The Battle of Busy – How to Avoid Ministry Burnout

I’m addicted to being busy, or at least I was. I’m currently in a process of recovery. It’s an aspect of both my personality and my approach to ministry over which the Holy Spirit has been convicting me. In order for you to understand the depth of this struggle in my life, let me provide you with a bit of background.

You see, by nature I’m an unashamed list-maker. I think in details and love to make plans. Any plans. Plans make me happy. The funny thing is, I’ve always been this way. As a little girl I loved pretending to be a boss who conducted important meetings with my staff of stuffed animals (I was an only child, don’t judge). In high school, I was simply insane. No seriously, I usually got to school at 6:30am for Zero Hour activities and then got home around 7pm because of after school activities. My days, nights and weekends were filled with AP classes, debate team, ASB (I was president), band, choir and drama, and my senior year I was even on the track team (for javelin, not running – runners are crazy). Often, after midnight, my parents would tell me to go to bed before my homework was done, and I would complete it by flashlight under my covers. The crowning moment to all of my toil was being voted, Most Likely to Succeed in my senior yearbook. That was a prediction I gladly received. Not much changed in college accept I didn’t have to hide my late night hours from my parents anymore. Actually, since I’m being honest, it is only recently, perhaps in the last couple of years, that my go-go-go pace has been replaced with a whoa –go– slow mentality.

So how did this change come about? I will share my experience and maybe you’ll identify with it. I do warn you though, embarking on this sort of endeavor will require raw and revealing honesty. Waving the white flag in the Battle of Busy does not come easy, but I am finding it is worth the fight.

My journey began with reading books about how not to be busy, and how to set boundaries. That left me dissatisfied. Next came workshops on avoiding burnout coupled with plenty of complaining sessions with other tired ministry friends, but that didn’t help either. Finally, after much prayer, I came across two separate passages that struck me to my core. The first was an old parable and the second was a passage of Scripture. I don’t remember what the story was called or where it came from, but the short version of it went something like this:

There was once a man who lived at the bottom of a mountain. This man possessed a wooden cart, and one day, God asked this man to take a large stone to the top of the mountain. The man was joyful to serve his Lord, and the task was going along quite well. However, as the trip progressed, people in the villages saw that this man had room in his cart, and many asked him to carry their rocks to the top of the mountain as well. Wanting to be a blessing, the man agreed to carry the extra weight. As he continued on his journey, he grew increasingly tired, and his attitude began to change. Finally, he cried out to God in frustration explaining that he couldn’t continue in this task any longer, and asking why God had expected more from him then he could give. God’s reply is the conclusion of the story, and it was a gentle reminder that the only rock God had asked him to carry was the first one; the rest of the weight was not a burden that God had asked him to carry at all.

Ouch! I don’t know about you, but I use to feel like my cart was overflowing all the time. Even now, there are periods when it is too full. Not all good things are God things. We have to be careful not to load up our lives with commitments and responsibilities, even when they serve a good purpose. Just because there is a need and you possess a certain corresponding skill, doesn’t mean that you’re suppose to take it on. This ability to say no to good things is extremely hard for me, but I think developing this skill has been a life preserver. I should probably pause for a moment to clarify that the Bible is clear on certain commissions that apply to all believers, and thus, do not need to be prayed over before we do them. But those are not the extras that we are addressing here. For example, of course God wants me to share his love and truth with those around me, but he is probably not asking me to head ten committees and say yes to everything I’m asked to do – even if it’s something important. If we’re not careful we may get so bogged down doing good things that God has not asked of us, that we don’t have the time or energy to do, or do well, what God is calling us to. I know that I have to constantly remind myself that being busy does not mean that I’m being effective.

Shortly after encountering that story, I was also reading through the book of John. There’s a section in chapter three where the disciples of John are concerned over the fact people are going to Jesus to be baptized, because that has been part of John’s ministry (3:22-30). One of the statements that John makes in response to his disciples is, “He [Jesus] must increase, I must decrease” (30). This is the second part of the equation. Once we stop doing too much, we need to apply this principle. So what was John saying? He’s emphasizing the fact that the ministry God called him to, wasn’t about him at all, it was about Jesus. In other words, we have to keep the main thing, the main thing. It’s all about Christ. It seems so obvious right? Of course all that we do in ministry is for Jesus! Except, of course, for when it slowly becomes about Jesus…and us.

It’s in quiet, humbling and spiritually naked moments we can recognize the areas in our ministry that are tainted with traces of selfishness and pride. I’m not insinuating that we don’t love God and want him to get the glory, but I am suggesting that we like to keep just a taste of that glory for ourselves. It comes in various forms: the pride we take in the size or growth of our ministry, the way we love being needed or the way we thrive on people’s respect for what we do. A tell-tale sign of this condition is feasting on the accolades of those around us or feeling famished when comparing ourselves and our ministries to co-laborers in the faith at other churches.

I’ll be honest, this passage in John wrecked me. While I always enjoyed the various activities and commitments that I took on, I realized that deep in the hidden cavities of my heart, I treasured the fact that I was needed. It was easy to declare that it was all for Jesus, but secretly I reveled in the false notion that it couldn’t have been accomplished without me.

I began to pray that verse, Lord, help me decrease, so that you might increase. It’s not that we decrease our faithfulness or passion. It’s not that we just drop everything we’re doing into the lap of another leader (although I do think a pruning of our activities is a natural byproduct). The main point here is that we simply make an effort to get out of the way. It’s keeping in the forefront of our minds, that whatever we’re doing is NOT about us at all. It is all about who God is and what he is doing! The world doesn’t need to know Sara Boyd, but it does need to know Jesus Christ.

The last year has been interesting. It’s been challenging, but it’s also been really rewarding. Any change, and especially deep change, is stretching, and that doesn’t always feel good. It does, however, serve a purpose. This is how the Holy Spirit is stretching me. This is my journey. If you struggle with some of these same things, I hope you have found it helpful.

Here are also some practical tips from my experience on how to start and continue your journey away from busy.

1. Set boundaries and learn to say “no.”
This will be especially difficult if you are a people-pleaser. Be willing to give certain commitments up and to decline new opportunities. If you’re currently serving, don’t just drop it on someone else, but begin to build another leader or team who can replace you. Set a timeline for the transition.

2. Protect those boundaries that you set.
Let people know what your boundaries are. Recruit accountability partners who will check up on you and hold you accountable. In order for us to protect our boundaries we have to be willing to let there be holes. Just because someone else isn’t stepping up, doesn’t mean it’s our responsibility to step in and solve all the problems. I think this often feels counter-intuitive to many of us in ministry, but if we’re always filling in the holes, other people, people who God may want to stretch, never get that divine opportunity.

3. Learn to say, “Let me think about it.”
Because I am people-pleaser, it is very difficult for me to say, “No,” to people, especially face-to-face. I have developed a habit of usually responding, “Let me think about it.” This does a couple of things. First, it forces me to think about it, and allows me to do so outside of the pressure I feel at that moment. Secondly, if it is something I’m going to decline, I can call or email my response, and then follow-up with the one who asked, in person, once I have already given my answer.

4. Take “YOU” time and don’t feel guilty.
In the age of instant that we live in, it’s sometimes un-nerving and the opposite of relaxing, to turn off phones and notifications. It is SO worth it. Let people know which day of the week you’re not in the office. Sometimes our weeks don’t allow for consistency with the same day we take off, but once a week, unplug. Be unreachable and don’t feel guilty. The world will continue to run even if your phone is off.

5. Constantly evaluate and assess how you’re doing.
There may be days and weeks that go really well and there may be days and weeks you find yourself slipping into old patterns. I have found it helpful to consistently and purposefully evaluate all that is “on my plate.” Sometimes I have to make some changes, and that’s ok. I once heard a saying, If you don’t control your calendar, your calendar will control you. Choose to be intentional.

2 comments on “The Battle of Busy – How to Avoid Ministry Burnout

  1. In regards to point #1, you should know that God has already created a boundary for you in ministry by reserving the positions of pastor, elder, and deacon for men only. If you’d follow that boundary you, as a woman, wouldn’t experience ministry burnout.

    • Hi Paul – Thanks for taking the time to read the article and post a thought. We would obviously fall on different sides of the egalitarian/complementarian discussion and that’s okay since many Bible-believing, Scripture-respecting people do. The intended audience of this post, however, is not meant to be solely pastors, elders and deacons, but rather all faithful and committed Christians who are serving in their church and communities and may feel overwhelmed by the every day busyness that we easily get stuck in.

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