Vacations “R” Us: Ministry and Burn-Out

Vacations “R” Us: Ministry and Burn-Out

“Granddad, I am tried!”  I said, as I sat down in the twin La-Z-Boy next to “his chair.” His answer was clear, sarcastic, and sculling: “Son, you don’t know what tried means!”

Twenty years later, I still don’t know the depth of tired that an 80-year-old man feels, but I think I’ve learned a little more about what “tired” means since then.

800px-Red_BenchThere is a depth of tiredness that is all too familiar to ministry leaders; it’s called “burn-out.” For some, it is a passing phase, for others it can be like a crippling disease, hindering ministry and family life for months. Burn-out is a form of exhaustion that is like a spiritual pit. It can even take on the form of depression or a type of immobilizing force that makes us feel as though nothing we do matters.

Burn-out as defined by our friends at Urban Dictionary:

A state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by a prolonged period of stress and frustration; an inevitable corporate condition characterized by frequent displays of unprofessional behavior, a blithe refusal to do any work, and most important, a distinct aura of not giving a [blank].

Ok, maybe that was not the most respectable dictionary to use.

Symptoms vary, but the cause is usually the same: ministry without a prolonged time of refreshing. Ministry is physically exhausting and emotionally draining. Burn-out is a spiritual challenge. Some say it doesn’t exist and will try to shame others or themselves out of their feelings. But burn-out is real. Some call it “being dry” or being in a bad place. I have always called it burn-out because I simply have little or no desire to do ministry. I am just tried and want a prolonged break, and it feel like the work load just keeps building.

I am very fortunate to be a minister and to have served in the same place for 20+ years.  In my twenties, I was invincible and felt like my role was to serve the students and their families 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Vacations were rare and usually involved friends and a book or two. On vacation, God would often bless me by waking me up early and showing me the sunrise. Not a bad way to have a quiet time.

Eagle_Creek_Park_in_the_FallNow I have two kids of my own, and my bag of ministry tricks is worn ragged. When I take a vacation, it looks more like I am preparing for a small camp (sometimes it is more work than getting ready for camp!). My vacations are about Mac, Jack, and Betsy and then me. However, I feel like I need the rest and refreshment more now than ever.

One of my favorite places to recharge is at my grandmother’s house. There is always plenty of hard work to be done. There are always plenty of memories to be shared and good food to eat. When I leave, I feel as if I have accomplished something great. My small yard work tasks are rewarded with hugs, sweet tea, and a big smile from a gracious lady.

It is ironic that the place I find the most restful is the place where I was once told that I didn’t know what tired was!

Here are four ways to combat burn-out:

1. Be strategic! Remember the Sabbath!

Take a vacation! But if you cannot, then take a break! You cannot always take a vacation, but you can make a change, take control of the clock, and take a morning off for deliberate self-help time. Take a reading day. Go spend a day shadowing a friend you respect in ministry. Take a half-day. Go watch a movie. Have breakfast with your wife. But own the fact that you need to recharge and plan your start.

800px-Flickr_-_brewbooks_-_Front_Porch_of_RavensworthI work on Sunday, every Sunday. But I try to find some Sunday rest—a Sabbath, a day for my soul—every week. Last week, it was an early Saturday morning of sitting on the porch talking to God in the quiet of the morning, then sweating in the yard for two hours, and watching football in the afternoon. Yard work and football isn’t the typical picture of Sabbath, but my Sabbath is an intentional act of giving my mind, body, soul a break.

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Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath” (Mark 22:27, MSG). God intends for us to take breaks.

2. Be Intentionally Selfish!

Every day, I go to bed with work to be done. Opportunities to minister are endless.

Last Thursday, there were at least four opportunities for me to go watch my students play sports, and another chance for me to taxi my son to an event. Instead, I kept everyone in for our much needed, first family night of the last ten days. But when passing two different stadiums on the way home, I felt the urge to pull in just to see a little bit of someone’s game. I felt pressure from my wife to take my son to his event, but in the end, our night together was awesome and restful. Be selfish: you need to look after your spiritual and emotional health! 

3. Be Around Those Who Love You!

When was the last time you spent time with good friends? It’s time to do that again. Plan a weekend or Friday night with good friends. Laugh and have fun.

During a very trying time, a good friend said to me, “Rickter, you need to get around some people who love you!”  He was right. Find people you love and spend quality time in their presence.

4. Remember the Lord!

I suffer from burn-out after a summer of feeding everyone else and ignoring myself.  Physical rest is good, hanging with people who love me for me is uplifting, but in the end, I need to retreat into His arms. When was the last time you spent 20 minutes just enjoying worship? It is amazing how encouraging it is to be in the presence of God without being on the clock.

Set your alarm clock for 20 minutes earlier. Then get out of bed and go spend time with the Lord.

Here are my five ways of restoring worship that I enjoy during dry times of burn-out:

  1. I let someone else read the Bible to me, and I soak it up. I plug in my earphones, sit and stare at the stars, and let the Word run over me.
  2. Jump into a devotional book full of testimonies of God’s faithfulness.  My latest favorite is The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson.
  3. Andisheh_Park2,_Borujerd,_IranTake a long walk and talk to God. There’s a park close to my house, and I love to go and walk. At about a mile in, my connection to the Father feels wide open and we walk and talk, sometimes for an hour. It is awesome!
  4. Podcasts—revisit an old favorite or make a new one.
  5. Here’s one for the middle of a day! Pandora (it used to be an old Amy Grant, Larry Norman, and Petra cassette)! I plug in music when the day is long and I cannot get away from office work. I usually pick songs I haven’t enjoyed in years; recently, I found myself singing really loudly to Andrea Crouch. Sometimes, I start crying as the memories of God’s faithfulness begin to roll in through the speakers. Sometimes, I start to laugh as I sing of God blessings. It is truly worship as I remember the places where God has lead me and I sing of his blessing!

When I look around, there are always people who “have it worse than me.” There are always people who are maybe more tired or more faithful. But God has called me to rest. I know what that means, but often I neglect it.

I believe God has ordained rest and relationships!  We know our Savior often retreated for private times of prayer. Are you currently ignoring rest or relationships? When I treat myself poorly and ignore God’s pattern for living, is it any wonder that I end up feeling burned-out?


Mike Ricks

Mike Ricks is the Associate Pastor/Youth Pastor at Briarwood Baptist Church in Watkinsville, GA. He epitomizes longevity and maintaining relevance in student ministry, having done ministry in the same church for over 20 years. He is husband to Betsy and father to Mac and Jack. He enjoys reading books, taking pictures, and obsessing over snow skiing.
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