It was a busy day of ministry. Five thousand people covered the hillside where Jesus taught, not including women and children. Evening was coming on fast, and the people were hungry. So Jesus fed them food from a boy’s lunch of two small fish and five loaves of bread. Scripture tells us that, “after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matt. 14:23).
Ministry and burnout
The demands of ministry haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years. Ministry remains a 24/7 job. That’s because crises don’t fit neatly into a 9 to 5 schedule. The needs of church members are constant. Indeed, many happen in the middle of the night or when the pastor is on vacation with his family. The life of ministry can be draining and demanding, leaving little time for rest and refreshment.
In addition, there are high expectations that come with a life of ministry. People expect ministry leaders to know the answer to every question, fix every marriage and engage every lost soul. And they want pastors to prepare a challenging, yet not too convicting sermon each and every week. The church budget is always stretched thin, and the needs only continue to grow. Someone is always dissatisfied with the songs chosen for worship and, of course, an announcement was left out of last week’s church bulletin. Don’t forget that there are never enough volunteers to serve in the nursery.
For those who work in full time ministry serving our local churches, such as pastors, leaders of church ministries, and counselors, burnout is a common problem. The pressures of ministry, combined with how many hours these leaders pour into their work, can lead many to feel hopeless, overwhelmed, discouraged, unmotivated, cynical, unproductive, and sometimes even depressed. Such burnout trickles over into their family life, creating tension and strife at home. Many statistics report high numbers of pastors leaving the ministry, some as high as 1,700 a month, and often because of burnout.
As church members, we need to help and encourage our ministry leaders. We can’t expect them to be superhuman. Here are a few things to consider about burnout prevention:
1. Ministry leaders need rest (both physical and spiritual). As we saw in Matthew 14, even our Savior had physical limitations in his humanity. His body grew tired. He needed time away from his work to rest and pray. Just as our Lord took time away from the work of ministry, ministry leaders need to do the same. We need to provide ways for them to do so. In America, we call it vacation. Americans are known for neglecting to use their vacation time. Those who work in ministry are no exception. We need to encourage them to take regular breaks and even sabbaticals.
2. Ministry leaders need friendships. It is hard for ministry leaders to have real, deep, authentic friendships within their own churches. After all, they are helping everyone else in the church with their problems. But those who serve us in ministry need deep friendships of their own. It is important that we encourage our ministry leaders to invest in friendships where they have the freedom to share common experiences, voice their struggles and burdens, and receive accountability. It may mean that they have to seek such friendships in other churches in the community.
3. Ministry leaders need help. It is important that ministry leaders and we, as church members, realize that ministry leaders can’t do everything. They are not God. They are not all-knowing. They are not all-powerful. They can’t be everywhere at once and meet the needs of every person who asks for their help. They are finite and human with limited energy and resources. This means that church members need to step in and help. Ephesians 4:12 tell us that the job of the pastor is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. It is the church members, not the pastors alone, who are to do the work of ministry. If every church member did their part, the weight of ministry would not fall onto one person. Let us reach out to our ministry leaders and offer our help.
4. Ministry leaders need realistic expectations. Ministry leaders need realistic expectations of themselves, and church members need to have realistic expectations for them. Ministry leaders often work more hours than any of us would be willing to. We need to carefully consider the demands and expectations we place on our church leaders, remembering that they are only human. This brings us back to number three.
5. Remember the needs of their family. We often forget the needs of our church leader’s family. They usually receive what’s leftover at the end of the long day. They are the ones who suffer when the pastor works countless hours a week, is constantly criticized by church members, or when he is discouraged by conflict and tension in the church. Let us consider how we can help and encourage the family of our church leaders.
Church ministry is an important calling. We need our church leaders. But the demands of church ministry are high. As church members, let us not knowingly contribute to the pressure, unrealistic expectations, and demands of ministry. Instead, may we help and encourage them for we are all members of the same Body, that is, Christ our Lord.