The Source of Ministry Burnout

By Jeremy Hetzel May 26, 2020

Burnout is clearly an issue in ministry today. Do a simple search online and the statistics look bleak. Too many people who serve the Lord are burning the candle at both ends and it’s hurting our ministries. We’re turning vibrant, God-loving people into shells of themselves, dead sticks in need of renewal.

Many of us have succumbed to the pressure of production. Because we’ve stopped resting in God’s presence, we’ve lost our posture of dependence on Jesus. This is the source of our burnout, and it’s costing us greatly.

The pressure to produce

It was lunch time and I was overwhelmed. I was sitting inside the mecca of quality chicken, Chick-fil-a, stressing about the sermon for Palm Sunday. It was due within the next 4 hours, and I hadn’t even started yet. That’s when the words came. The Lord impressed on my heart and mind this thought, “Jeremy, you don’t have to produce.”

It had been nearly five days (and already one Sunday sermon) since things had changed. I’d returned from a Spring Break youth trip to find everything at my church in upheaval. My Senior Pastor had taken an unexpected personal leave of absence, due to some serious family issues. This was two weeks before Easter, so obviously not a great time. (To be clear, I was glad he took his leave, it was the right move, just tough timing.)

In his absence I was “promoted” to “Interim Lead Pastor,” a designation that would last nearly 11 months. As someone who had been in full-time parish ministry for over 12 years, I was used to teaching and leading…but not in “big church.” I’d preached once or twice a year for the last six years…but this was a new deal. Preaching every Sunday. Carrying the weight of a growing congregation. Keeping the wheels on the bus, all while also juggling youth ministry and family life.

We’ve all been there, right? It’s hard to escape, regardless of the source. We feel this pressure to perform, produce, and succeed for Jesus. We want to see lives transformed, ministries grow, and our influence be extended. We want to earn our paycheck AND make our leadership proud. We want to be a force to be reckoned with, a holy tornado for Jesus in our city.

So, we work. We strive. We do our best with the gifts we have been given. But all too often, we depend on the wrong source for success.

The Presence of God

In Numbers 17, we read about a dead stick that produced almonds, overnight. Did you hear that? A stick that was only good for leaning on, a stick that was devoid of a root system, produced nuts! How did this happen? How did Aaron’s staff bud and produce life?

The reason Aaron’s staff budded was because it spent the night in the Presence of God. Should this surprise us? Jesus once said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5 ESV)

Can it be any more clear? We only bear fruit when we’re connected to the Vine. We can do nothing without Him. His Presence is what produces fruit and brings life to our lives and ministries.

My “fork in the road” experience

That day at Chickfila, I felt enormous relief. God’s simple words brought peace and hope. He was the producer, I was the vessel. I simply needed to rest in Him, abide in Him, and He would provide. I went back to my church and sat in the youth room and prayed. I sought the Lord regarding what He wanted the message to be focused on. I pursued different ideas, organized competing thoughts, and slowly the message formed. By the end of the afternoon the message, His message, was done.

This experience was a “fork in the road” experience for my partnership in ministry with Jesus. Starting the next day, I reworked my daily schedule and began every day in His presence. I’d arrive at the office, say hey to a co-worker or two, and then hole up in the youth room, pursuing time with Jesus (which would last anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 ½ hours).

I’d pray, listen to worship music, read scripture, journal, sit in silence, meditate, peruse insightful books from Christian authors, and ultimately dwell in His presence. I was focused solely on connection with Him. Sitting at His feet.

It was life-giving. It was renewing. It was a daily removal of the weight on my shoulders and a recognition that it was the Lord’s to bear. This was His church. Resting in God’s presence has become my key aspect of abiding in Him, and thus bearing fruit.

Learning a Posture of Dependence

What does it look like to abide? What does it mean to bear fruit due to living life in God’s presence? Well, it shouldn’t surprise us, but it started with Adam. One of my favorite authors and spiritual mentors, Watchmen Nee, said in his book Sit, Walk, Stand:

“The 7th day became the Sabbath of God; it was God’s rest. But what of Adam? Where did he stand in relation to that rest of God? Adam, we are told, was created on the sixth day. Clearly, then, he had no part in those first six days of work, for he came into being only at their end. God’s seventh day was, in fact, Adam’s first. Whereas God worked six days and then enjoyed his Sabbath rest, Adam began his life with the Sabbath; for God works before he rests, while man must first enter into God’s rest, and then alone can he work.”

Watchman’s point is profound. There is a difference between working for rest and working from rest. Do you see it? The world teaches us to work hard and live for the weekend. Do your best and rest after the work is done. In principle, I agree completely. It’s even a truth I’m trying to impress upon my children. Do your chores and homework first and then play! But how often are the ways of the world like God’s ways? He’s wired us differently.

Working from Rest

To work from rest means that we do not begin the work of God until our spirit and soul have found rest in Jesus. We are not striving to complete our work; we are resting in Him as the work is being done. The best way I know to explain this is by comparing Chuck Norris and Rick Hoyt.

Chuck Norris is the well know roundhouse-kicking martial artist and actor who has spawned a plethora of hilarious “Chuck Norris Jokes” that some consider to be genuine fact. He is the embodiment of what it means to be the one-man army, the human wrecking machine who can handle anything and everything. He’s an independent man who needs no one. He can get the job done on his own.

On the other hand, Rick Hoyt has cerebral palsy. He can’t hardly do anything on his own. He and his dad, Dick Hoyt, have participated in numerous marathons and triathlons. When these Massachusetts natives compete (specifically in triathlons), dad pulls Rick in a special boat as they swim, carries him in a special seat as they bicycle, and pushes him in a wheelchair as they run.

Rick does none of the work. He “rests” during each section of the race. (I do not intend to imply this is not strenuous on Rick, I’m sure it is.) My point is this; Rick “rests” the entire time and still crosses the finish line. His father has done all the work for him, he simply was in the presence of his father.  

The Way it was Meant to Be

In our ministries, we must learn to be like Rick. Our world and our flesh encourage us to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We want to be independent and capable, producing fruit for Jesus out of our own efforts. But this is not from whence fruit comes.

If we want to be a vessel that is used in its utmost capacity by our Lord and Savior, we must learn to depend on Jesus. We must learn to rest in Him before we work. We must learn to abide in Him and dwell in His presence, moment by moment every day.

When we learn to approach ministry this way, Jesus words in Matthew will become vibrantly true, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV)

Learn to rest in Jesus. Depend on Him do the work. Then you’ll find yourself free from the pressure of production and the source of burnout.

About the Author

Jeremy Hetzel

Jeremy Hetzel is the Director of Student Ministries at Family of Christ in Colorado Springs, CO. He loves reading, spending quantity and quality time with his family, and following his favorite sports teams (Boston Red Sox, San Antonio Spurs, and whichever fantasy team he’s managing at the time).