Missionaries and those in Christian ministry experience burnout at an alarming rate. One major cause is that we’ve prioritized productivity over our growth in Christ.
5 Minute Read
By Megan Sarian
If you’ve ever served in ministry, whether full-time or on the side, chances are you’ve experienced burnout or gotten close to it.
Scripture calls us to give up our lives (Matt. 10:39). So we do—to the point of exhaustion.
“Oh well,” we say with a sigh. “No cost is too great for the kingdom.”
The thing is, burnout is a cost Jesus never asked us to pay.
One helpful definition of burnout comes from the book Stress: Concepts, Cognition, Emotion and Behavior: “A prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job. It is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism and professional inefficacy.”
Although this definition talks about job burnout, it still aptly describes what burnout can look like for many types of ministry workers.
Burnout is different from just needing a bit of extra rest or vacation. It’s a byproduct of continually overextending ourselves. It creates an emotional, mental and spiritual deficit we can’t quickly recover from.
As David shared in his article on our blog, missionaries and people in ministry experience mental health struggles, including burnout, at an alarming rate. In some cases, the causes of burnout are beyond our control. In other instances, we’ve unknowingly misplaced our priorities and focused on productivity at the expense of our relationship with God.
If you’ve found yourself burnt out on ministry, you’re not alone. In this post, you’ll find an invitation to slow down, refocus and embrace the rest Christ offers you.
God’s Heart for Us
“Nothing is more crucial to our lives or more central to the heart of God than the transformation of the human personality,” says Richard J. Foster in the introduction to his book, Seeking the Kingdom.
He goes on to observe the Apostle’s Paul’s passion for personal growth in Christ:
“My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you … “ (Gal. 4:19).
“Those whom foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
In other words, our transformation into the image of Christ isn’t an ancillary benefit of the Christian life. It’s a central priority of God. And it’s a journey that the Lord invites us into—not so we can strive to be better, but so we can be simultaneously refreshed and strengthened by the Spirit of God.
Real transformation comes from spending time in the Lord’s presence. It’s in God’s presence that we realize we’re accepted as we are, and that God’s Spirit is the one accomplishing the important work in us. Too often, we sacrifice time with him in order to fulfill our need to feel productive and to validate ourselves, robbing our spirits of truth growth.
The Allure of Productivity
“I frequently worry that being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.” -Maria Popova,“The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long”
Productivity can easily masquerade as growth. Our output feels like forward movement. In reality, as Popova points out, productivity can seduce us into becoming spiritually stagnant.
It’s because productivity favors the familiar.
After all, it’s the familiar we can control and streamline. When we need our accomplishments to validate our usefulness, we’re more inclined to rely on what we already know or have experienced instead of pausing to ask God for insight and wisdom.
- Productivity temps us to ride on coattails of a past calling instead of listening for new direction.
- Productivity invites us to measure our success by any metric that offers the quickest and most visible payoff.
- Productivity tells us to take the approach that seemed to work for someone else.
In this state of productive passivity, we’re numb to God’s presence but alive to the world’s expectations and definition of “success.”
We weren’t meant to live this way. The burnout of ministry workers is a strong clue that something about the way we’ve been living is off.
What Jesus invites us into is transformation. Transformation requires us to abide in him.
Abiding sounds great but in reality, it’s hard. Abiding often requires us to slow down. It can require us to give up our own ideas and strategies. It can mean we say “no” to good things, even good people.
But as we soak in the goodness of God’s presence, he reminds us of truths that fuel our spirits and help us relinquish our need to do more.
Your Real Value Comes from God
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” 2 Peter 1:3
Releasing the productivity lure requires us to recognize that we already have everything we need in Christ. When we work, it’s not because we need to add value to our selves. It’s not even because we need to add value to others. It’s simply because, as God’s beloved people, our interaction with the world is sacred.
“Our real value depends on what we are and not what we do. We continually try to be good people, whatever that means. In reality we are not always good, but we are holy. Being good is something we can earn or acquire or achieve, but we’re holy because we came forth from God.”
-Fr. Richard Rohr, Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go
We are children of the King. As we slow down and allow God to nurture our souls, we reflect his holiness more and more. The image of Christ in us becomes a blessing to those around us.
If the world sees more of God through us, is not the important “work” being accomplished?
So if you’re are burnt out: rest.
If you’re not burnt out: rest.
Nothing essential will get missed. Our risen Savior has already given us everything we need through his death and resurrection (2 Peter 1:3).
Editor’s Note September 10, 2021: At the time of this article Megan worked on the US Communication Team. Today, she now lives and works in Cambodia.
Megan has been working in communications for almost 10 years. Currently serving as Content Manager for OMF (U.S.), she enjoys writing, editing and over-thinking everything word-related. When not in the office, Megan spends her spare time cycling, thrift shopping, exploring her city and drinking coffee with (or without) friends.