Guess what? My birth certificate confirms that I am a human being, and so does yours. We are “created in the image of God.” As a preacher for 50-plus years there have been times when I forgot my humanist, and the brethren did too. This is driven home when I find myself discouraged, disappointed, and dragging doing kingdom business. During these times I am running on empty. I have a jaundiced outlook on ministry as well on life in general. The needle of desire is on red. Yet, the calls, demands, and needs keep on coming. A NASCAR driver said after his victory, “I was running on empty on the last lap.” I have had “last lap” days where I was running on empty relative to preaching and ministry. Jeremiah expressed my feelings, “I am weary with groaning and have found no rest” (Jeremiah 45:3). Jeremiah’s birth certificate affirms he is human too. Sooner or later every human being grows weary. But some will not admit it. I have found this especially true about preachers.
Preachers are Reluctant to Admit Burnout
In conjunction with the release of my book Preventing Ministry Burnout (amazon.com) a few years ago, I spoke on several lectureships about burnout. While elders and preachers attended the sessions, there was a reluctance to engage in discussion during the presentation. Several preachers cornered me after the sessions in private, hoping they wouldn’t be seen talking with me about burnout. They were ashamed and reluctant to admit their empty tanks. I know it is not kosher for a preacher, who is viewed as a super saint and spiritual giant, to admit he has times when he is preaching and ministering on empty. I freely and unashamedly admit that there some days when I feel so discourages that I could do side-straddle hops under a carpet without touching anything. But I don’t stay there. God and His word gives me power to bounce back.
Most preacher from time-to-time ask what the Psalmist asked: “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance … O my God, my soul is cast down within me…” Psalm 42:5, 6). In this context the Psalmist affirmed how he handled his discouragement. “Hope in God, for I shall praise Him for the help of His countenance …Therefore I will remember You from the land of Jordan…”. Psalm 42:5, 6, cf. 42:9). God fills empty tanks—continually.
I have documented a number of reasons why some preachers won’t openly and honestly admit they are experiencing burnout or running on empty:
- They are afraid the brethren will think of them as weak and unspiritual.
- They have tried to develop an image of strength and being perfect.
- They are afraid the brethren will dismiss them as unfit and suffering from a disease.
- They have preached against hypochondriacs and pseudo illnesses.
- They don’t want to set a “bad example” for the brethren.
- They are blind to the signs and symptoms of burnout or running on empty.
- They don’t know where to turn for help and understanding.
Even God Rested
When I was writing my book Preventing Ministry Burnout I had one of those aha moments. It came out of the blue: EVEN GOD RESTED. Yes! This is documented in the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servants, nor your female servants, nor your cattle, nor your strangers who is within your gates. For six days the Lord made heaven and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and RESTED the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8-12).
God, Who is Spirit, wasn’t tired from His labors. But He CEASED from His work. Therefore, this is what He wanted His people to do—to cease working so they could REST. God created us in His image. He made us flesh and bones, physical beings. Thus, He knows we need to rest and renew our physical man, which affects out spiritual man. Whatever we are going to do for the Lord we will do it in our physical bodies.
Preachers, who do we think we are? God rested but we don’t need to rest. I have heard preachers brag, in their effort to justify never taking a vacation, “I’ll rest in heaven.” Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, was a preacher (cf. Mark 1:38) but He never burned the candle at both ends. He was balanced. He knew when to take a break. In Mark 6:31, 32, we read the account of Jesus “going on a retreat” with His disciples: “And He said to them, ‘Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and REST a while.’ For there were many coming and going and they did not even have time to eat. So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves.”
The Stages of Burnout
In my book Preventing Ministry Burnout (Pages 73-76) I present the 10 Rs involved in burnout. I’ll list them here and encourage you to get the book (amazon.com):
Preventing Burnout and Running on Empty
If there was ever a spokesman for God who was challenged by burnout, it was the prophet Jeremiah. He preached to a rebellious nation for 40 years without a positive response. We read one of his rock bottom moments in Jeremiah 9:1,2: “Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain daughter of my people. Oh, that I had in the wilderness a lodging place for travelers, that I might leave my people and go far from them! For they are all adulterers, as assembly of treacherous men.” Did you notice what Jeremiah wanted to do? He wanted to go into the motel business. He wanted to be self-supporting. In the motel business he could provide a service to others and serve God without the confrontations with his brethren. Jeremiah has many successors to day—preachers who want to quit and go into the motel business. This attitude is created by burnout.
Later in his book Jeremiah gives us his solution for rebounding from burnout and refilling an empty tank: “Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name.’ But his word was in my heart like a burning fire, shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding back, and I could not stop” (Jeremiah 20:9). It was God’s word that was in his heart, like the Psalmist in Psalm 119, which rekindled and fueled his discouraged heart.
Here are a few suggestions for preventing burnout and running on empty (See my book for a complete discussion of solutions):
- Get the Jesus habit of getting away in order to rest (Mark 6:31).
- Imitate God by resting (cf. Ephesians 5:1).
- Remember “bodily exercise profits a little” (1 Timothy 4:7, 8).
- Watch your diet. Junk foods create health problems. Have a balanced diet.
- Acknowledge any symptoms you have related to burnout.
- Get a regular physical examination.
- Take your day OFF. Do a hobby; visit a museum, etc.
- Pray and meditate on God’s word for wisdom and strength. Read Psalm 119.
- Share your concerns about burnout with church leadership and your family.
- Keep a journal and document your progress relative to preventing burnout.
- Continually monitor the Rs of burnout. (Study my book)
- Take charge of your ministry and life.
As preachers there will be those times when we find ourselves running on empty. The key is to recognize it and take the steps to prevent it from turning into burnout. Not only preacher, but all Christians involved in ministry have times when their tanks are empty. Take time to repent, rest, renew, and redo. “I can do all things through Christ.”