I have been serving in my local church for roughly seventeen years straight, most of the time in the same two ministries that I originally started with (youth and worship). There have been many mountains and valleys in those seventeen years. There have been times where I’ve been full of vision and passion and there have been times where I’ve been full of bitterness and complaining. During these seventeen years, the subject of serving and burnout have consistently come up, both from me and from others that I have served with.
The argument that I’ve heard and have said typically goes like this: burnout happens to servants either because (1) the volunteers can’t say no to leaders who are asking for help and therefore are over-worked or (2) the church is abusive to its volunteer workers. In the last fifteen years, I have argued both sides. But it wasn’t till recently that I realized a consistent truth in all my years of serving (easy or hard). Here is that truth:
In my life, I usually experience burnout when things aren’t going my way. I’d argue therefore that burnout is a control & humility issue.
— Calvinist Batman (@CalvinistBatman) July 15, 2015
The only constant was me. I’ve had different leaders and served in different roles/functions, but I was still getting burnt-out. I started looking back on my burnt-out times and realizing that I was always expecting something (that I didn’t get) from my leadership during those times.
Why does this matter?
The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that there is a problem, but the second step is to find out where the root of the problem is. If we think the root of the problem is the church (either by them asking for too much, or by them being abusive in the way they handle their volunteers), then all that grows is offense and bitterness. If someone stays at a church that they’re serving at with that attitude, they end up defiling many (Hebrews 12:15). Even if that person decides that the solution is to leave and go to another church, they will (eventually) have the same issue there as well. Why? Because the issue is with the heart, not with the leaders.
Another solution burnt-out servants may look at is serving less. If you think the root of the problem is that you serve too much (and can’t say “no” when leaders ask for help) then the practical solution would be to serve less. Sadly, I have watched this thinking lead people to stop serving altogether, and (in my personal experience) those who don’t serve the church in some fashion rarely keep their passion (particularly generosity) for the Lord. Jesus designed the Christian life to model His earthly life, where we serve more and more to our own death (of our sinful flesh and selfishness). This is what Paul allude to in Philippians 2:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:1-8 ESV)
In the passage above, Paul combines service with humility and selflessness. In my own experience, the times I’ve been burnt-out are the same times that I feel I should be getting something I didn’t have, whether it be a position, more influence, a reply, a gift, a “thank you”, etc. This is the definition of “selfish ambition” that Paul talks about: what we deserve and our rights. People who decide to stop serving (or start serving way less) are many times looking “only to his own interests” and not “to the interests of others.” That’s not to say that there isn’t wisdom we should have regarding serving. Our families should come first before the ministry. If we’re serving the church and not seeing our wives and children, then something is off and we should serve less at church so that we can serve more at home. Yet overall, it’s not less service, it’s more. Serve at church. Serve at home. Serve at our job. Serve, serve, serve.
So what is our solution if the problem with burnout is us and not leaders or the church? Paul says it’s humility. Jesus gives us some really good words we ought to remember as we serve:
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-11 ESV)
I think the #1 cause of burnout revolves around that we think more highly of ourselves then we ought (Romans 12:3). When we serve, many times we can think of ourselves as worthy servants. Yet Jesus is clear. There is no worthy servants except one, Jesus, and He came to serve, not to be served (Matthew 20:28). Most of our burnout issues come from our desire to be served. We need to remember who we are serving and who our model for serving is.
It’s Jesus, meek and lowly. In reality, He’s doing all the work, so why should we get any of the praise for it?