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.

Four Benefits of a Daily Phone Fast


If I asked, do you want to -  

  1. Get more of the right things done each day?

  2. Connect better with the people closest to you?

  3. Sleep better at night and start your day off right?

- I’m guessing you would say “yes."  I would too. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t (except maybe an eighteen-month old little boy who just wants to lick toys and eat Cheerios). 

Well, over the last seven days a little bit more of each of these things have happened in my life, (thank you Jesus) by making one small but important decision with my iPhone. 

At the end of our lives we will not wish that we had looked at the Internet more or wished that we had spent more time with our phones. And no one is encouraging us to. Yet, we do.  With each passing week, month and year (and I’m going on Year 8 with an iPhone), we spend more and more time tapping and poking around on that little handheld computer that is more ‘my precious’ than just ‘my phone.’

A few weeks back my youngest son crawled into bed with me at about 6:30am.  I laid there phone in hand, looking at who knows what on Twitter or email and he said: “you look at your phone too much.”   I couldn’t disagree. 

I thought, “well at least I don’t sleep with the phone on my pillow like they talk about some people doing.”  But then I thought “what is looking at your phone last thing of the day and first thing in the morning (before you even get out of bed), if not ‘sleeping w your phone'?”  Okay. I’d morphed into one of *those* people. I didn’t choose it. But I did.  

A few days later as this pillow talk with my youngest son sank in I decided something needed to change.  A seven-day experiment. 

For the next seven nights I would turn my phone off at 8pm and not turn it back on until 8am the next morning or after my prayer time, whichever came later. 

After a week of this I noticed two feelings and learned two lessons. 

First, the two feels: 

  1. I felt relief. It was as though I put down something heavy that I had been carrying for a really long time. In fact, I even started ‘looking’ forward to the break. This part of the experience really surprised me. I wasn't expecting to feel this way.

  2. I felt present. Immediately I felt more present to myself, to my family, to my house, to whatever was in front of me, because there was no where else to be. Our smart screen is a portal to other places - other people, other stories, other places. If the portal is closed, there’s nowhere to be but where you are. What a great feeling.

Next, the two lessons:

  1. Things can wait What I’ve learned is that things take as long as the time allotted for them, so after a few days, it's felt more normal *not* to have the phone around at night and in the morning. Checking email can wait (and probably should). Getting or sending one more text message can wait. Facebook needs less time and not more time, so it can wait too. Even more I’ve seen that these things just aren't that crucial anyway. So, I’m not pushing them off to other times of the day, I’m just doing much less of them. Win. Win.

  2. Keeps me on track in the morning Every day I want to make room, before 9am, to exercise, pray and prep for the day. Looking at all of the internet at 6:30am never once helped me do the things I really wanted to do before I shove off for work. It’s hard enough as it is to pray every day and exercise regularly without eating everything your smartphone is dishing up. I’ve had a great week with both (prayer and exercise) and I believe there is a close connection. Also, as I pray, my mind isn’t full of internet junk, so it’s much easier to focus on God, the scriptures, spiritual reading, and prayer intentions.

So, given what I've gained from what I've given up, I'm gonna stick with his plan for now. I'm sure that seven days hasn't presented all possible test cases and I'll likely adjust as things come up. For example, if my wife and kids aren't home the phone stays on or if my parents need to get ahold of me after 8pm I've asked them to give my wife a ring-a-diing.

Her phone can stay on.  It doesn't need to be put in time-out like mine. 

At least one of us has our priorities straight.

Question: What about you?  Do you turn your phone off for intentional purposes?  How has that choice moved things forward in your life?  

The Only Thing Parents Can (and Must) Control

Growing up I never thought of myself as a control-freak or knew very well it's emotional bedfellow, anger.  Sure, as a 10 year old I might've gone berserk on my neighborhood friends about the rules of Ghosts in the Graveyard or publicly berated my high school buddies at Burger King over the merits of Notre Dame football (and the demerits of Nebraska football, go Irish!).  But really, no one who knew me well would've described me as a kid with anger issues.  

Years passed, college came and went, and these occasional flareups of anger and control faded into the background (like the parachute pants I wore in the 80's), presumably never to be heard from again. 

Until I became a dad. 

Fatherhood has brought out the best in me, but also the worst.  How about you?

Think back to day one. The baby comes home and you can control virtually every aspect of their life (what they eat, what they wear, and where they lie down), except for one very important thing: when they sleep. 

So it begins. We as parents are confronted, immediately, by the fact that what our children choose to do is ultimately out of our control.  

As they get a little older and learn to walk and then to run, the stakes get a little higher. And as they get a little older and learn to say 'no', the stakes get even higher. 

At times, as a Dad, it feels like very little, if anything, is under my control. A house full of boys has a way of making this even more real. The holes in the walls (many), the broken windows (multiple), and the autographs in pen on the backseat of the van (Malachi) are all testimonies to the fact that I am not the only one with access to the nuclear launch codes.  Stuff happens in my house whether I authorize it or not. 

After watching my blood pressure skyrocket, vocal chords weaken, and the relationships with my sons suffer, I cried 'uncle'.  Something needed to change.  For many years I thought it was the boys that needed to shape up. After a lot of reading, prayer, soul searching, and a particularly powerful trip to confession I discovered it was actually someone else that needed the work: Me. 

Here's he truth that was staring me in the face all along: I can't control what my kids think, say or do, only how I respond to what they think, say, and do. I can't control them, I can only control me.  

Holy emotional bombshell, Batman.

When this realization sank in I experienced a deeper level of peace and freedom than ever before.

  • Freedom from the emotional tether that chained my highs and lows to my son's good and bad behavior.  
  • Peace from knowing that a storm of craziness could unfold around me, but I didn't have to respond in kind.  

So, as I learned to push the pause button between what my kids do and how I respond, I've noticed three amazing outcomes when I focus on self control (rather than the unattainable kid control): 

  1. Better consequences Have you ever been rash in doling out punishments for your kids, like canceling Christmas? That's how crazy it got one year, because my overreactions were having overreactions. A calm demeanor means I can stop and think and talk things over with my wife before a reasonable sentence is handed down.  
  2. Setting a more worthy example There is a far cry from being confident of the example you are setting in the face of adversity and the ongoing sadness and guilt of being an 'angry dad.'  Choosing my response rather than simply 'reacting' has afforded me this joy.
  3. Stronger father/son relationships Rather than immediately seeing my disgust and disappointment my sons are more likely to experience a dad that loves them no matter what sort of mess they've gotten themselves into. My hope is that they experience the difference between my disappointment with their choices and not my disappointment with them as human beings. 

If meekness can be defined as strength under control, I now see why this term described Jesus so well. He had all the power and strength a person could have, but channeled it to respond in the right way under the most extreme circumstances.  

  • Asking the Father to forgive his executioners.  
  • Confronting, in love, the men who accused the woman caught in adultery. 
  • Turning over tables when his Father's house was turned into a den of thieves.

This sounds a lot like what big strong dads are supposed to do. See the big picture, demonstrate patience, compassion, and mercy for the last and least, and only flex their muscles in the gravest of situations.  I'm not yet like Jesus, but I sure want to be. And the sooner I start acting like him, the sooner my boys might too. 

Question: What about you? What other benefits can you see for parents in putting a priority on self-control?