I’m not an expert on avoiding ministry burnout. I’ve been pastoring for twenty-five years, twenty of which have been spent in my current church, and so far I’ve
managed (mostly) to avoid burnout, so maybe my experience lends a little credibility for addressing the subject, but that’s about the extent of my qualifications to write about it.
I’ve heard and read enough about burnout over the years that I could write fairly convincingly, I think, about various techniques and strategies for avoiding it – things like getting exercise, taking vacations, taking a weekly day off, and making time for family, friends, and hobbies. These might be clichés, but they’re clichés for a reason, and having practiced most of them over the years, I can say with some measure of confidence that they really do help.
But I’m not going to write about strategies and techniques for avoiding burnout, for two reasons. First, if you’re in professional ministry, you’re probably already familiar with most of them anyway. And second, while I’m sure that practicing some of them have helped me over the years, the truth is that what’s really kept me going as much as anything is simply grace – God’s grace first and foremost, but also my church’s grace, given in many ways both great and small. And of course, the thing about grace is that you can’t take credit for it.
With that disclaimer, I want to share what has been, for me, the one indispensible thing I’ve learned, not just for avoiding burnout, but for sustaining my life in ministry, period.
Twenty years ago, in the first few months of what is still my current appointment, I was feeling overwhelmed. Up to that point, I had just four years of ministry experience, spending two years each in two excellent FM churches as Associate Pastor. The two Senior Pastors I had served under were great mentors and role models, but I was still young and inexperienced when I accepted my first (and still only) appointment as Senior Pastor – to a church that was still reeling from a recent split.
As I was driving to work one morning, I was praying silently and wondering how I was ever going to survive. I felt pulled in a million directions at once, and in way over my head. There were so many demands on my time and attention, and I had no clue how to prioritize and sort them all out. Just a few months into my first appointment as a lead pastor, and not even five years into my ministry career, I was already feeling the crush of burnout.
The Enemy, seeing that I was on the ropes, probed my soft spots with jabs of doubt: Am I adequate to this task? Am I smart enough or gifted enough? Do I have enough (or any) leadership ability? Will the church respond to me? Am I competent to preach week in and week out? Do I have a compelling vision? Do I have a workable strategy?
In desperation, I started praying. I’d been praying all along, but that morning there was a whole new sense of urgency. It felt like life or death. I could feel the anxiety twisting my gut, the panic rising in my soul. I was on the verge of tears when the Holy Spirit led me to a vineyard. Not literally. I didn’t start drinking, I started reading John’s gospel, chapter 15. The Spirit reminded me of Jesus’s words to His disciples about the Vine and branches.
I’ve always imagined Jesus and the disciples walking past or even through a vineyard as the Lord taught them about their need to “remain” in Him. I picture Jesus pointing to or even standing in a vineyard reaching out to cradle a cluster of grapes while saying: “I am the Vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I remain in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned…” Here’s what Jesus taught me in the vineyard…
(1) I’m not the Vine.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it easy as a pastor to get a “Vine complex”. Sometimes I start thinking that everything depends on me, that it’s all riding on my shoulders. If I’m not leading to the best of my ability, if I’m not casting a compelling vision, if I’m not coming up with fresh ideas or challenging the congregation or praying enough – or a million other “if’s” – it could all fall apart. That’s a road to burnout.
But Jesus reminds me that there’s only One True Vine in His vineyard, and it’s not me. I’m just another branch. The life of the vineyard doesn’t come from the branches, it comes to and through the branches from the Vine.
My job isn’t to hold everything together – that’s Jesus’s job. My job is to remain in Him. That’s how I can be fruitful. That’s how the church can be fruitful, when we’re all hooked firmly into the Vine together. It’s embarrassingly basic, but sometimes I need to be reminded that Jesus is the Vine and I’m not.
(2) Without the Vine, I’ll dry up.
In a vineyard, if a branch gets cut off from the vine, it dries up in just a couple of days. It goes from green and supple and healthy to brown and brittle and dead. At that point, it’s not good for anything except kindling, as Jesus pointed out.
A branch can’t live apart from the vine because branches aren’t self-sustaining. They need the life-giving sap of the Vine flowing through them. When I fail to remain vitally connected to Jesus and try ministering out of my own strength, I burn through my reserves fast. But Jesus has unlimited reserves. He’s “Living Water”. Drawing on His Life makes my life and ministry sustainable over the long term. Without that, ministry drains the life out of me.
(3) The church needs Jesus’s life flowing through me.
Examine any branch in a vineyard and you’ll see that there are little shoots and leaves attached to it. Those shoots and leaves are dependent on the branch they’re attached to for the life-giving sap that comes from the Vine through that branch. Although it’s obviously an imperfect analogy, the people in my congregation look to me to help nurture their spiritual lives in a similar way. Of course, they need to remain in Jesus just as much as I do, but there is a sense in which my role as their pastor is to provide them with regular spiritual nourishment, too.
The problem is that I don’t have what they need unless the life of Jesus is flowing through me. Not only will I have nothing of lasting value to give them apart from Him, the reality is that people will continue to try and draw life out of me whether I’m attached to the Vine or not! People want their pastor’s time and attention and spiritual resources, and if they can’t draw life from the Vine through you, they’ll just drain your own limited reserves.
That morning twenty years ago I was reminded that the one truly necessary, constant, indispensible, cannot-do-without thing is to stay connected to Jesus, to remain in the Vine. Without that, all the gifts and graces, all the vision and charisma, all the wisdom and skill in the world won’t matter.
I learned early on that in myself I have nothing of lasting value to give to the church, nothing that will sustain a congregation – not my personality, my intelligence, my vision, or my gifts. The only thing I have worth giving them comes out of my connection with Jesus. Everything else is like cotton candy to a starving man.
So I’ve made nurturing and investing in my walk with Jesus my top priority. I believe Him when He says that without Him I can do nothing. It takes an investment of time and energy to stay connected with Jesus. It takes discipline and intentionality, too. It’s amazing and frightening that working for Jesus can be part of what keeps us from being with Jesus. At least that’s true for me, so I have to tenaciously guard and purposely pursue that connection regularly, because like Jesus’s friend Martha in Luke 10, I can be distracted by many things, but really “there is only one thing needed”.
Because Jesus deals with each of us personally, I can’t offer any kind of formula or technique to help someone else “remain” in Him. For me, a few of the classic spiritual disciplines like prayer and study and solitude are essential, and I regularly feast on the spiritual wisdom of favorite spiritual writers, but that’s just what helps me. I think that staying close to Jesus is the kind of thing that isn’t one-size-fits-all. But I know when I’m investing in my relationship with Him and when I’m not. I’m guessing that’s true for others, too, so my challenge and encouragement to anyone reading this can be summed up with two simple questions: (1) Are you abiding in Him?; and (2) If not, what do you need to do to change that?
To this day, whenever I feel overwhelmed by the demands of life or ministry, whenever I detect signs of impending burnout, I go back to the vineyard with Jesus. That’s about all I know about avoiding burnout – but it’s always been enough.