For more than a year, I told others I perceived I was headed toward burnout. I had used that word before—burnout—but only in a hypothetical sense. Burnout was a terrible experience that happened to other people in ministry, not me.
Then it happened. Burnout appeared, and it changed everything.
I hesitate to say I burned out. It’s in the past tense, and implies, “I quit. Finished. Over. Caput.” There’s a sense of defeat with this phrase, static and dead, the charred remains of a life in ministry. However, I’m not done with ministry, because Jesus isn’t done with me.
I prefer saying in burnout—present tense. It is a season in the valley of shadows, but the journey is far from ending. There is no defeat here, only a period of spiritual exile, where the exhaustion runs more deeply than simply being tired. Hope lies on the horizon.
Didn’t Sign up for This
Imagine a car engine running for an extended period of time, only without changing or adding motor oil. This engine can keep going for a long while without much maintenance, despite emitting worrying noises or some fits and spurts. However, at a certain point, when things have been pushed for far too long, the engine wears down. Gears grind to a halt, metal pounds upon metal, and the whole thing seizes, unable to continue forward as it should. To keep the engine running would cause irreparable damage. The engine needs to stop, to be cared for and repaired.
This is a picture of burnout.
Burnout is an overwhelming and all-encompassing exhaustion due to prolonged stress. It is pervasive, affecting the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of a person. In its wake lies depression, low energy, lack of immune system defenses, emotional numbness, and a sense of spiritual discouragement or defeat. The deep cynicism, the lack of desire to be around anyone, the brooding frustration and anger—this wasn’t what I signed up for when I got into youth ministry.
How Did I Get Here?
It’d be easy to blame the ministry situation in which I found myself. As I look back on it now with the clear eyes of hindsight, I recognize the lack of compatibility with the church’s culture and my particular role in it. Philosophically, values, gifting, personality—I was a square peg in a round hole—but the source of the brokenness stems from something far more depraved.
That was the root cause. There were all sorts of external factors causing stress, anxiety and frustration; but the internal primer igniting the flames of burnout was the reliance on my own strength instead of the Lord’s. I realized only three months into the job that it wasn’t the natural fit I expected. The system fostered living at an unsustainable pace. Yet I tried to talk myself into believing things were better than they were: “I’m fine. I’m good. I’ve got this. Everything is going great. This busyness and exhaustion is just a season. I’m unstoppable.”
For two years, I poured myself out for others, straining to keep up with the desire to please people. The culture was extremely busy with so many events and programs to maintain I hardly could keep up despite my more than 60-hour work weeks. I kept jamming the square peg into the round hole, waiting for the stress to fade and the spiritual fruit to come. However, the strain led me to act in defiance of my own personal values and vocational leanings. I spent a great deal of energy trying to be and act like someone I’m not. I believed if I just tried hard enough and endured in my role, I could make it work. After all, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, right?
Beyond a lack of vocational fit, I also had created unhealthy, naïve expectations for the ministry and myself. I had big ambitions, ways to fix the broken parts of the church while making myself the ministry hero. Plus, I recently had written a book on leadership within the church, Leading Up: Finding Influence in the Church Beyond Role and Experience. While the principles of the book were solid, I was failing to practice the very things I published. I couldn’t admit that my ideals and plans weren’t coming to fruition, at least they weren’t as quickly as I’d hoped. Nevertheless, my pride drove me to try to be the successful youth worker I presented in books, articles and speaking engagements. My shadow ambitions were to be the next big thing in youth ministry—with book deals, speaking engagements, thousands of followers on social media, the influence—but those ambitions of upward mobility only were leading me into a downward spiral of spiritual and emotional death.
At the low point of my burnout, going to church on Sunday filled me with overwhelming anxiety and fear. I wasn’t sleeping much at night. I didn’t want to be around people. Every meeting, event and worship service filled me with dread and anger. The breaking point occurred when my wife told me about a conversation with my son. As they were driving by the church building, he commented from the back seat, “Look, that’s where Daddy lives!” He viewed me as a temporary resident of my own family. I lived at the church, but inside I was dying. I wept at the words of my son. As I type this, the emotion remains fresh.
It Takes Humility to Overcome Pride
So, after slipping into a season of depression and recognizing that if I stayed where I was, I inevitably would turn into someone I didn’t want to be. I quit. I stepped away from the ministry role, which also meant moving. (I was living and working in Canada on a temporary visa.) No job. No home. No clear plan for the future. Depression, financial loss and failure were the fruits of my labor. I went from being a successful youth worker to unemployed, depressed and living with my mother-in-law.
Yet my soul, though wounded and weary, remained intact. I still had my marriage and my children and began to practice being more present with them. I still had Jesus, and I am in a season of debriefing, processing, discerning, confessing, repenting, healing and praying. Basically, I’m trying to get my life together, slowly recognizing I cannot do this on my own. I need resurrection, and only Jesus can do that.
To be honest, it is difficult to share about burnout in a public way due to fear of criticism. Some church leaders and friends have rebuked me for telling my story. They’ve said, “You’re hurting the church by putting it in a bad light. Think about the teenagers in your former ministry—do they need to hear about your imperfections or the failings of the leadership? Take the high ground; don’t share publicly.” Similar to Job’s friends, they probably thought they were offering helpful advice; in reality, their words were unnecessary wounds. A new friend gave me this advice about burnout: “Never fear the truth. Be fearless in your honesty.” So, I am trying to embrace the truth in spite of my fear. The fear doesn’t go away, but love and truth give enough strength to confess.
My paradigm has undergone a number of shifts as Jesus has worked on revealing my brokenness and shame, as well as offering resurrection life and grace beyond the season of burnout. I’m still in the midst of healing and growing, but here are five shifts in my beliefs and outlook on burnout:
1. I used to think burnout was a curse that could be avoided. Now I believe burnout is an unexpected grace. I figured if I read enough books and blog posts about burnout, it couldn’t happen to me. I even recognized my downward spiral, but I still felt helpless, caught up in something beyond myself. Finding myself in burnout felt like a humiliation and a failure, but I am finding that it is in the failure where we learn humility and grace. I’m incapable of enduring without the grace of Christ. Burnout awakened me to deep-rooted shame and brokenness, allowing Christ to heal and restore me where I previously was blind and unaware. When burnout comes, it is an opportunity for redemption, healing and growth in ways I never anticipated.
2. I used to think only spiritual weaklings experience burnout, but now I believe burnout is normative for all ministry leaders. Months before I quit my job, God led me to read through the Book of Jeremiah. This lengthy prophecy is filled with blistering passages about God’s wrath for the sinful nations, as well as Jeremiah’s suffering at the hands of his own people. Yet as I plodded through Jeremiah’s story, I was reminded repeatedly of God’s faithfulness, His covenantal love for His people, and the broken-yet-beautiful nature of ministry. Jeremiah experienced deep pain, doubt and depression. He wasn’t alone—I can’t find a single leader in the story of Scripture who didn’t experience one or all of these things. They’re all weak and weathered just like me. I am learning that burnout, while not to be pursued, might be normal—perhaps inevitable—for spiritual leaders.
3. I used to think burnout was the church’s fault, but now I believe the church and the individual need to own their brokenness when burnout arrives. Similar to the dissolving of a romantic relationship, there are two sides to the story. I have heard many youth workers’ stories about struggling with seasons of burnout and disillusionment. I empathize with their pain due to wounds inflicted by the church. Yet I also recognize we each have our own blind spots, unhealthy habits, addictions and tendencies which need healing. During this season of healing, I read Peter Scazzero’s The Emotionally Healthy Church, which opened my eyes to many of my own toxic tendencies. One of Scazzero’s key principles was to “look beneath the surface,” digging more deeply into the heart of the issue rather than remaining bitter and emotionally stunted on the surface. Instead of blaming the church, burnout is an opportunity for a ministry leader to lean into Christian community for healing and comfort. I am healing from burnout because I have found a new church community marked by gospel-centered authenticity, grace, hospitality and freedom.
4. I used to think about the wounds of the past and the worries of the future, but now I dwell on the present—what Jesus is doing in my heart today. In burnout, it’s so easy to focus on the painful criticisms and failures I experienced, rehashing conversations or getting angry about past mistakes. It’s also stressful to question what will happen in the future: Will I ever work in ministry again? How will I pay the bills? What will my family and friends think of me? How has this burnout changed me for better or worse? Yet Jesus quietly reminds me to follow Him today, to seek His kingdom and righteousness, and let Him deal with the rest. I am learning to be present with Jesus, present with my wife, present with my children, present with my own soul. I am beginning to practice more stillness, prayer and Sabbath in my life, to quiet my soul and listen. There is peace here, in the now.
5. I used to think ministry success meant fruit and fame. Now I believe ministry success is faithfulness. I think I had bought into the dangerous lie perpetuated in Christian culture: Healthy ministries bring recognition and numbers. More people will show up at events and programs, meaning more money for budgets, more speaking requests, more book deals, etc. I think youth workers are particularly susceptible to this lie, because we long for validation in our demanding-but-often-unrecognized roles. I am learning that true ministry success means faithfulness to God’s calling and guidance, continuing to follow Jesus, including when it’s hard and humiliating, and pacing alongside others in life in authentic gospel community. Faithfulness doesn’t always mean staying in the same place forever, but it does mean following the same Jesus forever, wherever He leads.
Recently, I had a conversation with a local seminary professor. I heard he had been through burnout before, and I wanted to glean any wisdom I could from his experience. While he patiently listened to my story, these words tumbled out of my mouth unexpectedly: “I guess why I’m here is…I need a picture of hope. I need to know there’s life beyond this.” My sudden tears confessed how raw I still was.
He quietly nodded. “You need to know, Joel, there is hope; but it will require death…the death of your pride, the death of your plans. It will require the death of your current concept of Jesus; but there is resurrection, so there is hope! The new, resurrected you will be more whole and more real. Jesus is not done with you yet.”
Beyond burnout, there is hope. Jesus is not done with you or me. He is faithful. His grace is sufficient. His presence will sustain. If you’ve been given the gift of burnout, embrace this opportunity for healing, wholeness and resurrection.
Joel Mayward is a pastor, writer, youth worker and aspiring film critic. The author of three books, he has written for numerous ministry publications, including Leadership Journal, YouthWorker Journal, The Youth Cartel, Immerse Journal and LeaderTreks. Joel has been serving in youth ministry since 2003 and lives with his wife and three children in the beautiful green-and-grey of the Pacific Northwest. You can read his musings on film, theology, culture and leadership at his blog, JoelMayward.com. Follow Joel on Twitter.