Sometimes we get to the point where we just want a way out of our “ministry lives.” Burnout is real and impacts almost everyone at some point. What then?
There he sat, under a broom tree (what exactly is a broom tree, anyway?). He was beaten, battered…burned out! After all the great victories and the shining moments of faith in this man’s life, Elijah had had it. He wanted out. He couldn’t see beyond, well, the broom tree! ” ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said. ‘Take my life’ ” (1 Kings 19:4).
What brought Elijah to this point?
He had experienced some of the most compelling “ministry moments” described in the Bible. Remember God holding back the rain until Elijah spoke? Or God providing unlimited oil and flour for the widow? God used Elijah to raise this same woman’s son from the dead. Then after three years in the desert waiting on God, Elijah came back and went head to head with one of the most wicked kings ever to set foot on the earth — Ahab, along with his wife, Jezebel.
Finally, a stunning victory over the prophets of Baal and an Olympian effort racing down a mountain had left Elijah running for his life. The enemy, in this case primarily Queen Jezebel, had had it with Elijah, and she was out to get him. Elijah finally came to a point of giving up. “Just end it all right here, God” was his pathetic plea. He was burned out on serving the Lord.
Have you ever been there? As children’s ministry leaders, serving as paid staff or volunteers, sometimes we get to the point where we just want it all to end. We start looking for a way out of our “ministry lives.”
In spite of the victories — the child coming to Christ in our class, the teenager we invested so much in as a child who now lives a life of faith, the families we’ve been privileged to impact— our enemy (or sheer exhaustion) has caught up with us. We feel isolated, as though we’re fighting the battle alone, and we’re overwhelmed. Elijah said to God, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty… [but] I am the only one left” (1 Kings 19:10). We, like Elijah, feel we just can’t continue. We just want it all to end.
7 Ways to Avoid the Brink of Burnout
Is this how God wants us to end up? Of course not. Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good.” But how do we do that? How do we keep the discouragements from overcoming us? How do we keep from “ministering” to the point of exhaustion — physically, mentally, or both — when we sometimes are out there on our own? Let me suggest, instead of getting burned out, stay F.I.R.E.D. U.P. Here are seven ways to do that.
1. Focus on relationships.
Relationships are what ministry is all about. First and foremost, ministry is about a relationship with God. When you’re feeling a little burned out, ask yourself, “How is my relationship with God?” Are you getting the necessary time in God’s Word? Are you spending time in prayer, sharing your heart and listening to God’s heart?
Is church attendance a priority? Too often in children’s ministry, we allow our attendance in the church service to suffer while we serve the kids. This is understandable sometimes because serving kids often takes place while the service is going on. But you must be renewed with worship, teaching, and fellowship. Don’t skip too often.
Family relationships are another high priority. We can pour ourselves so thoroughly into our ministry that our home relationships can suffer. Your family is your first area of ministry concern and, while you might ask your family to make adjustments to accommodate your ministry to kids, don’t focus on your ministry to kids at the expense of your family.
Finally, remember that ministry to kids is all about relationships with kids. Sometimes our sense of burnout can result from focusing too much on trying to make the kids “do” what we want them to do instead of investing in helping them “be” who God wants them to be.
2. Identify your calling.
Why are you doing what you’re doing? Is it because you’re called by God to do it, or is it because you felt sorry for someone who was desperate for a preschool Sunday school teacher? For a season you might step in and assist in an area of great need, but over the long term, you must be doing what God has called you to do or your service will surely lead to burnout.
What is a calling? It’s simply “a divine summons.” It might be something that lasts a lifetime, or it might be an “assignment” given by God for a shorter time. It’s always something you feel compelled to be part of, to accomplish, or to commit to. Not doing it leaves a sense of dissatisfaction and incompletion. To stay fresh in children’s ministry, you must have a sense of calling from God.
3. Recognize your gifts, abilities, and limitations.
In much the same way as recognizing what God has called you to do, you must also recognize what you’re gifted at, what your past training and experiences have prepared you to do, and also what you’re not good at.
As a children’s pastor, my gifts and abilities are in the areas of administration, leading and training others, and teaching large groups of kids. What I’m not gifted at is teaching small groups of kids. If I were required to do so, I’d be burned out in a matter of weeks!
Aligning your strengths with your ministry requirements will not only help you avoid burnout, but it’ll also energize you to complete the ministry you’re called to do. First Peter 4:10 (NLT) says, “God has given gifts to each of you from his great variety of spiritual gifts. Manage them well so that God’s generosity can flow through you.”
4. Exercise your mind and body.
Physical exercise helps in dealing with the everyday stresses of life. So have some plan to get out and exercise. Take a daily walk, visit the gym, or join the church softball team (my favorite).
Mental and emotional well-being is very important to avoiding burnout, too. Exercise your mind through reading, learning, and other mind-stimulating exercises for better emotional health that’ll allow more resiliency in everything you do. As Richard Swenson points out in his book Margin, “When we are emotionally resilient, we can confront our problems with a sense of hope and power. When our psychic reserves are depleted, however, we are seriously weakened. Emotional overload saps our strength, paralyzes our resolve, and maximizes our vulnerability.”
5. Develop your ministry skills.
Your growth is essential to staying engaged with your ministry and avoiding burnout. Of course, you depend on God to truly accomplish his purposes in your ministry, but simply knowing how to do what you’re being asked to do relieves a great deal of stress and frustration. There are many ways to grow and develop your ministry skills, including:
- Attend a children’s ministry training event.
- Read resource books and materials on topics such as children’s ministry, communication, leadership, and personal relationships.
- Subscribe to newsletters and magazines.
- Ask a more experienced person to teach and mentor you.
- Find children’s ministry network meetings to attend and participate in.
6. Understand your ministry’s place.
Your ministry has a tremendously important place in your life, but it isn’t the only thing to invest yourself in. Besides taking care of other responsibilities, allow time for fun, other areas of interest, and relaxation.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright once told of an incident that had a profound influence on the rest of his life. One winter when he was 9, he walked across a snow-covered field with his reserved, no-nonsense uncle. As the two of them reached the far end of the field, his uncle stopped him. He pointed out his own tracks in the snow, straight and true, and then young Frank’s tracks meandering all over the field.
“Notice how your tracks wander aimlessly from the fence to the cattle to the woods and back again,” his uncle said. “And see how my tracks aim directly to my goal. There is an important lesson in that.” Years later the world-famous architect liked to tell how this experience had greatly contributed to his philosophy of life. “I determined right then,” he’d say, “not to miss most things in life, as my uncle had.”
When Jesus “got away from it all,” what did he do? Invariably, Jesus prayed. Praying can do everything from helping us “vent” (yes, we can share our frustrations with the Lord), to simply allowing us to sit quietly (how often does that happen?). Prayer is the instrument God provides for us to have two-way communication with the Creator of the universe, yet we neglect to pray.
God says to “pray without ceasing,” yet we often “cease to pray” when burnout nears. God wants to support us, to empower us in what he’s called us to do. Isaiah 64:4 says, “For since the world began, no ear has heard, and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him!” (NLT). Yes, God wants to “work for us” and one of the primary ways we can “wait for him” is through the avenue of prayer.
In the end, our friend Elijah was a burnout survivor. As he came before the Lord, God gently guided him to the next step in his ministry. In fact, God blessed Elijah with an assistant, Elisha (which is another great way to help avoid burnout-find an assistant. But that’s another article.). As you faithfully serve God in your ministry to little ones, stay F.I.R.E.D. U.P. instead of burned out.
Greg Baird is a contributor to Children’s Ministry Magazine.
Pay close attention to these burnout symptoms from Psalm 22.
A Sense of Distance From God
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent” (verses 1-2).
A Sense of Diminished Value
“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads” (verses 6-7).
A Sense of Dissipating Energy
“I am poured out like water, and my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth” (verses 14-15).
Watch out for burnout if you have any of these contributing factors.
- A sense of too much to do
- Being ill-equipped to handle responsibilities
- Personal or family stresses
- Personality or relationship challenges
- Poor alignment of gifts and abilities
- An inability to say “no”
- Physical health challenges
- Little or no support from supervisors
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