Five Habits to Avoid Burnout in Ministry

Note: I hope you’ll enjoy another post with contributions from my good friend, Payton Minzenmayer. Payton is the Connections Minister at the Alameda Church of Christ in Norman, OK. To read more of his work, visit his website at paytonminzenmayer.com.

Burnout in ministry is a problem for far too many people. According to recent research:

  • 28% of ministers are spiritually undernourished
  • 35% of ministers battle depression
  • 43% of ministers are overstressed (To see all the data collected go to churchleadership.org)

Burnout can ultimately affect not only a person’s career, but their entire life and well-being. In our brief ministry careers, we have seen churches suffocate their ministers by placing lofty, unrealistic expectations on them that any person would struggle to meet. We have also seen ministers who work 70 hours a week with respectable goals and good intentions, but destroy their own lives in the process. Both of these potential pitfalls threaten the well-being of our churches and the people whom we work with.

Church leaders must know how to set up boundaries to protect their personal, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

In the space below, Payton and I take some time to examine five duties of ministers that may not show up in a job description, but that we believe are crucial to long-term health and personal development. Some may say, I don’t have time to worry about these things. I have to do the work of God! Although church work carries many important tasks, we would both argue that you don’t have time to NOT do these things. They will help you avoid burnout while strengthening and preparing you for a long career in ministry.

Habit One: Focus on your personal spirituality.

Payton: We spend so much time pouring into others that we forget to pour into ourselves. Yes, Jesus loves the people you are serving, but he loves you too. Honestly, he might miss you. A habit that is embarrassingly difficult for many ministers to pick up is developing healthy spiritual practices. Unless you have a deep spiritual well to draw from, you will have nothing to offer to those who are seeking or asking. It is easy to be sucked under the dark vacuum of pain and suffering the world’s sinful nature creates. Many attempt to not only carry their burdens, but also the burdens of others. Personally I struggle with this, but have learned that saying “no” can be just as effective as saying “yes.” We each have to decide where we invest our time, energy and resources because we have a limited supply of each. Adopting the metaphor from Wayne Corderio in his book, Leading on Empty, if we pour more into others than we do to ourselves, our “gas tank” will eventually run empty and we will have nothing left to offer.

Brady: Ministry and personal spirituality are not equal. You don’t get a pass on following Jesus just because you are serving in his church. And you shouldn’t want one – following Jesus is life’s greatest joy, and if you neglect personal discipleship because of your service in the church, you are robbing yourself more than anybody else. When done right, ministry is an outpouring of one’s love for Jesus cultivated through daily time in prayer and God’s word. This should be a priority for all people – ministers included.

Habit Two: Spend meaningful time with your family.

Payton: One of the most important things we have is often the first to get knocked down the ladder of importance. We struggle to understand why the average household is divided; I believe one of the reasons is because we have stopped making our family a priority. For me this is my wife. For you this might be your first-born child, your mom and pop, or your twin brother. These people have been put in our life for a reason. We, for the most part, didn’t get to choose them or decide how they would act and think. What we can control, though, is the type of relationship we want to have with them. Coming from a person who has had many fallouts with family: love your family with all you can muster. You will not regret that time.

Brady: I think Andy Stanley says it best, “The real spiritual litmus test for a pastor is not what happens on Sunday morning behind the pulpit, but on Sunday afternoon at home with his family.” Your title, job, church, and career field may change over the years – possibly several times – but your family will always remain a constant. One day, when I’m old and retired and looking back on my life, I imagine that I will care less about the retreats and mission trips that I led, or the lessons that I’ve taught, and more about the way I loved my family and brought them closer to Christ. Also, to be bluntly honest, if your wife ain’t happy – you won’t be happy either!

Habit Three: Take care of your body.

Payton: You can only provide the best when you are at your best. Strain your mind (heart) you are going to experience burnout; strain your body you are going to experience a heart attack. Our bodies were meant to move. They crave for it. Here is one of the best reasons to care for your health: it improves the quality of life. Studies have shown that once you begin to exercise regularly, it reduces stress, lifts moods, and helps you sleep better. If you could spend an hour every day doing anything that promises these kind of results, wouldn’t you be first in line?

Brady: Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:8 that physical training is of “some” value. I don’t think this is a statement that should be ignored. I have come to believe that there is a greater connection between physical health and spiritual devotion than you might expect. God has taught me quite a bit about discipleship through my personal diet and exercise habits (for more of my thoughts in this area, read a recent blog post here).

Habit Four: Have fun.

Payton: God gave us joy and laughter to use and express. God wants us to have fun, just not to be driven by it (Ecc. 11:9). When ‘fun’ is enjoyed in parameters it is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Ecclesiastes has a plethora of passages regarding the balance of joy and sorrow in our lifetime. One of the most prominent is Ecclesiastes 3:4: “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” There certainly is a time for everything, but what I want to call attention to is the time to laugh and dance. Do not trap yourself in a place of bearing the world’s burdens. Find times of joy and laughter. Times to dance and live freely. This period of rejuvenation will take you the distance.

Brady: Jesus says it himself in John 10:10 – “I have come so that you may have life and have it abundantly.” God wants us to enjoy the good things in life that he has given us, as an extension of his power and his blessings. At the same time, God doesn’t want us to worship his “gifts,” but rather to worship him as the “giver.” For this reason, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a day off, a good meal, a fun activity, or even a mindless escape from reality from time to time.

Habit Five: Go to church Experience church

Payton: It is true, on Sunday morning the ministers are stepping into their workplace, but they are also stepping into the house of God to exalt his name and sing praises to him like everyone else. Ministers are sheep amongst other sheep. They laugh, cry, fail, and wander like any other sheep might. This is not to say that they should not be held to a higher standard as leaders in the church, but that ministers need “church,” too.

Brady: Sharing life with other believers is an important element of the Christian faith. Ministers shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice their participation in the body of Christ because they happen to also be employed by that congregation. For us, church is our place of work, but it remains our community with whom we share life.

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We must never forget that ministers are people too. They have good days and bad days. They have fears, quirks, insecurities, and limitations. They can’t—and shouldn’t—neglect their personal well-being for the sake of their church. On the contrary, if they take care of themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, they will ultimately put themselves in a better position to lead ministries, shepherd the flock, and bring others to Christ. All church workers should strive to not only be effective ministers of the Gospel, but complete disciples, spouses, and friends.

Falling With Style

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One of my favorite childhood movies was Toy Story. It was one of the few tapes we owned on VHS, so I watched this film over and over again. Toy Story is a classic – it was so good that Pixar has made multiple sequels (some worse than others…looking at you Toy Story 3).

The first Toy Story movie begins when Andy gets a new toy for his birthday. This isn’t just any toy – this is the new Buzz Lightyear action figure! It was the toy that all of the other boys Andy’s age coveted. The other toys, especially Woody, are skeptical towards Buzz. They are concerned that Buzz will steal Andy’s attention away from them, and that they will quickly be forgotten at the bottom of the toy box.

To make matters more interesting, Buzz is convinced that he is not just a popular action figure: he believes he is a real Space Ranger. Woody is appalled by this claim and challenges Buzz to prove that he can fly. In a turn of events only possible in an animated children’s movie, Buzz utilizes a Hot Wheels car, a toy ramp, and a ceiling decoration to soar through the air at seemingly breakneck speeds, to the amazement of every other toy watching….except for Woody. Still concerned about the possibility of losing his status as the “favorite toy,” Woody fights back with a quote that we all know by heart.

“That’s not flying! That’s….falling with style.”

Here’s the question I want to consider today. What if “falling with style” is actually a very good thing? What if it’s a strategy that we can utilize to our advantage? What if it’s a technique that will help us become more productive and devote more of our time to the things that are most important to us?

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Last month, I read the book “Finish” by Jon Acuff. Acuff writes that although many people create goals, only around 8% of those people actually finish what they set out to accomplish. Throughout the book, Acuff gives various tips and pieces of motivational advice designed to help people reach their personal and professional goals. For me, the most helpful piece of advice in the book was not an instruction on what to do, but a caution against what not to do.

Acuff says that we need to “decide what we are going to bomb.” For him, it’s his lawn. He acknowledges that many men take the appearance of their yard very seriously, spending countless weekend hours mowing, trimming, edging, and weeding. Their reward is the improved curb appeal of their house and the jealous looks of their neighbors.

When it comes to taking care of his yard, Acuff is “falling with style.” He is utilizing failure to his advantage, and turning it into a success. He doesn’t mow himself – he hires a company to come and do it. He doesn’t weed. He doesn’t edge. He doesn’t have the best yard on the block. What he has instead is additional time to do what’s more important: writing his books, perfecting his speaking abilities, and spending time with his family.

Nobody can be good at everything. As painful as this may be to admit, it’s true for each of us. We are all forced to pick and choose what matters most in our lives. When I was in college, I remember hearing often that I could not have good grades, good sleep, AND a good social life, but I could pick two of the three. I’ve learned that post-college life requires similar choices, with many more options to choose from.

We need to learn how to fall with style.

So, how can you “fall with style?” What task or assignment do you need to intentionally bomb, so that you can focus on more important things? Here are three areas that I am deliberately “falling”:

  1. Movies and TV Shows – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve embarrassed myself by not being familiar with a popular movie or TV show. Even worse are the times when I try to make a reference, and then get it completely wrong! I don’t really watch TV or movies anymore. My wife and I have two TV shows that we watch together when we want to have some down time: The Office (we’ve seen every episode several times) and Impractical Jokers. We refuse to start any new TV shows, because we don’t want to become “hooked” and spend too much time behind a screen. This small sacrifice has given us large amounts of time that we’re able to repurpose towards other important things.
  2. Breakfast and Lunch – I used to eat out for lunch almost every day. After I took time to decide where to go for food, got in my car to drive to the restaurant, order the food, eat the food, and go back to my office, I had wasted almost an hour. Not only was this an unwise use of my time and money, the mental energy spent on choosing a place to eat left with me less energy for my afternoon projects. Now, I pack the same breakfast (two bananas) and the same lunch (a sandwich, piece of fruit, and one serving of Wheat Thins) every day. This food is easy to eat while at my desk or on the go, and I no longer to spend significant time deciding and acquiring what I will eat each day. Now, I will only go out for lunch if I have another person or group of people to go with.
  3. Golf – I used to golf at least once a week. It was a good way to spend time with others, but I also occasionally went to play by myself.  It was one of my favorite hobbies. Today, I still enjoy playing golf, but I have decreased significantly the amount of time and money I devote to the sport. I have played only twice since the first week of August. Although I miss the time spent on the golf course, I have enjoyed having extra time to work out, study, and spend time with non-golfers.

I have seen the effectiveness of this discipline first-hand. However, I know I still have room for growth. Here are three more potential that I am trying to give up, but have found to be more difficult.

  1. Email – I check email obsessively, but more often than not, I don’t find anything urgent or overly significant in my inbox. When I check email 2-3 times per hour, I force my brain to disengage from the project I am working on each time. It may take several minutes for me to get back to the level of focus I had before.  I could get much more done if I wasn’t so tied to email. One method I have found helpful is to view my windows in full-screen mode with my “do not disturb” settings turned on. Although I still may scroll to the other screen to check my email every so often, this helps me avoid clicking on each email as it appears.
  2. Social Media – Social media is a trap! It is good for many purposes, but can be the ultimate distraction and time-waster. The most frustrating thing about social media is that there is ALWAYS something new appearing. I can log off Twitter for a half hour and miss anywhere from 20 to 100 tweets. I will also confess that I sometimes turn to social media for a “mental” break during the day, instead of relying on healthier options for rest such as taking a walk or striking up a conversation with a co-worker. I am working on sacrificing my social media involvement and awareness for the sake of focusing on more important things.
  3. Cleanliness – I am a neat-freak. Mary will be the first to tell you. Everything in our house has a place, and once I walk in the door, it will quickly find its place. Sometimes, I lie to myself and say, cleanliness is important because when everything is clean, you will be able to relax. Just like social media, this is a trap. There will always be one more closet that could be decluttered, one more box in the garage that could be cleaned out, or one more area of the yard that could be touched up. It will never all be done. Sometimes, I would be better off to leave a dish in the sink or a dirty shirt on the floor if it meant that I could spend an extra moment in prayer or be fully attentive to a conversation with Mary.

Now that I’ve reflected on my stylish fallings, I would love to hear from you. What do you think about this idea? What do you wish you had the strength or self-control to “bomb?” How do you think this discipline could help you?