How to Pull Out of the Burnout Spiral
Last year I greatly enjoyed getting to know the leaders of World Harvest Mission and learning about their passion to preach the gospel first to themselves and then to the nations. I sat down with Bob Osborne, executive director, to learn about the distinctives and history of this agency, organized in the late 1970s by pastor, evangelist, and author Jack Miller. Watch the video at the end of this interview to learn more about WHM and their commitment to care for and disciple missionaries to cherish the gospel.
I corresponded with Osborne more recently to solicit his counsel about the problem of burnout among ministry leaders. If you're stuck in the burnout spiral, I pray you will benefit from Osborne's wisdom about how the gospel of Jesus Christ transforms how we care for ourselves and support one another.
At World Harvest Mission, you say that "life and ministry must be saturated and motivated by our own need for---and experience of---the gospel of grace." What does that look like in practical terms on your staff and among your missionaries?
As pastors, workers, or missionaries, our busyness can easily overwhelm our ability to hold onto God's love for us in Christ, and God's presence with us as we live in fellowship with the Spirit. We've found that the only way to authentically teach these things is to be experiencing them ourselves.
To hold onto the gospel, workers like us need some degree of humility, flexibility, and adaptability. We look for people who have an awareness and understanding of their sin patterns, a strong grasp of the gospel, and can apply the gospel to their lives. We know that whether engaged in cross-cultural ministry abroad or working in the home office, our sin affects how we relate to one another, and we work at applying what we preach and teach to one another.
So we try to create a corporate culture of prayer, repentance, and forgiveness and seek to answer this question: "What does faith, expressing itself in love, look like in this situation?"
Burnout is a common experience among pastors and other ministry leaders. How does the gospel address this problem?
I have a deep and growing burden for Christian leaders because of the alarming number who have fallen over the past decade. As leaders, we are constantly tempted by a deadly cocktail of narcissism and isolation. And once our faith slips from a tight grip on Jesus and his power, we are trying to do tremendously difficult jobs on our own. At that point burnout is never far behind.
It's a little scary how few leaders understand the idols that run their hearts: pride, reputation, people-pleasing, control, success, you name it. And it is equally as scary how many leaders are ill-equipped to apply the gospel to their sin-burdened hearts.
How this shows up practically for us is having trusted friends in our lives who are willing and able to ask us hard questions---to speak the truth in love when they see our self-deception. As you might imagine, it takes a lot of humility and trust to submit yourself to the godly wisdom, advice, and prayers of friends who know you well. Of course it also never hurts to admit that you're not as essential to God's work as you might have thought!
What is one sure sign that a pastor or ministry leader doesn't grasp how the gospel should shape ministry?
At World Harvest we often talk about leaders being the "chief repenters." In fact, being the chief repenter is actually a formal part of my job description! The moment we're no longer able to accept criticism and other input from our peers and even subordinates, I think we're missing the gospel.
In my experience, unwillingness to accept feedback necessarily creates growing isolation, and even paranoia and anger. This downward spiral can only be arrested by humble repentance---something that always brings joy, shows us our sin (and limitations!) but even more, Christ's glory and work and the Father's love. Frankly, just stopping to remember that all we have or can do is a gift from God and not something we've done ourselves changes everything. Of course, that's often easier said than done.
Speak directly to a pastor watching this video or reading this interview who realizes he's headed for burnout. How does he now proceed to escape this downward spiral?
When I find myself heading for burnout, more often than not I've lost the rhythms of rest and repentance and start to chase my idols. I take my sights off of Christ and become self-focused---simply put, I try to take God's place on the throne.
So I guess I would say, "Pastor, you are prone to burnout for good reason: the demands of ministry are endless and urgent and you lack the natural ability to self-regulate. Right now you need to stop and seek those in authority over you and a few trusted friends to tell you how they see your life out of balance."
For me, that means asking questions about everything from physical exercise to sleep to prayer and relationships with my wife and children. Restoring a good work/life balance will help stem the tide of burnout, but if we're being truthful, it will only get you to zero.
Mostly from my many failures, I have learned that I get right back to burnout unless I have intentionally created ways to see my sin more clearly and how that sin hurts others. I need constant reminders that my Father in heaven loves me and is singing over me because of what Christ has already done and not what I'm achieving in ministry. I need to trust in Christ's righteousness that is given to me in justification rather than trying to create my own righteousness through my "success." And I need to exercise faith that God is at work in my life and in ministry and it's not up to me to accomplish everything.
This is precisely why ongoing gospel mentoring is so critical for our own staff and missionaries and how truly life-changing our discipling ministry has been to thousands of pastors over the years. More than anything, it helps you learn how to regularly meet with Jesus in this way.