Want to Lose at Ministry? Five Recipes for Burnout.

Growing up I was always the kid who was sick on Christmas.  Our family photo album is full of pictures of me, surrounded by wrapping paper and new socks, sick as a dog on the couch.  This pattern persisted into college and even into my young adult years. Was I allergic to mistletoe and midnight mass?


I was allergic to slowing down.

Whether it was the emotional energy I expended anticipating Super Mario Bros under the Christmas tree or the frenetic, non-stop, get-no-sleep approach to college I took each semester, once I had to slow down (Christmas Eve and Christmas day) I crashed. My body shut down the first chance I gave it.

This pattern has played itself out in ministry too. I love to work, probably too much. So when I cut back to part-time to better serve my family, in the spring of 2014, I crashed hard that summer.  I was overweight, out-of-shape, and emotionally and spiritually empty.  It was the first time in seventeen years that I allowed myself to actually slow down.  It was as though I had just barely beaten the avalanche of burnout to the bottom of the hill. It made sense then that just a few months later the weight of years of relating poorly to my work would bury me. 

I didn’t realize what I was doing to myself. 

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis describes it this way. 

“The problem is not always an excess of activity, but rather activity undertaken badly, without adequate motivation, without a spirituality which would permeate it and make it pleasurable. As a result, work becomes more tiring than necessary, even leading at times to illness.”
— Evangelii Gaudium, Paragraph 82

Guilty as charged.

The 'problem' that he is referring to is pastoral acedia, or in his words, "a tense, burdensome...and unbearable fatigue." This sort of burnout comes not just from working too much but from thinking about and approaching ministry in the wrong way.

If I'm honest, at one time or another, I have adopted each of the five attitudes Pope Francis describes below, and until now I hadn't realized the way this contributed to my ministry candle being burnt at both ends. 

1) "Some fall into it because they throw themselves into unrealistic projects and are not satisfied simply to do what they reasonably can."  

This is the temptation to over promise and under deliver; to have unrealistic expectations (of yourself and others) for what is possible, even with God on your side.  Bigger doesn't equal better and aiming at louder, faster, cooler often sets us up for disappointment. 

2) "Others, because they lack the patience to allow processes to mature; they want everything to fall from heaven."

This is when you expect to see fruit tomorrow from the apple tree you planted today. It's just not going to happen.  As in agriculture, spiritual growth, is slow, steady, unpredictable, and ultimately out of our hands. 

3) "Others, because they are attached to a few projects or vain dreams of success."

Have you ever referred to a ministry project you are working on as 'my baby'.  If so, Pope Francis would say you are a candidate for burnout. The work was never meant to be about you (or anyone that you happened to give birth to.) It's like doing heavy lifting with your back (your strength) and not your legs (the strength that God provides). 

4) "Others, because they have lost real contact with people and so depersonalize their work that they are more concerned with the road map than with the journey itself."

This is the temptation to put people on the back burner and only pay attention to processes, systems and planning.  You remove mission from your mindset and exchange it for maintenance. How many instances, just off the top of your head, can you recall of Jesus and 'insert someone Jesus personally connected with'.  From Nicodemus to the rich young man to the woman at the well to Mary Magdalene to oodles more, Jesus touched individual person after individual person.  Our mindset in ministry should imitate this ideal - people before programs.  

5) "Others fall into acedia because they are unable to wait; they want to dominate the rhythm of life."

Sometimes we just want to be in control. Our way or the highway. We fail to collaborate or invite others to contribute. We quickly forget that we're not the smartest most-gifted person in the room, just the leader.    


Question: Which of these five attitudes about ministry have you fallen into? What have you done to prevent yourself from being tripped up by one (or more) of these traps? Share in the comments below or on your favorite social network.