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Getting Real About Burnout: The Ministry Axiom

Warning: this article contains mathematical concepts that you may have not stumbled across for a long time. Please consult your closest available 6th grade math book to refresh yourself on these symbols: <, =, > before reading any further.

 

I remember my very first paid ministry position. I had joined the team of a small church (less than 200 in attendance) doing the “church in the box” thing in a local high school auditorium. I was so excited to get the chance to be paid for something I loved doing, leading worship. It was supposed to be a ten hours per week position, but it really turned out very quickly to be more like a minimum of 30 hours per week, alongside my full time job. As the requirements of the position grew, I began to wonder why I was struggling to keep up. As I realized I could no longer meet the demands of starting a family, keeping up with a challenging full time job and adding the additional three-fourths time worship position, I eventually had to tell the leadership team I would need to step down, and so my tenure there ended after about 21 months. It was a tough lesson I had to learn that as much as I may have a passion and even a call to do ministry, I do not have inexhaustible personal resources.

Many of those of us in ministry tend to go way past our personal resources with good reason. We feel a great burden to reach the lost. We know how much is at stake. We are trying to be obedient to answer the call of Christ on our lives to Pastor and Shepherd others and meet the needs of those under our care. If you’ve been in full time ministry for awhile, you have undoubtedly experienced this pull of gravity that every Pastor and many ministry leaders face. It is the black hole known as “there are always more things and people that require my attention than the time or energy I have available to address them.” In mathematical terms, the equation looks something like this:

 

STUFF THAT REQUIRES YOUR ATTENTION > YOUR AVAILABLE PERSONAL RESOURCES

 

This equation is what I like to call The Ministry Axiom. In mathematics, an axiom is “a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true.” In ministry, the amount of stuff on the left side of the above equation may vary from time to time, but its value is constantly greater than the stuff on the right. This is also known as the burnout formula. It’s probably the main reason why so many pastors and worship leaders leave the ministry after a relatively short period of time. According to PastorBurnout.com, 1,500 pastors leave their ministries each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure. So how do you prevent this?

The first step in overcoming the  axiom is to acknowledge it. I think one of the reasons burnout sneaks up on us is that we attempt to turn that greater than sign (>) into one of these: <  (which if you recall from sixth grade math is a lesser than or equal to sign). We tell ourselves subtle lies like, “God will give me everything I need to do all of this,” or “I have been given the gift of boundless energy,” or my personal favorite, “After this next season/project is done, things will slow down a bit for me and become more manageable.”

It’s time for all of us to die to that dream.

 

Reality check: Your personal resources will never be greater than or equal to the needs before you.

The sooner you acknowledge the reality of The Ministry Axiom, the sooner you can deal with it. There will always be more people with need, more projects that need to be managed, more demands that need to be met than you have the internal capacity, energy, and ability to address. If you don’t believe in the axiom at this point, read no further. But if you do embrace its reality, let’s see what we can do about it:

It starts with looking at the example of the One who started this thing we call the church. First of all, as we read the gospels it becomes compellingly clear that Jesus had a >. Don’t believe that? Take a look at Luke 5:15-16:

Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

Notice that the second sentence is a response to the first. I would submit that if Jesus didn’t have a >, the second sentence wouldn’t be there. So how did He deal with His >?

Next, I’ll address how Jesus dealt with his > and give a practical guide to living with the reality of The Ministry Axiom. Click here to read it.

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