A Key to Understanding Burnout

I want to share with you one of the key dynamics in understanding the cause and experience of burnout. 

About 16 years ago I went through burnout.  Fortunately, the church I was pastoring gave me a sabbatical time to recover and Refresh.  During that time I started to explore the dynamics of burnout.   The things I learned led me to found a ministry called Refresh for helping people who are going through or in danger of going through burnout.  So for the last 8 years I have listened to a lot of stories from people in ministry who are at various stages of ministry exhaustion.  As I have heard their stories, I have noticed some factors and trends emerge.  I’ve learned one of the keys to understanding the experience, is the loss of hope.

Let me unpack that assertion a bit.  When we think of burnout, most often we look to external causes.  For example we may say “My schedule is too packed, my health practices are not what they should be, the people I work with are really difficult” and so on.  Now I understand that these are factors and sometimes the significant factor but I have found that often the cause goes deeper.  As I have mentioned, that cause is a loss of hope. 

Proverbs 13:12 “hope deferred makes the heart sick” but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016).

(Pr 13:12). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

At the heart of burnout is deferred or denied hope.  When hope is missing the heart becomes sick.  A sick heart often affects our bodies as well.   

There are a variety of hopes we have when we enter ministry.  Hope of being used by God, hope of seeing lives changed, hope of helping the hurting or seeing people become believers in Christ.  There are other hopes we have for ourselves personally, and for our families as well.  One hope we have that perhaps most powerfully affects us in regard to burnout is the hope we have to change our world.

I have found again and again as I talk with people who are struggling with burnout is that they have lost hope in how they think God has called them to change the world. 


We generally enter ministry with a vision and hope of how God is going to work through us to make a difference.  A pastor may believe God has called him to preach sermons that bring life change yet Sunday after Sunday very little change is evident.  A missionary may have a calling to rescue orphans in a needy place in the world yet find that the community they work in isn’t all that excited about their rescue plan.  A youth pastor may believe he is called to reach unchurched youth in the community but finds little progress.   Little by little the realities of ministry fly in the face of what a person believed they were called to do and the impact they were expecting to have.   After a while this begins to erode hope.  The confidence of a positive future ministry degrades into a fatalism of a lack of impact.  A quiet sense of despair can begin to set in.  This can result in a number of physical and mental dynamics.  Loss of physical energy, chronic health problems, a loss of joy in going to work, a pessimistic view of people and of God easily develop in these times.    

One of the interesting things I have found is that this switch from hope to despair can happen in in a moment.  It just may take one discouraging comment or event that moves a person from hope to despair.  It’s as if at that moment the valiant battle of faith the minister has been fighting is given up.  It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Often when I ask a person if they can pinpoint the moment when it seems their burnout began, they often can identifiy it quite quickly.  In that moment it’s like they switched from hope to despair.   It’s a moment where the hopes of their calling look impossible to ever be fulfilled.

The recovery from burnout is a process.  Usually physical rest is essential, a time of being still and in solitude with God so you can hear the gentle quiet Spirit of God is a must and a willingness for honest reflection at how you got to this point is unavoidable.

If you are at the point of burnout or in recovery, here are some starting questions to consider to help you start on your way.

First, ask yourself….

What is my understanding of my call to impact the world?  See if you can write it out  in a sentence.

A second question is…

What is my hope level of this happening?  Rate on a scale of 1-10.  One meaning little hope, 10 fullness of confidence.

Thirdly ask How has your ministry experience affected your belief in yourself, other people and God?  Has there been a sliding toward negative attitudes in any of these three categories?

A fourth helpful consideration is consider the difference between faithfulness and impact.  Which was your calling to?  Often when we are called to a certain ministry, we add our own assupmtions about how that ministry is going to change the world.  When our assumptions don’t pan out we move easily to despair.

Fiflly, reflect specifically on how your practical belief about God has changed?   I have yet to meet a person in burnout who has denied their professed faith, they will still affirm their doctrinal stand.  However, there is often a change in their practical belief.  So for example, a person may affirm God provides but practically they may believe “he doesn’t provide for me.”   A person may affirm that God is all wise, but practically believe “in my life he doesn’t know what he is doing.”  The pressing and disappointing circumstances of ministry often lead to a shift of what a person really believes about the Lord.  These shifted beliefs are often at the heart of the despair and lost hope.

Lastly, ask God to show you how to move forward in preventing and recovering from this loss of hope.  This will most likely include at least two aspects.  The first aspect is that of repentance.   Though we don’t like to hear or admit it, we often have attitudes, practices we need to change our mind about and seek God’s forgiveness.  A second aspect is that of our practical beliefs.  If we practically believe, for example, that God is wise but not in our life, that idea will have to be informed with the truth of scripture through meditation, prayer and the support of others.  To leave this unattended, will keep us locked in burnout and in the clutches of hopelessness.

The wonderful news is that there is an escape from the burnout trap.  God is able to restore your hope as our practical belief finds its bearings in the truth of God as revealed in Scripture.  Times of refreshing await those who seek the Lord. 

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