Where's the line between sacrificing for Christ and burning out for Christ?
Working in a Christian workplace, or any kind of Christian ministry, seems to mean that inevitably the question of burnout is going to come up. My workplace, CMS Victoria, has just run its annual summer conference, Summer Under The Son. It's a fantastic event, running over four days and three nights, but for our small team it's taken a lot of hard work and - yes - a good deal of stress.
Over the months of preparation, I've had many conversations with team members about the importance of balance - putting in the hours when the chips are down, but also maintaining regular discipline with work hours. Burnout, on the other hand, is ongoing overexertion and stress, pushing a person to the point that it has a negative impact on their health, relationships or personal life.
Burnout can happen in any workplace, but in Christian circles it seems particularly rife. Not only with those who work in ministry, or who work for Christian organisations, but even lay people who find themselves overcommitted.
What is burnout?
Burnout isn't the same as sacrifice. As believers, we know it's part of a living faith to give sacrificially - whether it's time, talents, effort or resources. Jesus says as much in Luke chapter 9,verses 23-24: "If anyone comes after me, they should deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me." We are called to give Christ our all - not just how we live our lives, but giving him all our gifts and passions to be used to his glory. (He gave them to us in the first place.)
The problem with burnout is that, if we're not mindful of it, it will drag us down and make the ministries or commitments we're trying to fulfil less effective – not more. In his book Zeal Without Burnout (which I highly recommend for more on this topic), Christopher Ash shares an analogy of a firefighter:
"Obviously you have to push yourself physically when fighting a fire. It's a stretching experience that is uncomfortable and physically difficult... It's foolishness to ignore your limitations, try to be the hero, and cramp up, pass out, or have a heart attack while in a burning structure because you're beyond the limits of what God has supplied you with the capability of doing. It's a form of heroic suicide that is counterproductive because you're now no longer effective in fighting fire and the resources that were dedicated to fighting fire are now dedicated to saving you."
Too often, ministers are pulled in twenty different directions at any given time, and saying "no" can feel like you're letting someone down. Over my years in church circles, I've seen leaders around me hopelessly overcommitted and running on fumes, trying to fulfil what they see as their role but unable to breathe or rest.
I've had mentors who've tried to cram a coffee with me into their schedule, but were spread so thin they were barely able to be emotionally available. I've also had friends who've been unable to rest or socialise because of youth leading, Sunday school preparation, music commitments and service leading - all in the one weekend.
Being mindful of our culture
Are we normalising this culture of busy over commitment in Christian culture? I worry that we are. While we admire someone's commitment and willingness to serve, we need to keep some key things in mind.
Trust in God is the biggest one. It's one thing to work hard for Christ, but it's a whole other thing to burn the candle at both ends, to be anxious and sleepless, because we haven't remembered that God's got it in hand. We're not superhuman and we can't do anything without God – so why do we work sometimes as though we have to do it ourselves?
In the lead-up to Summer Under The Son, our staff team regularly prayed that God's will would be done, that he'd ease our concerns, and thanked him for having the outcome in his control. Like 1 Peter chapter 5verse 7, "Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you."
It's also important to remember that we are fragile and we need rest. Not just sleep - although that's helpful! - but rest in God. Blocking out time to read the Bible, reflect and pray is actually so fundamental to keeping on track with everything else. It's only in the past couple years that I've really come to understand this, but being a human, it's often the first thing to fall off my radar. To keep going, I need this rest.
We need to maintain our Christian community and friendships, even when we're under the pump. Not only is it important to have people around us keeping us sane, but Christian friendships in particular are there to build us up and keep us accountable.
This is another reason why staying close to a Christian community - whether we're busy or not - is so important. When we are under the hammer, these are the friendships that will give us perspective on our own walk and help us stick with it.
Just as it's unfortunate to have Sunday-only Christians, or Christians who are unwilling to step up, we equally shouldn't want believers so stressed out and bottomed out that they can't function or honour their other commitments in life - like family, rest, or quiet time with God.
Striking a balance
It's tricky to get a balance, and I am far from getting it right. For every person who over-commits, there's another who should be contributing more but isn't. But burnout should be a wake-up call to those of us who don't make it a priority to serve - that we not only should be serving, but that it supports our brothers and sisters who are shouldering our burden.
Burnout is something we should talk about more in churches - because let's face it, it's rife. Let's remember that saying "no" can be healthy and help us serve God in other ways. Let's also keep any eye out for each other and encourage each other to keep a balance.
We should certainly work for God's glory, but we need to also remember our frailty and our trust in God.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional and has a background in editing. She lives in Melbourne.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html