Elijah called down fire from Heaven (1 Kings 18), and then Elijah wanted to die. Moses worked very long, hard days mediating the disputes of God’s people (Exodus 18), and then Moses got some feedback from his father-in-law, Jethro: “What you are doing is not good” (Exodus 18:17).
Moses insisted he was the only one who could serve the people and that the people liked coming to him (Exodus 18:15). Basically, Moses was co-dependent on the people of God. It made him feel good. But one detail from this account shows why it wasn’t good: Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and his sons were living with Jethro. Moses’ busyness for God had separated him from his family. This was not good.
Elijah did exactly what God had directed him to do. With God’s power and direction, Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal. The result was not a big celebration. The outcome was a manhunt, and Elijah was that man. Jezebel wanted his head (1 Kings 19:2). You would think that doing God’s work would be rewarded in better ways. Elijah survived for another day, but he was exhausted, depressed and ready to cash it in. You can avoid burnout in ministry, but you need to start before the fuse has burned to the end.
1. Pass around the leadership. As the small group leader, you can give away the leadership on practically every aspect of your group: leading discussions, opening your home, bringing refreshments, taking prayer requests, following up on new members and absentees, planning social events, pursuing outreach opportunities, recruiting new members—and almost everything else can be given to a member of your group. The only thing a leader can’t give away is the responsibility for the group. It’s up to you to make sure things get done but not to do everything yourself. It might be easier to do it yourself. You might like doing it yourself. But OK, Moses, don’t go there.
2. Balance the other parts of your life. What else are you doing right now? Most of us need to work at a job and/or at home. We raise our kids. Some of us homeschool our kids. Then, there are kids’ sports—boy, that can quickly take over your life.
Beyond activity, you need to consider what changes have taken place? What is new this year: a job, a home, a baby, reduced income, Cub Scouts, a major health issue? We can only tolerate so much change at a time. Fortunately, God made time so everything wouldn’t have to happen all at once. Many things you have absolutely no control over. But if you are feeling the stress of change, then opt out of optional changes for now. That doesn’t mean putting off taking that class or losing weight or buying a new car forever, but put it off for now. Maybe wait a year.
3. A co-leader is a cure. Who really cares about your group? Who’s there every week and calls when they can’t make it? Who has shown the ability to lead? A co-leader can bring some welcomed relief when life gets to be too much. Everyone needs to take a break once in a while. That doesn’t necessarily mean you quit attending your group, but maybe you go through a season when you let your co-leader take the lead. The big key here is communication. Make sure you are on the same page with the direction and focus of the group. That’s not to say your way is the only way, but people joined your group for a certain reason. If your group’s purpose radically changes, then your group might not tolerate it. Shared leadership requires shared vision.
4. Take a Break. If you find yourself at your wit’s end, you need to take a break. If you are burned out, tired, frustrated or experiencing health problems, start by focusing on your physical well-being. Get enough sleep. Eat right. Get a little exercise. Stepping out of your group will allow you two more hours in the week to do these things. If you don’t feel well physically, you won’t feel well emotionally or spiritually either.
Once you feel a little more rested, focus on your emotional health. How’s your attitude? Do you find yourself scowling or laughing? Are you hopeful or hopeless? On a scale of 1 to 10, where is your cynicism these days? Find a way to do some things for yourself. Take a walk. Watch a movie. Invest in your relationships. Hours of television will only slow your recovery. Honest conversations will revive your soul.
Now, this might seem completely backward, but your spiritual health comes last. I used to think: “Lord, I’m doing your work. I’m tired. I’m burned out. I’m frustrated. Give me supernatural strength to rise above the situation I’ve created for myself by too many late nights, poor nutrition and taking on too much. It’s all for you, God. Help me, so I can help you.” God’s response was usually something like, “Oh, give me a break.” God won’t bail you (or me) out and reinforce our bad behavior. Constantly violating God’s design is a sure path to burnout.
God designed us to work hard. God designed us to rest. God designed us for relationship with Him and with others. God designed us for a purpose. God designed us to be fragile (clay pots). Lives are best lived with an ebb and flow. We apply effort and energy, and then we take a break and rest.
The reason you feel physically tired and emotionally negative after a group meeting is your body, your system, is telling you it’s time to get out of group leader/Mr. or Ms. Hospitality mode and relax. It’s not a time to evaluate your performance as a group leader. It’s not a time to consider quitting the group or slitting your wrists. It’s time to rest. Leave behind the mess you can tolerate (more on OCD another day). If another member is hosting, then you can just go home and not worry about it.
I’ve heard ministry leaders say, “I’d rather burn out than rust out.” I don’t think either is a very good option. It’s better for us to wear out gradually.