by Jeff A. Jenkins
Preachers are human beings. Like all human beings, they are often sensitive to what others think and say. Some would say that preachers are excessively sensitive. Perhaps it is true in some cases. Perhaps in other cases, preachers seem too sensitive because they or someone close to them has been deeply and wrongly wounded. Perhaps some of them seem too sensitive because they are convinced that the work they are doing is the most important work in the world.
It has been my great privilege to live in the home of a preacher for 53 years. In the early years, it was my father’s home, in the later years it has been my own home. There seems to be very little that I have not heard during these years.
Through the years, a number of very close friends have suffered from Burnout. While the term is a relatively young one, the idea is about as old as man. To discount a preacher who is struggling with burnout is to discredit some great men of God. We are not advocating that these men actually burned out; however, we are saying that through their words, they appear to have the symptoms that lead to burnout.
After Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal, he seemed to be physically and mentally drained. “Then he came there to a cave and lodged there; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:9-10).
There are several Psalms that indicate David was dealing with burnout. The most obvious passage is Psalm 69. “Save me, O God, For the waters have threatened my life. I have sunk in deep mire, and there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and a flood overflows me. I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched; My eyes fail while I wait for my God. Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head; Those who would destroy me are powerful, being wrongfully my enemies; What I did not steal, I then have to restore. O God, it is You who knows my folly, And my wrongs are not hidden from You” (Psa. 69:1-5).
Another great man of God who seemed to come face to face with burnout was the great Apostle Paul. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9).
How can I tell if I’m heading for burn out? What are the symptoms that suggest a preacher might be burning out?
Fatigue. I never seem to be able to get enough rest. No matter how much rest I get, it seems I am tired all the time. I have no energy or drive to work because I’m so tired. Fatigue can also cause me to lose focus and the ability to concentrate.
Sleep Changes. I suddenly have difficulty sleeping at night because it seems the weight of the world is on me. My mind refuses to slow down because I’m forever thinking about how much I have on my plate. Maybe I suffer the other extreme where suddenly I am sleeping all the time. Sleeping gets me away from thinking about everything that needs to be accomplished.
The cocoon syndrome. I start wanting to stay away from people. I don’t want to be in crowds any more because I no longer enjoy them. I want to stay home from church activities and gatherings.
Irritability. I start losing my temper more quickly with my wife and children. I become irritated about little things that previously were not a problem. I easily become frustrated by every decision the elders make. I get easily upset by people who are a part of the congregation over little things.
Other symptoms include depression, anxiety, and disillusionment with people, loss of confidence, a feeling of being mistreated, and feelings of detachment.
The prophet of God, Jeremiah, could have easily fallen prey to burnout. He had been arrested, mocked, ridiculed, and turned into a public spectacle. However his response to all of this was, “But if I say, ‘I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,’ Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it” (Jer. 20:9).
How can we make sure that we keep the fire burning in our hearts so we don’t burnout? Here are a few suggestions that might help prevent burnout, and even help if we begin to experience signs.
Spend much time in prayer. Renew our trust and dependence on God. Rely on him for our strength. “Casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:8). It is a great source of healing when we talk to the Lord about our concerns.
We need to remember that we are doing the Lord’s work. He is “all in.” It is not our work and we are not responsible by ourselves. We can’t do everything, fix everything, or know everything. We are limited but He is not. (Mark 10:27)
Find ways to relax, refresh, and renew. Take up a hobby. It could be golf, fishing, working out, reading, getting away for the weekend, gardening, woodwork, biking, cooking—just make sure it’s something you enjoy. You will notice that these activities are in no way related to your work as a preacher.
One suggestion is to schedule your times of refreshment on your calendar and treat them as “real” appointments. Protecting these “appointments” is not being selfish, it is exercising good stewardship, will increase your effectiveness, and will protect you from burnout. Get the amount of rest that you need to accomplish your work.
Build relationships. Nourish your relationship with your wife. Spend time alone with her. Talk with her about what is going on in her life. Take a day off and dedicate it to her. Take her on a date. Sit at home with her and just talk. I have had preacher’s wives tell me that they feel that their husband talks to everyone in the world except her. The happier she is and more fulfilled in her life, the happier you will be. Let your wife know how much you love her and how much you need her.
Spend time with your children. If they are still at home, they desperately need you. They need a Dad. They need the leadership you provide for them. They want your love, and one of the best ways to spell love is “time!” Loosen up, let them see you enjoy life. Do everything possible to let them live “normal” lives.
Build deep friendships with other preachers. It is a true statement that no one understands a preacher more than another preacher. A preacher who becomes isolated and an island to himself can easily fall into trouble.
Chances are good that there are other preachers in your area who need a friend as well. Find a fellow preacher who you can build a relationship with, one you feel you can trust. It is my belief that you need friends who are preachers who are older than you, younger than you, and who are in a similar stage of life. These kind of friendships will do you and others a world of good.
Ask for help when you need it. Preachers who are always counseling and advising others often feel that they never need help. However, if you see the signs of burnout, and you have tried the suggestions listed above, but feel that they haven’t helped, it’s time to seek outside help. I implore you not to be afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed to see help from someone who is trained to help. Someone who can help you keep the fire burning.
Burnout is real and it is serious. It has ruined the spiritual life of some wonderful preachers. It has destroyed, families, friendships, and churches. Your spiritual walk with God, your family, the congregation you work with are all too important to the Lord. Brother, you are needed. The Lord needs you, your family needs you, the church needs you, the world needs you, and your preaching brothers need you. Keep the fire burning!
Jeff A. Jenkins preaches for the Lewisville Church of Christ in Lewisville, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.