By Jonathan Dodson
A number of years ago I noticed a number of pastors burning out and leaving their churches. Some left out of exhaustion, others out of moral failure. Then, I attended a funeral of a pastor who committed suicide, leaving behind a weeping wife and several children. Suddenly, I was keenly aware that, I too, could succumb to a similar fate.
I began to reflect on my own motivations for ministry and evaluating my habits. During this time I read Leading on Empty by Wayne Coirdero, which helped me identify the physiological warning signs of burn out. It suggested that a general lack of motivation may be the result of overworking and under-resting, which in turn depletes serotonin and adrenaline levels. We need these hormones for active productivity. We’re not made to run full throttle for long.
My first book had released early that year. After a cannonball run of speaking engagements, I showed up at my last church for the year, invited the host pastor into his office, and shared with him that I was exhausted and needed prayer, but was confident God had a word for his people. His church responded with a level of hospitality and concern that has yet to be matched to this day. It’s remarkable what we’ll receive, if we let people in.
After returning home, I confessed to our church leaders that I had focused on outward ministry at their expense. I stepped away from speaking engagements for about a year and reset my focus on family, leaders, and church. I could have easily burned right through the warning signs.
When leaders near burnout, they tend to withdraw from things they find difficult—counseling, preaching, service—it depends on the pastor. Burnout is accompanied by a malaise that dulls your senses. You begin to lack excitement for anything, not just the hard things. Natural strengths slowly become weaknesses.
But burnout is preventable. And leaders are responsible for how they respond to ministry pressures, congregational expectations, and outside demands. They also have to be cautious about overreacting.
It can be tempting to withdraw from everything, without processing, confessing, repenting, and seeking unity in your actions. Most of all, we have to be aware of Christ, who he is and how to walk in his Spirit. After all, the fruit of the Spirit isn’t rest, withdraw, ease, and isolation. It’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness in the face of adversity. This fruit is impossible to bear alone. Awareness is very important; accountability and obedience even more important.
But what is burnout? Nothing more than idolatry of ministry, and behind the idol, the lure of significance, approval, and productivity. The kingdom of Self, not the kingdom of God. In the end, our habits reveal our hearts. Perhaps burnout should be called “burn up,” the charring of spiritual appetites by an idol that is too hot to handle.
As my heart lit up with warning signs, I reacquainted myself with life-giving habits. Knowing my soul lifts when I spend time in creation, I began to walk the quay next to a lake that runs through our city, praying out loud and listening to God. I began to pray on my knees more, where I sense God’s greatness in a way that is hard to grasp sitting or standing up. I also returned to a devotional I have found life-giving over the years. While reading, I fell upon a quote that changed my life:
Love for God may be fine sentiment. It may be sincere and capable of inspiring holy enthusiasm, while the soul is still stranger to fellowship with the eternal, and ignorant of the secret walk with God.
In essence, Kuyper is saying that it is possible to love the ideas of God without loving God himself. We can love the ministry of the gospel without loving the Lord of the gospel. I may love preaching, teaching, writing, or counseling while not loving the object of all these things, without adoring Christ himself.
Lest we are tempted to judge this as slicing the Bible too thin, we do well to remember Jesus who warned “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt 7:23-24).
You can preach, perform miracles, and grow a church all in the name of Jesus without Jesus even knowing you. This all led me to deep repentance, and the quote continues to pop up and correct me.
These things helped me revalue communion with God, as well as adjust some of my habits. To this day, the sense of God’s nearness rises and falls but he remains ever-present and with me. And I know, in my bones, the nearness of God, not the love of his ideas or ministry, is my good.
Jonathan Dodson is the senior pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of multiple books, including The Unbelievable Gospel and Gospel-Centered Discipleship.