Serving without burnout

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. 10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
~ Philippians 4:4-13

It’s not that difficult to become busy. We can fill our schedules with a multitude of activities that range from the pleasant to the painful. Quite often we throw ourselves into commitments with zeal and optimism, excited by the prospect of what our involvement will produce. This is especially the case with serving others and in formal leadership positions. However, we can reach a point where we realise we have overcommitted. We can become struck by the weight of the magnitude of what it is we have agreed to become a part of. We can abruptly become aware of how our activity in one area of life is negatively impacting other areas that we have tried to fit into our time.

The result? Burnout.

The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines ‘burnout’ as:

An acute stress disorder or reaction characterized by exhaustion resulting from overwork, with anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, depression, and impairment in work performance.

Within the context of Christian service, this can be seen by a person becoming physically distressed, emotionally charged, and spiritually malnourished. They may be unable to process information or maintain commitments. Many step down from formal leadership positions and withdraw from service and Christian community entirely. They need rest. They need to clear their heads. They can feel as if they are suffocating under the constant strain of expectation and obligatory involvement. And it is exhausting. It’s enough to lead people to withdraw from any association with a group, a ministry, a church, or even their obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ.

If that is your current or previous predicament, I’m sorry that you have gone through such an ordeal. The Christian life should not be characterised by the weight of expectation, but it should overflow with radical joy in the freedom of a secure identity that we have received by grace. Christian service is a privilege and honour where our God gives us His Spirit in order to labour out of the overflow of our love for Christ. You are not a failure in God’s sight because you have burned out. You are not an embarrassment in God’s sight because you aren’t faithfully fulfilling the commitments you made. You are not a disappointment in God’s sight because you need to rest.

Burnout should not be an inevitable consequence of Christian service. God has saved us by grace, through faith, for good works that we are to carry out for His glory (Ephesians 2:8-10). While people do transition from one kind of service to another, the right expectation we should have for our sisters and brothers is that everyone will serve God throughout their life in some shape or capacity. We shouldn’t see burnout as a rational and normal part of growing up – this may be true, just as suffering can grow and mature people; but we do not see suffering or burnout as good in and of themselves. The good comes from how God can work through, and despite, suffering and burnout.

Burning out can be due to multiple factors. Some of them are our fault. Some of them are due to the environment that we are serving in. Some of them may be because of the community around us. How can we serve without burning out? There isn’t a set formula, but I’m now going to share some wisdom that I have learnt from the Christian Scriptures and from godly men and women over the years who have helped me, and many others, remain active in the Lord.1

1. Serve God

It is possible to be working for the pleasure of man and not in devotion to God (Colossians 3:23). Christian service is towards others but it is ultimately for God. We serve others because we love them and as an expression of obedience to Christ. If we lose this vertical dimension of our service, then when things get tough and discouraging on a horizontal level we can lose the motivation to keep going.

Furthermore, it is possible to be active, yet idle in work that God considers good and beneficial. We can become so focused on activity that we don’t stop to consider how what we are doing is contributing to the work of God’s kingdom in making disciples of all nations and/or seeking to build others up in Christ by speaking the truth in love. When deciding on how and where to serve, we must consider what sort of activity we will be undertaking and how it is prayerfully seeking to fit into the plans and purposes of God. Otherwise, we’ll just end up being active but not truly serving God with work that is good.

If you are a leader who is coordinating and managing a team, you must always direct their attention back to God and how their activity is seeking to serve Him. Burnout can occur when people become more consumed with meeting the expectations that you have of them than joyfully serving the risen Saviour. Remind them of who they are serving, why they are serving, and how they are serving. And remind them that our labour in the Lord is never wasted (1 Corinthians 15:58).

2. Serve with your identity grounded in Christ and sustained by God’s grace

When we try and serve God without this foundation, we start to define ourselves by our performance within the commitment we are serving in. The success of the commitment becomes the basis for our joy. The failure of the commitment becomes the basis for our anxiety and sadness. But a Christian is not defined by what she/he does; a Christian is defined by who they are in Christ Jesus (Galatians 2:19-21).

Paul’s exhortations to the Philippian Christians in Philippians 4:4-13 involves seeing this security and contentment in Christ preserve him in all circumstances. But also, Paul encourages them to rejoice in the Lord and seek the peace that comes from Him. Your circumstances may be good or bad. Your plans may be successful or unsuccessful. Your health and state may be well or unwell. But we can always rejoice in the Lord – not in the context of our surroundings. And we can seek God’s strength through prayer and ask Him to keep us grounded and going. That way, God’s peace can comfort us. God’s strength can sustain us. God never promises that the Christian life will not be hard; what He promises is that in the midst of hardship He will be there and He will be enough to get us through.

We need to rebuke ourselves (and others) when we recognise that we are boasting in the fruit of our service. Our sole basis for joy, hope, and security is not in the outworking of our actions but in the indwelling of our Saviour.

3. Serve with a community that cares for you

In Hebrews 10:19-25 we see that Christians have been given access to God by the blood of Jesus and can draw near to Him as a community of people. We are saved individually but we are saved into a community. And it is in the community of people that we are called to spur one another on towards love and good deeds, serving and encouraging one another as we wait for Jesus to return.

The Christian life is not a lonely one. We are not individuals who are called to work out our individual careers in service. Instead, we are a family of saved sinners who are given one another to love and be loved and given to one another to serve and be served. Christian service occurs within the context of a community. Christian service can become crushingly exhausting when we forget this, or can become despairingly isolated when we don’t see this.

When you are deciding where to serve, pick a community context to serve with and to serve in. Find Christian sisters and brothers to partner alongside, either closely within the same context of service, or in as a supportive friend and confidant. It is very difficult to be a Christian serving alone in a ministry without a lot of support. Within some areas of service there is a culture of showing up, performing your tasks, and then leaving without any real sense of partnership in the Gospel as blood-bought siblings in Christ.

Additionally, within a context of service, there are ministries that may be happy to let you serve, but take no pastoral responsibility for you. In other words, they welcome God to bring fruit from your labour in their programs and structures and celebrate it, but don’t think that they have a duty to prayerfully protect, encourage, and support you. Granted, not every area of service occurs within the context of your primary family of pastoral support (the local church) but the duty of all Christian leaders is to care for those who are serving under them in some capacity. Even within the local church, sometimes the leaders may not be considering how they can support and encourage the servants whom they appoint. This can be the case with a less resourced church where the leadership is stretched thin with many concerns.

When these things happen, burnout is a distinct possibility. Consider what support is available before committing to a type of service; you may believe it is right and beneficial to serve within a community context that doesn’t have a lot of support, from the top-down leadership or among your peers themselves. But ensure you have others around you with whom you can pray and receive encouragement. And don’t keep your struggles and fears to yourself – press deeply into the riches of God’s family and know that you are never alone. If you are a leader, you have a responsibility to consider the context into which they are asking others to serve. Don’t think that it isn’t important, or that it isn’t your responsibility.

4. Serve with the gifts and capacity that God has given you

All of us have different skills and abilities and none of us should think of ourselves as more proficient or skilled in something than we really are (Romans 12:3-7). We are called to be faithful with what God has given us and that means that the way in which you serve may not be the way in which another sister or brother serves. That also means that the sheer capacity to commit that you may have will differ from another.

Burnout can occur when we try and do too much than we can commit to, or when we try to do things that we are not particularly trained or proficient in. In other words, burnout can happen when we don’t serve God with what He has gifted us with or with the capacity that we have been granted. This is a danger zone for those who:

  • see others who have particular gifts and wish they were like them
  • see others who have a larger capacity to commit to things and wish they were like them

God has saved us into the body of Christ and every part of different. We don’t all have the same function. But none of us should become envious of others because of their skills, abilities, or capacity. We each have a role to play and we need to humbly seek to honour Christ with our lives. Yes, we can all become more proficient in competencies through training and discipleship. Yes, we can grow in our capacity (or shrink in our capacity, depending on the stage of life we find ourselves in). But the principle point here is that we should not be trying to aim for some level of ‘super-serving-supremacy’ that neglects that the body of Christ is different and we should seek to be thankful and content with how God has gifted us.

Burnout can occur when we think that we aren’t doing enough, or that we aren’t good enough because we can’t perform some task as well as someone else. The world tells us that you need to be the best that you can be but the Gospel shows us that our best is as good as filthy rags without the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, we don’t need to ‘prove’ ourselves to anyone. In Christ, we can be content with faithfulness in how God has gifted us. In Christ, we can know that we are individually placed to serve the body and don’t have to live up to some standard.

Stop comparing yourself with others. Fix your eyes on Christ and serve others in wholehearted, grace-filled, thankfulness to the one who has given you the privilege to be His servant.

5. Serve faithfully in all aspects of your life

We can serve God through formal leadership positions. We can serve God by sharing the Gospel with our friends. But we can also serve God by being a faithful worker. We can serve God by saying no to sexual immorality. We can serve God by honouring our parents and obeying them. We can serve God by sleeping and taking care of our bodies so that we can faithfully fulfil the tasks we have committed to. Whether we eat or drink, in all things we can do them for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).

We can burn out when we forget that faithfulness to God is to be present in all aspects of our lives. When we privilege Christian ministry, we can end up dishonouring God by neglecting others around us and by neglecting the importance of rest and seeking God ourselves. When considering your commitments, consider the entirety of your weekly schedule and prayerfully work out how serving in one area will impact the other areas.

  • Will you get enough sleep?
  • When are you planning on resting?
  • When are you going to spend time with your non-Christian friends and share the Gospel with them?
  • How are you going to continue serving in that one ministry if you’ll be constantly tired with serving in another one the night before?
  • How much will your parents see you?
  • How are you going to be a faithful student/worker with these new commitments?
  • When will you pray?

These sorts of questions are driven by the conviction that we are to faithfully serve God with all of our lives. As a leader, when you seek to recruit others to serve it is not your job to answer these questions for someone. But, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care how these questions are answered. If we want to love others, and not merely ‘use’ them, we should care about their devotion to Christ in all of their lives and not just the area that we want them to serve in.

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We’ve covered a lot, and there could be so much more said. But these are five points that I pray will help you if you are burning out, have burnt out, or have seen others burn out. After reading and carefully considering what’s been written, you may still burn out – like I said above, there isn’t a formula for avoiding it. But I do pray that you will be sustained and able to joyfully serve for a lifetime, regardless of where you are at or what has happened to you in the past.

James Chen

James is a Philosophy graduate from the University of Sydney and is currently a teaching and learning manager of a senior high school tutoring centre. James is a member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Carlingford and loves reading and teaching the Bible.

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  1. I burnt out in 2014, having come close over the years before, and in God’s kindness He sustained and built me up again. I don’t speak as one who has it all figured out, but I do thank God that I have remained active in my service.