is to develop regular healthy spiritual practices that nurture and sustain our soul. Whenever I hear the feedback that Arrow participants give about the residentials, I inevitably have a wry smile. Participants come into the program, looking to grow in their skills. Nonetheless, one of the most highly rated modules is ‘Spiritual Disciplines.’ That’s the time when we all shut-up and be still and listen to God. And who would have thought? That turns out to be the most powerful and transformative experience of them all.

This is so easily said and so hard to do. It is an imperative for all of us in ministry, an imperative that exceeds all the other demands upon our time, no matter how worthy they are. Everything we do, and everyone that we do it with, will benefit if we invest the time in regularly coming before the Lord and replenishing our souls.

We act as if we don’t have time for this, but in fact it will be the one thing that will keep our minds sharp, our bodies healthy and our hearts pure. Those we love the most will benefit and those we minister to will be blessed if we develop daily rhythms of grace in our lives.

There was once a time in your life when you experienced the ‘streams of life-giving water’ of which Jesus speaks. When was that time? And what were your daily practices then? Rediscover that time and those practices which fill your heart with joy, in the midst of all the assaults upon your soul. Be filled with Him again.

[1] Ruth Hayley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press:2006)

[2] “Well Being In Ministry” by Grant Bickerton, Maureen Miner-Bridges, Martin Dowson and Barbara Griffin. The study can be accessed at https://www.buv.com.au/documents/item/182.