Burnout is a real threat in ministry.
It’s not just a question of long hours. It is also the extent to which those in ministry pour themselves fully into work – it is emotionally, spiritually, and mentally exhausting. And that’s when things are going well! When there is conflict and difficulty, burnout looms even closer.
The good news about burnout is that if we see it soon enough, there are ways to prevent it. However, one of the most dangerous things about burnout is that those who are experiencing it often can’t see it until it is too late.
This is my own personal checklist for exhaustion and burnout. Each of these signs of burnout is not a huge deal by itself. It may be caused by a busy season, or having the flu, or any number of factors. Individually, they are a good reason to tune in our radar for the other signs and to begin thinking about ways to renew our spirits and ministry.
1) I’m only doing the minimum
This is one of the first and most obvious signs of approaching burnout and exhaustion for me. No matter our career, we all have these moments.
Maybe we go in late and leave early. We have no problem settling for “good enough” in our work. The sermon is done for this Sunday, but maybe not much else.
If you notice yourself accomplishing the bare minimums, it is time to look around at the other signs of exhaustion too.
2) My spiritual health sucks
Yes, even for pastors, our spiritual life has seasons. In one season we might be great at committing to daily prayer. In another, we might be all over the daily reading of Scripture. And then, in still another season, we might get spiritually dry.
It looks different for everyone. There are as many ways to feed your spirit as there are people of faith. It is not about doing or not doing one certain thing. You know the things that feed your spirit.
For me, this looks like daily prayer and a gratitude journal. When I notice that I have fallen behind in those practices, it is a sure sign that I am getting exhausted.
What are the things that feed your spirit and keep you connected to your faith? Notice when those practices start to slip.
3) I’m not growing
Pastors who are excited about ministry want to become better pastors. Leaders who are excited about leading want to become better leaders.
This is related to number two – growing spiritually is one of the important ways that we continue to grow as pastors and leaders. But it is only one way.
Are we reading or otherwise engaging in new ideas?
Are we going to learning events?
Do we have guides to help us grow – mentors, coaches, and colleagues?
When the enthusiasm for ministry starts to wane, so does the interest in growing as a pastor and leader. And it is a cycle that feeds itself – the more we grow as a leader, the more excited we become as a leader.
In my ministry, I notice that the times when I am actively seeking to grow – reading, learning from others, challenging myself – are also the times that I am happiest and most productive in my ministry. And when I am tired I stop doing the things that feed my spirit. When I stop doing the things that feed my spirit, my creativity and enthusiasm dry up.
4) I’m resentful toward others
I get it – I can be a grump naturally. I think was a grumpy old man at seven years old.
But there’s a step beyond that. When I am actively and consistently annoyed at everyone and everything.
The people I work with. The people in my pastoral care. The driver in front of me. My family.
Sometimes it’s just a mood, and it passes. But other times?
If you find that you are consistently annoyed by and resentful toward the people you encounter every day, it is usually a sign that there is something bigger going wrong. Exhaustion and burnout are usually lurking around behind those resentments.
5) My physical health sucks
From time to time, those of us in ministry get so focused on our emotional and spiritual well-being that we forget about our physical health suffers.
When experiencing burnout, it is easy to stop paying attention to physical health. We might stop eating as we should, or exercising regularly.
More to the point, there are often physical symptoms that come along with burnout.
Drastic change in diet
As burnout slowly creeps up on us, it is easy to accept these symptoms as the new normal – “it’s just part of getting older!”
But if we are paying attention these can also be part of our body’s early warning system – letting us know that something is not right.
6) I’m withdrawing from the people I love
No matter how bad my mood is, there are certain people who are always on the “inside” – people I enjoy spending time with.
But when I am emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausted I tend to push even those people away.
Over time, we might notice that our social circle is getting smaller. We are reaching out for help less often. Even the people who live in our house are starting to get on our nerves.
Isolating can be easier than dealing with our frustration and exhaustion.
By the time we begin to isolate ourselves, there are usually lots of other signs as well – it is time to do something about our burnout.
7) I’m not experiencing joy
If you know me, you know that I am a joy-monger. I am always looking for joy – not because I am trying to sugar coat life, but because I truly believe that life lived with God is joy-filled.
Even if you are not always a joyful person, we all have a certain amount of joy in our lives. When that enjoyment of life starts to slip away it’s a sure sign that something is wrong.
Maybe you don’t enjoy the hobbies you used to love. Preaching used to excite you and it doesn’t anymore. You used to look forward to going home to dinner with your loved ones, but not anymore. You do things just to get them done, not because you enjoy them.
In general – life has a lot less “Yay” and a lot more “Meh.”
There are lots of ways to address exhaustion and burnout – and we should definitely talk about those too. But the first thing we have to do is begin to recognize burnout in ourselves and in the people we love.