The word of warning that saved me from burnout

Christopher Ash | July 20th 2016

In the USA it is estimated that some 1500 people leave pastoral ministry each month due to burnout, conflict or moral failure (statistics from ‘Today’s Pastors” (2014) by George Barna). The causes are diverse, but they show the intense pressure that many in Christian ministry find themselves under. But burnout is not just a danger to those in formal pastoral ministry. Many zealous Christians juggle the responsibilities of pressurized work and busy family lives, with a desire to serve the Lord in the church as Elders, Bible-study leaders, or ministry with children and young people. Those of us who are pastors can be guilty of underestimating the stresses they face as they seek to serve the Lord in ways that are often invisible to us. Here’s how burnout almost happened to one such church member, Ben:

I come from a long line of working people. My grandfather a son of the soil. My father a son of toil—a strong man who worked gruelling days in construction. My mother equally strong and determined to provide for her family. So I grew up in a home where we were constantly told that we must never be afraid of hard work; that hard work was the way to “get on in life”. It was our family tradition, and we took pride in it.

"I was strong. God had gifted me. I was made for service. What else should I do?"

It’s a sense that I absorbed into my mindset. I was the first in my family to become a Christian. I was also the first to get a College education. I approached my studies with determination, and the career I subsequently embraced brought its rewards as I sought to be diligent and to go the extra mile. Every spare moment was given over to serving in church. Leading the work with teenagers; active in evangelism; organizing camps and preaching. And when marriage and family came, the pace did not slacken. I was strong. God had gifted me. I was made for service. What else should I do?

I wonder whether all along, I harbored a superior attitude towards others. Pride was crouching at my door. As I saw others in less demanding jobs, with smaller families who seemed to be “coasting” at church, I would secretly think: “they are not pulling their weight.”

The letter to the Hebrews warns: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Hebrews 12:15). Despite being a dedicated gospel-hearted Christian who preached grace, the truth is that I was dangerously close to living a gospel of works, not grace.

An older brother in my congregation recognized the signs. He had himself experienced significant burnout in his time. In conversation one day he said to me: “Ben, you need to humble yourself before God, or he will humble you—and it will not be pretty.”

Unrecognized by me, there were stresses at both work and home. I was failing as a father and husband. I was feared at work, not loved. I was being a false witness to Christ—and I was excusing it all by convincing myself that it was the Lord’s work I was doing.

"The pride I felt at being a hard worker, had turned into something that was ugly and ungodly. I needed to repent."

I don’t know what wreckage would have ensued if I had not pulled up short, prompted by my pastor’s wise counsel. Seething anger was not far beneath the surface, and I suspect that burnout for me would have involved cruel words, arguments, grand gestures and raging self-justifying tantrums, rather than depression.

I was humbled by this realization.

The pride I felt at being a hard worker, had turned into something that was ugly and ungodly. I needed to repent.

Part of that was owning up to my mistakes with my wife and children, and with work colleagues. Part of that was realizing that whenever I said “Yes” to something, it meant saying “No” to something else. Usually my family were the ones to suffer.

I had always “known” that God is sovereign, and that the Lord did not need me to fulfill his kingdom purposes. But that was theoretical knowledge. I now try to practice that truth in my decision-making. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to serve. It is a privilege to be invited into God’s gospel work in the world. I know that the strength God has given me is something that has its limits and is not mine to take pride in. I know that I am dust.

This is just one of several personal testimonies featured in Zeal without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice by Christopher Ash.

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Christopher Ash

Christopher Ash is a pastor, author and writer in residence at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He was Director of the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course from 2004-2015. He is married to Carolyn and they have four children and three grandchildren.

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