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5 Self-Examination Questions to Prevent Burnout

When it comes to burnout, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

One of the greatest privileges of ministry is having a front-row seat to the life change that happens when God is at work in someone’s life. Ministry goes beyond our job to a calling that brings us purpose and fulfillment. We become swept up in the adventure and excitement of seeing God move and change lives, and we are willing to sacrifice anything and everything for the sake of the gospel.

If we pursue ministry for any length of time, however, it’s inevitable that our sacrifices for our calling will begin to take a toll. In my own experience of nearly 10 years working in the local church, I’ve found that if I’m not careful this cost can quickly take me down a road of burnout.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I’ve found a regular practice of personal examination and reflection on what God is up to in my life is essential to staying healthy in ministry. Whether it’s helping me stay closely connected to Jesus during the good times (and away from coasting or relying on myself), or helping me catch the early signs of burnout during the not-so-good times. Here are the questions I regularly ask myself:

1. How is God inviting me to trust him more deeply?

Every year I go camping at Lake Tahoe for a couple of days of solitude. During one of these trips, I was wrestling with a tough decision about whether or not it was time to leave my position at the church. I had spent the last season working toward changes I thought were healthier for the church in the long run, but I was meeting with continued resistance and my patience was wearing out.

After much time in prayer, I became confident that God was still with me in my endeavors, and was inviting me to keep trusting him and moving forward even though I couldn’t see exactly how things would work out. Knowing that God would be with me was all I needed to go back with a renewed sense of hope and confidence, and it kept me dependent on God to bring about change rather than relying on myself.

This is just as important for the everyday moments, too. It might be an upcoming event, a meeting with volunteers, or a conversation you’re dreading. Any place where there’s anxiety, insecurity, frustration, or uncertainty is an opportunity to learn to trust God more completely. God is always with you—in the big and small things—but sometimes you need to slow down and remind yourself of this truth. Don’t pray for God to be with you; instead pray for God to show you how he is with you.

Ask: In what way am I struggling to trust God? What would it look like to draw closer to God and depend on him more in this situation?

2. Am I being open about my life with at least one person?

People in ministry are notorious for keeping their struggles to themselves. And while you don’t need to broadcast your sin for the whole world to know, you do need a few close friends you trust enough to see your messiness. One of the worst places to be in ministry is feeling alone and isolated in your sin. This is where you’re most vulnerable to temptation.

I experience God’s grace most tangibly when it’s expressed through the words of a trusted friend who loves me in my brokenness. Nothing dispels darkness like the light of a friend who graciously speaks truth and love into your life.

Do a quick inventory of your primary relationships. Who would you go to in crisis? Once you’ve identified those close relationships, continue to invest in them. That includes paying attention to any unresolved conflict or tension and addressing it as soon as possible.

Ask: Who do I trust to invite into something I am struggling with, so that I don’t feel alone in it? How can I continue to invest in that relationship?

3. What do I need?

When was the last time you thought about what you need right now? So much of ministry is focused on helping meet the needs of others, and it’s easy to put your own needs aside. But ignoring your own needs is the quickest way to burnout. Self-care is not selfless; it’s essential to stay healthy so you have something to give to others.

There’s no way around it: life is going to apply pressure. You can either wait for things to explode, or you can respond appropriately to the pressures of life and pay attention to what you need to stay healthy. Look for signs of exhaustion, uncharacteristic emotional outbursts, temptation to seek comfort in our vices, feelings of loneliness, or seeking isolation. These can all be indicators that you have unaddressed needs.

Ask: What’s one thing I need right now? What would it take to experience balance and margin in my life right now?

4. What’s getting under my skin?

A couple came up to me after an event at church and asked about getting connected. They said they had left a voicemail for me a week ago and never heard back, so they wanted to connect in person. Instead of apologizing and helping them, I became fixated on the part where I hadn’t returned their call. I was sure that I hadn’t heard that voicemail, and became defensive about how they must have left a voicemail with someone else on staff. After a minute I caught myself and moved on to actually helping answer their question, but my first reaction was to completely miss their need and focus on my insecurities.

We all live with hurts and insecurities, and sometimes a simple incident gets under our skin and triggers a bigger reaction because it hits a nerve. These trigger points can be an invitation from God to draw closer to him and experience healing in deeper hurts and insecurities.

Ask: What has been getting under my skin? Have I overreacted? Is this irritation connected to a bigger hurt or insecurity that God might want to heal?

5. Do I really believe that I am loved by God?

You often preach about God’s love to others, but do you truly believe he loves you? We need to master the art of preaching the gospel to ourselves. Remember: there’s nothing you can do that will make God love you less, and there’s nothing you can do that will make God love you more.

It can be tempting to hustle for your worth and place your value in how much you do for God. But God doesn’t want you to do things for him. He wants you to do things with him. He’s crazy about you, and you don’t have to earn his approval because you already have it. The first task on your to-do list every day should be to connect with how deeply you are loved by God.

Ask: Do I believe that every aspect of who I am is fully and completely loved and accepted by God? Is the love of Christ compelling me to ministry, or is something else driving my motivations? Where am I tempted to find my worth in?

Regular Self-Examination Is Key

Every year I read In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen. This is one of my favorite quotes from that book:

I came face to face with the simple question, "Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?" After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger. I began to ask myself whether my lack of contemplative prayer, my loneliness, and my constantly changing involvement in what seemed most urgent were signs that the Spirit was gradually being suppressed. It was very hard for me to see clearly, and though I never spoke about hell or only jokingly so, I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term ‘burnout” was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.

Ministry doesn’t have to lead to burnout! Setting aside a regular time for personal examination helps you pay attention to what God is doing in your life and stay in touch with your own needs. This in turn cultivates a thriving relationship with God and healthy relationship with others—and that’s quite a model for those you minister to.

Laura Copeland serves on the Small Groups team at Saddleback Church in California.

March07, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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