What happens when you hit that wall—when you cannot seem to find the physical, emotional, or spiritual wherewithal to lead one more thing? What happens when “burnout” is no longer just a phrase you hear about, but a very personal, immediate reality?
Solidarity is a powerful human experience, so I’ll simply begin by saying, “I’ve been there.” I have been involved in ministry leadership in one form or another for over 14 years, and along that journey I have experienced various levels of exhaustion and burnout. I encountered a particularly hard time a couple of years ago—a time when I nearly left ministry entirely. I implore you, please do not wait until you find yourself on your living room floor, crying uncontrollably—physically, spiritually, and psychologically exhausted—before you address the situation. Be proactive.
Burnout is a very real problem for ministry leaders. It is impossible for us to be invested relationally, emotionally, and spiritually in the lives of others without “opening a vein” and giving of ourselves to those we’re closest to and those we’re called to lead. Spend just a few seconds leading a small group or a team of leaders, and you realize how quickly you wind up on the front lines of each other’s lives. The best groups always require some amount of spiritual and emotional investment from all involved, and this starts with the leader.
Of course, one of the easiest ways to avoid burnout is to just operate on “cruise control”—doing the bare minimum your position requires. But God has not called us to be mediocre, and he holds those in positions of leadership to a higher standard. And let’s be honest—you care too much to do just the minimum—if you didn’t, burnout would be the least of your concerns. So I offer three ideas about how to avoid burnout in your leadership—lessons I have learned from my own experiences and mistakes.
1. Seek help—no one gets out of burnout alone.
Small-group ministry leaders like to talk about the value of community. We love to quote Scripture verses about the “body of Christ” and how we were never meant to go through life alone. Yet in our biggest struggles—our lowest points in life—we are often the first to withdraw and try to fight through it on our own. This does not work. Every group I have ever led, and every leadership position I have held, further proves this reality.
Whenever I go to the gym, the best workouts I’ve had were done with someone else—someone to encourage me, challenge me, and push me to be my best. I needed someone to spot me when the weight seemed too much. Leadership works a lot like this.
Who can you depend on? Find someone—a spouse, a trusted friend, a mentor or coach, a pastor, or even a coworker—who can provide the encouragement you need when the tasks of leadership and ministry become too heavy a weight to bear. You do not have to go through ministry leadership alone—ever. I have found this kind of support through my wife and a cohort of other ministry leaders throughout the country who I can depend on when life and ministry become hardest. Seek out supportive relationships with people who walk the same road and can relate to the challenges you face as a ministry leader. (You can also find great support through different social networks for ministry leaders like The Small Group Network’s Facebook group).
Be willing to seek professional help, too. In the continued spirit of transparency, I gladly share that I regularly spend time with a counselor who helps me process through the hardest parts of my life. Not only has professional help allowed me to heal from burnout, but it has actually made me a more effective leader. When the stresses of leadership cause me to withdraw, it’s helpful to have people who can speak into my life and provide the support I need without judgment.
Consider this: rest is a command from God. The Sabbath was given to us by God so we could remember we are far more than our day-to-day work. Rest is necessary for us both physically and spiritually. Be intentional about taking time to rest. Plan it into your weekly schedule if you must. Unplug from the daily grind and disconnect from the digital world.
Leaders, please pay close attention: rest does not signal weakness. Stop trying to prove yourself by working harder, longer, faster, or better than everyone else. I’m not suggesting we should be lazy or give less than our best to our work, but rather keep everything in perspective.
Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way. I’m naturally a very competitive person—especially with myself—and while this attribute has allowed me to innovate, create, and push myself (and others) toward excellence, it can be exhausting. My wife was probably the first to see signs of burnout, since she has a front-row seat not only to my ministry work, but also to my day-to-day life. I struggle with, what she calls, my “superhero” view of myself—feeling as though it’s up to me, and me alone, to save the world. For a long time, I thought I owed as much to every amazing—seemingly perfect—leader I had ever learned from and those who had invested in me. They worked hard, so must I. They became successful, so must I. They never dealt with burnout, neither would I—until I did.
Find something you enjoy aside and away from work that you love. Let it be fuel for your soul. Go for a walk. Watch a baseball game with your kids. Enjoy a great meal. Find something that speaks to you and fills you up inside—something that reminds you of the goodness of God in all parts of life. This will not happen accidentally. It requires intentionality on your part. Make sure you take time off. Put activities on your calendar. Ask others to hold you accountable to keeping a healthy schedule. Give your spouse or a close friend permission to take away your phone or turn off your computer whenever it becomes a distraction or begins to wear you out.
3. Invest in yourself.
This is not a selfish act. We are doing ministry (sometimes unpaid) because we care deeply about others. We want to help them love and serve God. We have been willing to do whatever it takes, and hopefully, our sacrifices are viewed as commendable. But we cannot give what we do not have.
Without investing in yourself, burnout is guaranteed. Find a mentor or coach who can speak into your life. Rather than perpetually preparing for the next leader training event, take time to reflect on Scripture, letting God’s word speak comfort, inspiration, and healing to your spirit before speaking into the life of someone else.
Leadership expert John C. Maxwell says, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” People are following you, but you can’t lead where you’ve never gone.
Take time to learn from others—whether spending time with people directly, searching through articles, reading books, or listening to podcasts. The more you invest in yourself and invest in your continued development as a leader, the less likely burnout will happen. When you are constantly learning and growing, you won’t depend on “the same old things”—which is a major cause of burnout. Keeping insights, ideas, and methods fresh and innovative fosters exciting leadership.
Leaders, permit me to share one final, important consideration—we need you. The church needs you to help bring the Good News of Jesus to others. My life was forever changed because of dedicated small-group leaders and mentors who helped me experience Jesus. I’m sure you have a similar story. We need you. Don’t give up. Don’t allow burnout to be the final word of your ministry and leadership story. If you are finding yourself on the verge of burnout (or worse), start taking the necessary steps right now to regain the strength and perspective you need, even if it means taking an extended leadership Sabbath and stepping back from leadership for a season—for the sake of your own physical and spiritual health.
I’ve experienced leadership burnout, but I’m working to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Friends, I hope you will do the same.
—Ryan Schaible is director of student ministries at Good Shepherd Church in Naperville, Illinois, and has been leading small groups and small-group leaders for nearly 15 years.