Pastor, leader, volunteer or even attendee – there seems to be an epidemic of people getting burnt out at church.
I think one of the great tragedies of church life is that so many people have been hurt in the church. The thing is, you don’t expect to be. Church is meant to be this wonderful place of healing and restoration for the generations. It’s meant to be the place you come to help find perspective for your big week. It’s meant to be the place where you find the rest your soul is longing for. And for a lot of people, it certainly is.
But for an increasingly growing number of people, church is the place they start to associate with frustration and exhaustion. Instead of healing for old wounds, it seems to be pretty good at creating new ones.
I’ve seen this happen all too much. It’s something my attention goes towards. I love welcoming new people – if you know me, you know I’m always trying to make church as welcoming a place for the great and the small. But in my heart, I know my attention is always going even more towards the people who are regular attenders. Towards the stay-at-home son or daughter. To the one who’s been serving so long. To the one who doesn’t know why their place of joy is becoming tainted with sorrow.
And so, I thought I’d have a bit of a real look at some of the issues around getting burnt out at church. I know this is a big and sensitive topic for many people, but I want to cover this fairly and realistically.
Not just “a big church problem”
I think a misconception among Christianity is that burnout only occurs in larger churches. I mean, more services, more people, more jobs that need fulfilling, seemingly more obligations than other places. There’s certainly a lot of opportunity for people to find themselves worn out.
Burnout isn’t just a big church problem, however. I participate in a lot of non-denominational camps and events, visit different types of churches from time to time, and went to Bible College for a few years with people from all over the place. Some of my friends are pastors and volunteers at very different styles of churches. From the largest church to the smallest one, the problems can be the same. Sadly, many people leave their current church for a smaller one, or a bigger one, and often find themselves experiencing the same problems again, or at least a different variant. Sure, the larger church has more people, but what if the percentage of people volunteering is smaller? Similarly, if you’re from a bigger church, you may be used to a larger support network or set of resources to keep you going, but the smaller locale may not have them available.
Burnout is a human problem.
Who is “the church”?
I think it’s important to identify who “the church” is in the sentence, “The church burnt me out”. I mean, who is it specifically that left you hurting? Was it the physical building that drained your energy? Probably not. Was it the senior pastor always on your back about things? Was it a particular volunteer who you served with? Was it what unfolded in the midst of negative publicity or the revelation of some great sin in those higher levels?
Or was it the friend who you used to think was close to you but turned your back on you? Was it the usher at the door who made some flippant comment about your outfit? Was it the expectations you put on yourself amidst a certain level of expectation from others you used to be comfortable with?
Who is it specifically you had a problem with? I think locking that down and being real and honest about that goes a long way to helping with the recovery process. It probably wasn’t the whole group of people that you had a problem with.
Warning signs and symptoms
Having led numerous types of leaders through different seasons of serving and church life, I’ve come to learn the importance of identifying the warning signs (before) and the symptoms (during) of burnout in people. Here’s a few of them:
No longer coming to church unless they’re serving at that service
Erratic changes in behaviour and habits
No spare time left in their life
A lack of a buffer between commitments – go go go go go go go
A stifled demeanour
General irritability around things involving effort or time
Ironically and unfortunately, an avoidance of worship time, and arriving at church after this part of the service has taken place
Pastors and leaders, we have to know the condition of our flocks. Do you see this in others? Do you notice the people who are slowly slipping away? Are you listening to the sound of their heart?
Or how about you yourself? I wonder if you identify with any of these. It’s a slow fade down the path of exhaustion, and it’s best to address it before it gets too late and you run the risk of permanent damage.
Who is looking out for you?
Who is it who’s looking after you?
I hope you are able to answer that question. It’s so important that we have people above us who are checking in on us. If you’re in a position of leadership, it’s even more important that your superiors are checking in on you, and that you’re checking in on the people you are accountable for. A lot of the time, we do have people who are concerned with our well being, especially in church.
I wonder how we answer these people. The truth is a lot of the time we have the right people asking the right questions, but we give the wrong answers and are too afraid to talk about how we’re really feeling for fear of… something. Judgment, not being good enough, not being seen the same way, I dunno what it is. Whatever it is though, it’s not worth hanging on to over getting our problems dealt with.
Who is investing into you?
I can remember a few times across my involvement in churches that I’ve felt like I couldn’t actually answer the question above. Where I felt like the people I thought should be checking in on me didn’t seem too interested in what was going on. And the wisdom I was getting was, “you need to ask for the help you need”.
And it seemed unfair to me that I was going through so much stuff that I had to be the one who seek out people to invest into my life. But you know, I thought about it this way instead. When I was 10 years old and I was hungry, of course it would be the case that my need for food was being looked after by someone else. But as a grown man, imagine if I just sat there hungry, complaining about the fact that no one was paying attention to my need to eat.
In the same way, as you grow older, especially spiritually, you’re going to need to seek things out for yourself. If you’re finding yourself needing to talk about your sexuality or relationships or involvement at church or how you’re feeling at home or anything else, and these things are becoming really big issues in your life, and you’re waiting for someone else to approach you about it… you may be waiting for a long time.
People don’t always know you’re going through a hard time. They only see you from the outside. And if you’re acting and pretending like it’s all good, they’ll probably be thinking, well okay, they’re all good then. I was broken hearted a few times when leaders who had told me they trusted me and knew they could come to me or my co-leaders about anything would suddenly blow up after 18 months of serving because of some issue they never brought up earlier.
You need friends. You need people in your life who just want you for you, not for what you do.
You are more than your service. And you are loved as you are. It’s so important you seek out what your heart needs.
Shame and lethargy
When you’re burnt out at church, what usually immediately follows is a deep sense of shame. You weren’t good enough. You know better. You shouldn’t feel this way. You have so many dreams that you wanted to see accomplished, but with your worn out and tired heart, you have no idea how you’ll ever see it happen. And because burnout usually leads you into sin to try to make yourself feel better, you have an extra heaping of shame for what you’ve done there too.
Shame is not from God. And it should never be an instrument a church uses for motivation, either.
It’s just proof that you’re still human. Getting worn out is a very normal experience. All of us have times in our lives where we’ve done more than we should have or have had other things in our life throw our lives out of whack.
And I did also want to make mention of the other side of burnout, and that’s lethargy. The immediate response to being worn out is usually to pull out of absolutely everything. And in some cases that’s actually a very good and helpful thing – I’ve done that myself at different points.
But the problem is that burnout and lethargy feel the same. And where we once were tired from doing too much, now we’re worn out because we’re not doing enough. Like a muscle that never gets used for the purpose it was intended, so too our spirits and hearts wear out from being distant from our true purpose.
Don’t let shame or lethargy rule the day in your life.
You and God
At the end of the day, here’s usually the source of many of our problems.
Christian… how are you and God doing?
Oh I know you love Him and you care about Him and all that good stuff. But how’s the relationship? Do you still talk in the mornings? Are you still staying planted in the Word? Are you still seeking His presence and voice in your life?
If you’ve done all the practical things and still can’t find your energy, can I submit to you that you and God need to have it out?
I find that burnout is usually a result of repressed emotions. We keep our truest feelings bottled up for too long and don’t actually express to anyone what’s going on.
Can we put down the pride and just get real about how we’re really doing? Even right now, try doing this – finish this sentence out loud, let your words locate what’s really going on. Don’t think, just let it come out.
“What I’m really frustrated with is…”
If you’re in a place where you’ve needed to get things out, I hope you took an opportunity right there. Cause that’s what prayer is. It isn’t vain repetitions or how many times you can say “God Lord Jesus Father I just Father Lord” in a single sentence. It’s your heart, and His.
You don’t have to carry a tired heart any more, dear friend. Let it all out.
I hope something here has been helpful for you, whether as a pastor or leader wanting to look after people more effectively, or as someone who’s found themselves just exhausted and not able to get past it. My prayer for you is that you find the rest you long for. We weren’t made to live worn out and tired – we were made for freedom.
And burnout is a very widespread and real problem for a lot of people. Why not give this post a share so we can help make sure the people around us are being looked after? Maybe this article could be a good talking point for a larger discussion.
As always, love hearing your thoughts. Let me know what your experiences are, and if there was anything you think I missed that may be helpful for others.