A Practice for Burnout Prevention

IMG_1076Every day, a Google search for “burnout”, or “ministry burnout” or “pastoral burnout” leads someone to this blog. My heart is heavy when I imagine the stories and situations that have led someone to make that search. They find my blog primarily because of two posts on the theme:

I’ve been in ministry over 25 years. I think burn-out is as big an issue today as I can ever remember.

I remember hitting a place of burnout in my late twenties as a full-time college pastor taking a full load at Fuller Seminary trying to be a new husband and carry on an active social life. Do you think I might have been trying to do too much at once? Is it any surprise that I began to feel a little dry and crispy?

At that time, I found myself often talking about the importance and value of prayer, but rarely praying myself. I became comfortable giving counsel I wasn’t actually practicing. Fatal.

I’m grateful that God was kind enough to then bring some mentors across my path who are my ministry colleagues today. One of them, Wayne Anderson (1940-2008), introduced me to the simple practice of a day a month alone and quiet with God. He mentored me in the actual practice of solitude, silence and prayer. I had read about these practices in the writings of Dallas Willard and Richard Foster and agreed fully with what they had to say. I knew about them through reading, but not from experience.

I would say that this simple, regular practice over the last two decades has been the single most valuable habit protecting me from burnout. Elton Trueblood was one of the first literary mentors I found recommending it:

“One rare but powerful item of discipline is the requirement that the recruit of the company undertake a personal experience of solitude at least once a month. This is patterned consciously on the experience of Christ who periodically went alone, even at the price of temporary separation from the needs of His fellows. The justification of aloneness is not that of refined self-indulgence, but rather a consequent enrichment of one’s subsequent contribution. A person who is always available is not worth enough when he is available. Everyone engaged in public life will realize the extreme difficult to getting away each month for a period of five or six hours, but the difficulty is not a good reason for rejecting the discipline. It is the men and women who find it hardest to get away who need the redemptive solitude most sorely. They need to be where they are free from the compulsion of chit-chat, from the slavery of the telephone, and even from the newspaper. A Christianity which understands itself will make ample provision for retreat houses in which such solitude is expected and protected.” (Elton Trueblood. The Company of the Committed. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1961, p. 43-44.)

The practice is a strategic core of all our leadership training in The Leadership Institute. Nearly every retreat, training event or process or mentoring relationship includes it.

As for burnout itself, I don’t think it’s only a factor of personality type. Type-A leaders aren’t the only ones who suffer burnout. Ferrari engines and Vespa engines are capable of burning out. This is because it is mostly a maintenance problem.

Ministry burnout results in part from a failure to make enough space for rest, for creative expression, but mostly for unhurried, uninterrupted relationship with God and others. These are the water and oil that help our ministry engines continue to function well over time.

Whenever I talk to a pastor, a missionary, a parachurch leader or Christian of influence who is tired, weary, discouraged, or empty from burnout, I invite them to join me on a day away from the normal places, patterns and responsibilities of their lives to simply give their attention to Jesus Christ. Every time I lead a day like this, I am a witness to the ministry of God’s Spirit to bring refreshment, new vision, encouragement and revitalization to someone’s personal, interactive, conversational relationship with God.

If you’ve read this blog long, you know that I lead a lot of day retreats for just this reason:

I have travelled quite a bit to facilitate retreats that include uncluttered space and unhurried time to listen to and linger with God. I love serving churches, ministries and other Christian organizations in this way. Let me know if I might be able to help you. Or, if you want to plan a day of solitude, silence and prayer, you might read my post, “Download Extended Time With God Suggestions.”

4 thoughts on “A Practice for Burnout Prevention

  1. Alan, thank you for this entry and all the rest of the articles on burnout. I know that burnout pervades all areas of life not just ministry. It is unfortunate being under pressure to perform is more the norm and not the exception. It is a delight that we can find rest in our Lord. I am checking out the book by Anne Jackson, Mad Church Disease. I think it is something Shirley and I need to read.

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