Note: This article is excerpted from our resource Avoiding Burnout.
It's the day of your small-group meeting. As you get ready for the meeting, you feel stressed, tired, disconnected, overwhelmed, and even a bit resentful. You wonder how many people will show up, when you'll have time to prepare, and how you'll summon the energy to listen to the "difficult" people. You wish you could just cancel the meeting and relax in front of the TV.
You're not alone. Most small-group leaders will experience this at some point. For some, these feelings last only a short while, but for others, they can linger on for weeks, months, or even years.
We often lose the joy of ministry and feel burned out because we focus on what we're doing rather than who we're doing it with. We pay more attention to the outcome than the process. We live in a culture where our value is often derived from what we do and how well we do it. This orientation can creep into our ministry where we get caught up in striving and producing. Our spiritual health, however, cannot depend on how many people come to group meetings, the number of curricula and service projects we complete, or even how much members are growing (or not growing) spiritually. Instead of focusing on the tasks and goals, we must focus on abiding in Christ, inviting him into our daily activities, and following the Holy Spirit's guidance. Only when we focus our eyes on God, rather than our own achievements, will we be filled up and not in danger of burnout.
Are you in danger of burnout? Here are nine warning signs to consider:
- Your prayers for your group and its members are increasingly limited and/or superficial.
- You become more impatient and critical of people in your group.
- During meetings, you feel like you're just going through the motions.
- You make decisions based on what's easy, not what's best.
- Caring for people in your group is a stressful and unwelcome burden.
- You avoid contact with your small-group coach or pastor because you feel guilty.
- You have stopped expecting God to transform you or anyone else in the group.
- You rarely open your Bible except to prepare for the group study.
- Your ministry responsibilities seem to leave little time or energy for life with family or friends.
Of course there may be occasions or a season of ministry where you might experience some of the dynamics listed. However, if any of the above statements has become a repeated pattern in your life, you are at risk of ministry burnout. But there is an antidote.
Connected to the Vine
During Jesus' ministry on earth, he used a metaphor of a branch being connected to the vine to instruct the disciples to abide in him. John 15:4-5 (NKJV) says, "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing." The word abide is also translated as: to remain, dwell, join, or live within. Jesus is exhorting us to engage in a life with God. Abiding is not a feeling but an action verb, requiring intentional movement on our part. Bruce Wilkinson in Secrets of the Vine states, "To abide means to remain, to stay closely connected, to settle in for the long term. With this picture Jesus is showing the disciples how an ongoing, vital connection with him will directly determine the amount of his supernatural power in their lives."
When we disengage from the vine, we are cut off from the ongoing nourishment of God's love, power, and grace. No wonder we become tired, discouraged and depleted. To paraphrase Parker Palmer in Let your Life Speak, burnout is not usually a result of trying to give too much; it is the result of trying to give what is not really within us. We are in spiritual danger when we rely more on our skills, gifts, experiences, and personality than guidance from the Holy Spirit. When you start to slip into a place of discouragement or stress about your group, honestly assess whether you have been leading your group with God or doing it on your own strength for God?
Your Responsibility, God's Responsibility
Your abiding relationship with God is not only critical for your own spiritual health, it's fundamental to your ministry as a small-group leader. Abiding enables us to live in the flow of God's Spirit, follow his lead, and draw from God's power in our ministry. We see this clearly throughout the New Testament. For example, Acts 4:13 says, "When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus" (emphasis added). These regular people were able to do extraordinary things because they had been living life with Jesus. When we are hanging out with God throughout the day—paying attention to his presence, responding to his promptings, praying for our group, and asking God to transform us—he will do amazing things.
In addition, John 15 gives a wonderful promise for us personally and as ministry leaders: if we abide, we will see fruit. Yet, we are not responsible for bearing fruit. Our primary function is to be a good branch and stay closely connected to the vine. Fruit will grow as an inevitable result of a branch that is attached and being nourished by the vine. No matter how much we do or even how well we do it, we cannot produce spiritual fruit apart from God. Paul confirms this in 1 Corinthians 3:6 when he declares, "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow." Whew! This takes the pressure off. Ultimately, we are not responsible for making people grow or producing successful groups. We are called only to abide in Christ, and engage in a slow, ongoing process of inviting him into every nook and cranny of our lives. This kind of life is incompatible with burnout because it does not depend on us, but on God.
God's goal for you is not that you will do more for him but simply that you will choose to be more with him. As disciples, we get to walk with God, availing ourselves of the ceaseless flow of his love pouring into every part of our hearts, which then spills over in loving service to our small groups. When we choose to abide, we experience the fruit of Christlike character being formed in us as well as the joy of partnering with God as he leads our small groups.
—Carolyn Taketa is the Executive Director of Small Groups at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California, and an editorial advisor for SmallGroups.com; copyright 2013 by Christianity Today.
- Have you been abiding in Christ or striving to grow fruit yourself?
- How might focusing on abiding take the pressure off and prevent burnout?
- What environments, spiritual practices, experiences, or people help you stay closely connected to the vine? How can you make more time for these things?