Avoiding Burn Out

From my first ministry class in college, warnings against ministerial burn out have been constant. Nearly every ministry-natured book I’ve ever read addresses it, any professional minister who has been in the business very long knows the potential, it seems to be nearly universally recognized as one of the greatest threats to full-time ministers (and full-time volunteers for that matter).

I began my first internship 10 years ago this past summer meaning I have now, officially been in ministry for ten years. That is a lot of time – 1/3 of my life to be exact. There are a couple of sides to this fact that I am particularly concerned with keeping tabs on. First of all, the longer I work as a full-time minister, the harder it is getting for me to empathize with people who have “real jobs.” The fact of the matter is ministry just doesn’t have a very compatible vocation from whence employers can empathize. Secondly, I constantly attempt to monitor the effect working for a church has on my family. I grew up in a family that went to church most of the time, but hardly ever as a family – my dad went very infrequently. What a difference to be part of a family that is at everything – before everyone gets there, and well after everyone has left. My great fear is that my children will grow to resent church. Thirdly, not only have I been in ministry for 10 years, I’ve been at the same place for 5 years. Looking at the typical longevity of ministers in the same locations, that’s a pretty good time. However, when you do the same thing for so long, especially at the same place with the same people, creativity and freshness become and issue. I work very hard to try and re-invent the way I approach ministry as often as possible, and believe this to be one of the most difficult aspects of ministry. Fourthly, I’m worried about burning out.

As I started with, burn out is hardly something obscure. It’s a reality for so many. The constant-ness of ministry can easily and quickly lead to burn out. I suppose I view burn out a couple of different ways. I have seen burn out lead to ministers that totally withdraw. They withdraw to the point of doing only what it takes to get by, believing they have no other vocational options, and reduce themselves to long hours of study and few hours of interaction or productive moving forward. There is a real side of burn out that leads to depression and a real dark night of the soul. While I’ve been on the brink of such a place, I have been fortunate to, as of yet, avoided the darker pit.

I’ve been especially fortunate to be at a place for 5 years that deeply cares for me and my family as well as our spiritual and all around well-being. I have a great deal of freedom and flexibility to care for myself. Ocassionally, I take mental health days. The reality is, we all need them. In our work-obsessed culture, we’ve largely lost the value of quiet, peaceful getaways – even in the midst of the week. This is where the disconnect between vocational ministry and secular work sometimes leaves me without a voice. I firmly believe most of the people I work alongside need to take more time off, to themselves, but I can hear the responses as quickly as I offer the suggestion – I can’t: the work won’t get done, my boss won’t let me, etc. I am in a unique position where I work (I sometimes take time to write silly entries like this at the height of the day), so it’s difficult to have a voice there, but, I believe all too often, they have sold out. They, as much as ministers, often wind up burned out.

The great balm for me has been football. Now, sports is a difficult topic and I believe a power (ie. the “powers” that Paul speaks of), and are one of our nation’s greatest idols. However, I have found a great healing and medicinal value in officiating football games. I took the class five years ago, not long after I came to Alum Creek, and for two years did nothing but go through the motions to keep my license. Then, I decided I was either going to do this, or not. So, for the past three years I have officiated about 20 football games from middle school to junior varsity. I’ll be taking my varsity test in November so I can do varsity contests next year. Early on, I decided I needed a hobby, a social setting, far away from churh work, and it has been more healing and therapuetic than I ever would have imagined. Here are some of the things I’ve found beneficial:

* It’s something I enjoy doing. I love football, and enjoy the rules of the game.
* I still get to be around teenagers. Two years ago I did a couple of games with one of the teens in the youth group playing.
* It’s a social setting with NO ONE from church! I love those folks, but it is nice to know people who don’t go there!
* It’s physically active. Contrary to what some officials look like, it is fairly active.
* I get to be outside! I love being outside and this gives me a regular responsibility out there.
* I get paid! The icing on the cake is that I make a few hundred extra dollars.
* I can live out my faith as average joe instead of Mr. Minister. Few people I work with know I am a minister, and that’s nice. It gives me the chance to offer a life lived out as a football official and Christian. If there is ever a place that needs the light of Christ it’s football coaches and players being reminded there is more to life.
* Working with the same crew each week, it’s a good opportunity to meet new friends.

So . . . if you are in professional ministry, I hope you can find something like this that can offer the benefits I’ve listed. I believe that this is one of the most important things that keeps me from burnout. It is time consuming and takes away some of my time from church which is absolutely great! It gives me a reason to say, “NO!” on ocassion and let them know I have a life. I do think it would be too much to do other sports, but it gives me something to look forward to for three months a year, and then, back to life as normal!

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2 thoughts on “Avoiding Burn Out

  1. In my short time in ministry, I wish I could have gotten involved with something like that, It would porbably have prolonged my professional ministry carrer. It is good to hear that you have a life outside of church!

  2. nice post adam. the upside to being at a place long term is the credibility you earn. staying, or trying to stay, fresh is the price you pay for credibility. but i think you’ve identified the major areas of burnout and have found wholeness in life aside from your vocation as an employee of a congregation. i like your blog; hope things are well.

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