It was almost unbearable to go back. As we approached the yellow caution tape outlining the charred remains of what was my sister’s apartment building, it was clear nothing recognizable was left. The previous day we had watched in horror as the flames raced through her home destroying her dearest possessions. The firefighters could not keep pace with the out-of-control blaze. A small spark sabotaged a seemingly ordinary day and within hours everything was destroyed.
Burnout for church leaders conjures up a similarly ominous feeling. We don’t begin ministry with the expectation of burning out. We are confident we won’t be one of the statistics. We’re committed to being healthy for the long haul.
But the statistics are real and the pressures are fierce. The longer I’ve been in ministry, the more paranoid I’ve become of experiencing burnout. What does it actually look like? How do I know when I’m headed in that direction?
The metaphors with fire can be confusing to me. I’m not sure I’ve ever been burned out, but I’ve certainly been scorched. Scorched in that I’ve experienced enough heat and pressure to change me but not completely burn me out. What’s the different between the “refiner’s fire” (Malachi 2) and burnout?
John Piper describes refiner’s fire this way: “A refiner’s fire does not destroy indiscriminately like a forest fire. A refiner’s fire does not consume completely like the fire of an incinerator. A refiner’s fire refines. It purifies. It melts down the bar of silver or gold, separates out the impurities that ruin its value, burns them up, and leaves the silver and gold intact. He (God) is like a refiner’s fire.”
The refiner’s fire and raging flames are two very different experiences. The refiner’s fire is controlled. The refiner is watching the temperature and controlling exposure to the heat.
Raging flames are uncontrolled and unconcerned about what they are burning.
Throughout my ministry, I’ve wrestled with how to endure the pressure without being torched. How do I know when I’m being refined or when I’m flaming out? I believe the distinction is in what type of fire I am in. Am I in an uncontrolled blaze or am I under the careful watch of the refiner?
As we look for signs of burnout in our lives as ministry leaders, a sign of impending burnout is when we are not under the care of the refiner. If the heat is on but we are grounded and secure in our savior, I believe the refiner protects and controls the intensity of the heat. We need the fire to mold us and shape us. But if we resist his care, if we run headlong into the flame, we leave ourselves susceptible to the damage that comes from long exposure to extreme heat.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you discern whether you are in the refiner’s fire or being consumed by the flame.
Three “Burnout” Questions
Am I being with God or doing for God? We must be with God, not just do for God. Ministry deceives us into thinking we’re tending our relationship with God. We read scripture, pray, and talk about God all the time, but if we only do them because the job requires it, we may be starving ourselves of experiencing God personally.
Is God refining some part of my character? We must understand the process of refinement. Too often, we assume that any heat or pressure is a bad thing. We must be able to discern when God is refining us and not be too quick to cry burnout because we’re uncomfortable.
Am I creating times for rest and do I regularly observe Sabbath? We must constantly evaluate our priorities and our personal boundaries. Ministry can easily become a 24/7 commitment. There is always someone who needs support, encouragement, help, and hope. While ministry is more than a nine to five job, we do need to create rhythms of rest and rejuvenation.
If you are unsure of whether you’re approaching burnout, the most important thing you can do is to stop and carve out time to pray and ask God to show you where the heat is coming from. Is it the refiner’s fire or have you been running so hard for so long that the ministry flames are consuming you? God does not desire for you to flame out. Burnout is brought on by our attempts to be superhuman and believing we can meet all of our own expectations and the myriad expectations others put on us. Feeling a little scorched can be a helpful sign that draws us back to a place of humble dependence on God’s power working through us.