Recognize the Signs of Burnout

Learn to Recognize the Six Warning Signs of Burnout by Mike Gillespie

I’ve logged 18 years as a youth minister—18 years learning to outsmart a ministry nemesis that’s claimed many of my friends. That enemy is burnout. Two decades ago, I scoffed at the possibility; now I don’t. That’s because I’ve paid a high price for ignoring the warning signs of burnout in my ministry. As you read my story, take a moment to evaluate your ministry. Remember, if you think you’re safe from burnout, you’re probably its next victim.

Warning Sign #1: THE SUPERMAN SYNDROME

Early in my ministry, I was sure hard work was all I needed for success. I felt confident because I already had a good work ethic. Because of my naiveté, I didn’t realize the church will let you work as many hours as you want. There’s always something more to do. A 45-hour week quickly stretched to 50, then to 60, then … I thought I could be everything to everybody.

I was particularly vulnerable at youth council planning sessions. We scheduled retreats, lock-ins, and trips with little recognition on my part of what it’d take to pull them off. The kids loved that about me, so I succumbed. My favorite refrain: “Sure, we can do that.” One summer, I committed to participate in five group trips and lead two week-long children’s camps. “Sure, I can get it done.” BUNK!

I’m learning to work smarter, not longer.

ASK YOURSELF: Am I obsessed with getting it all done? Is hard work a sign of successful ministry to me?

_____YES _____NO _____SOMETIMES

Warning Sign #2: THE FATIGUE FACTOR

How many times in the last six months has a church member said, “You look tired.” Hey, there’s no hiding it. All those all-nighters, retreats, program planning meetings, and visitation trips add up. It surfaces in your posture, your eyes, your energy, and your enthusiasm. It roars out at people you work with in the form of irritability, sarcasm, and cynicism.

I’ve leaned to appreciate people who tell me when I look tired. I take it as grace. I get some rest, lighten my calendar, and recommit to my exercise routine. I understand that I’m no good to anyone when I’m tired. Excuses such as “That’s what ministry is all about” are simply dumb. Recently a youth group member bluntly told me, “Hey, you look tired. Get some rest.” I did. It helped. I’m psyched again.

ASK YOURSELF: Do people notice that I’m tired a lot? Have I looked in the mirror lately and moaned, “I’m tired”?

_____YES _____NO _____SOMETIMES

Warning Sign #3: MISHANDLING DIFFICULT PEOPLE

All of us work with difficult people. Every church and every denomination has them. Sometimes I think God has “overblessed” me with them.

Difficult people demand a lot of attention. They’re high-maintenance people. It takes patience and energy to respond well when they come at you with another passionate agenda. How you deal with them can indicate impending burnout.

I recall an intense father who had demanding views and a biting, sarcastic attitude. I worked with his two daughters. I monitored how I reacted to him. Sometimes I was highly effective and could work through his criticisms positively. Other times I was poisoned by his attacks, and lingering bitterness got the best of me.

What did I discover? It all had to do with ministry energy. When I was in “martyr” mode, I was much less effective with him. When I was energized, I never took his stuff personally.

ASK YOURSELF: Do difficult people often get the best of me? Do confrontations linger and absorb me emotionally?

_____YES _____NO _____SOMETIMES

Warning Sign #4: SPIRITUAL LETHARGY

When we balance our emotional, spiritual, and physical needs, we set in place a foundation for more effective ministry. Experience has taught me that spiritual needs are easy to neglect. That’s why I started taking a yearly hiking vacation in the Colorado Rockies. God has worked on me powerfully on those back-country trails.

As youth leaders, we’re always praying for kids, preparing Bible studies, preaching, and so on. And we expect we’ll find nourishment by spiritual osmosis. That just isn’t true.

To meet my spiritual needs, I must pursue prayer, reading, and quiet time apart from my ministry. If I don’t, my kids know. How? I lead Bible studies like a dictator instead of with them. Group prayer times are legalistic and boring. And I’m pharisaical—I mean I go through the religious motions while neglecting the Holy Spirit’s power.

ASK YOURSELF: Do I tend to overlook my own spiritual nurture? Am I feeding myself so little spiritual food that I’m unable to nurture others through my ministry?

_____YES _____NO _____SOMETIMES

Warning Sign #5: AVOIDING PERSONAL GROWTH

If we don’t pursue opportunities for professional growth, we grow stale. And when burnout is lurking, we lose interest in upgrading our skills.

Professional growth is important to me for two reasons: (1) I value professional relationships with ministry colleagues. When I plan activities or brainstorm ideas with friends, or when I join support groups, I stay fresh. (2) I appreciate good training opportunities. I use my continuing education allowance to upgrade my skills. I particularly like events that teach me new strategies, not just clarify what I already know.

I’ve not always put an emphasis on professional growth. I realize those were times when the burnout bug was like a tick trying to burrow in. Don’t neglect opportunities for professional growth. If you do, that’s a burnout warning sign. (Or worse, you think you know it all already!)

ASK YOURSELF: Do I see professional growth as just another impossible expectation that must be sacrificed for “the important stuff”?

_____YES _____NO _____SOMETIMES

Warning Sign #6: NEGLECTING PERSONAL NEEDS

Have you learned that ministry needs always take priority over personal needs? Then you’re in for troubled times.

I know you could use “take up your cross and follow me” as debate ammunition. But I also know that, at times, I’ve neglected myself, my family, and my friends. And I believe that’s a sin. What a joke—we punish the people we love most to do God’s work. That’s stupid theology.

If you make ministry your mistress, you’ll fizzle quickly. I’m grateful I learned before it was too late that God’s hopes for my ministry aren’t the same as my own expectations. But I’ve paid dearly for neglecting myself, my family and friends.

ASK YOURSELF: Do I neglect my needs because of ministry demands? Do I neglect my family or friends because the church needs me?

_____YES _____NO _____SOMETIMES

Mike Gillespie is a veteran youth minister who’s grappled with burnout throughout his career. He lives in Kansas. This article first appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of Group Magazine.


Preventing Burn-Out

Learn to off load emotionally.

Learn to say ‘No’

Be alert to desperate feelings and understand their implications

Eat a regular and balanced diet

Make time for meaningful relationships and fellowship

Exercise regularly

Maintain a devotional life

Get sufficient sleep to provide rest for the body

Maintain a regular sabbath rest.

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