By Chris Surratt
Several years ago my wife and kids and I made a major move away from extended family to plant a church. I jumped in with both feet.
But one day I woke up and didn’t want to get out of bed. There was a dark cloud hanging over me.
I just thought I was tired and needed rest. So I took a couple of days off. After that short time of rest, I felt a little better but the cloud stayed there.
Shortly thereafter I had a panic attack and depression set in.
Looking back, I burned out because I wasn’t taking care of myself.
A lot of us headed toward that. It doesn’t matter what level leader you are—pastor, church staff, volunteer, or small group leader—it can happen.
A book I found quite effective in helping me recalibrate and re-prioritize is Emotionally Healthy Spirituality from Peter Scazzero.
He outlined some signs someone in leadership might be on the brink of burnout. And now, I’d like to share a few of those with you.
1. They use God to run from God.
We do that in a lot of ways. One way a lot of us tend to do this is we fill up our lives with “Christian activities,” like leading a small group.
It’s tempting to cover up some things in your life by grabbing every leadership opportunity that comes our way—to think we can get rid of it by engaging in activity.
Service and leadership opportunities are good things, but we can use those to run from God.
2. They ignore the emotions of anger, sadness, and fear.
We tend to cover up those things when we lead a group and bottle them up because you don’t want people to see your weakness.
One of my favorite movies is the Pixar film Inside Out. The end of it shows us why we need all these emotions to be a whole person.
Not only should we acknowledge those emotions; we need to share them with people we love and people in our small group.
Sometimes we might not want to share our hearts with the entire small group, but hopefully we have two or three people to share these with.
And by all means, take them to God before you bring them to people.
3. They die to the wrong things.
This is a common one. We die to things that are fun or happy because we think we’re supposed to be advancing the kingdom all the time.
But we need those times when we’re having fun and just hanging out.
We feel guilty doing things that fill up our lives and energize us.
4. They do for God instead of be with Him.
This is pretty simple: We can spend a lot of time just doing ministry instead of being with God.
5. They spiritualize away conflict.
It’s difficult as a leader to step into conflict. You don’t want to see it among your groups or in your church. So you sweep it underneath the rug until it festers and explodes.
I’m not a big fan of conflict and I’m often tempted to spiritualize it away. But if it’s not dealt with, it comes up in a group and wrecks relationships.
6. They live without limits.
A leader will eventually burn out when they take on the burdens of the people in the group.
Bearing one another’s burdens is a good thing—a biblical thing. We want to pray for the people in our groups and be there for them.
But we can’t fix everything. We take the weight of our group like we’re the only ones who can do anything about it. This pushes us past our limits.
What to do about it
My colleague and “Group Answers” podcast co-host Brian Daniel offers several suggestions for overcoming and preventing burnout:
- Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Strip away everything to get to the real problem. Get oriented. Not confused.
- Focus on the small things. Don’t worry about all the things you have to do, just focus on the next one. Sometimes “burnout” is often synonymous with being overwhelmed.
- Give yourself permission in these times. Take a day off. Be less than perfect. Don’t feel pressure to be on. Do things you enjoy. Share your burdens with people. Remember slumps are normal. You’re not weird because you’re tired.
CHRIS SURRATT (@ChrisSurratt) is a ministry consultant and coach with more than 20 years of experience. He served on church staffs prior to becoming the discipleship and small groups specialist for Lifeway Christian Resources. He is co-host of the “Group Answers” podcast and the author of Leading Small Groups: How to Gather, Launch, Lead, and Multiply Your Small Group.