What’s your burnout story?
Perhaps COVID-19 is part of your story. Maybe your burnout story involves being overworked, cutting a vacation short due to an emergency or navigating a family crisis. Burnout can cause a loss of zeal for ministry and result in pastors simply going through the motions of ministry. Burnout can even affect personal, spiritual disciplines.
In a recent Lifeway Research study, over 70 percent of pastors say they need consistency in personal prayer. It’s obvious pastors understand the importance of personal prayer in ministry. But what about the pastors who have lost their zeal for ministry and are simply going through the motions each day? How can they pray when they’re burned out?
Thankfully, the Bible is our guide for all of life and has something to say about it.
A biblical example of burnout
Now that you’ve thought about your personal burnout story, it’s important to recognize it’s not always one specific event that causes burnout. Ministry burnout often comes over time as a result of multiple events. Take David, for example.
In 1 Samuel 18-21, we read about David’s marriage to the king’s daughter, the king’s attempt to take David’s life, his fleeing for his life, and his pretending to be insane. Each of these events (and others) led David to retreat to a dark cave. His time alone was soon interrupted. Everyone who was in distress gathered with David in the cave, and he quickly found himself leading over 400 men (1 Samuel 22:1-4).
Yet while in the cave, burned out from all of the life changes, running and hiding, David prayed. David records his plea to God in Psalm 142. In this prayer, we discover five powerful strategies for praying when we’re burned out.
1. Acknowledge the reality of burnout
In the first four stanzas of Psalm 142, David acknowledged the reality of his situation. He confessed he had no energy when he said, “my spirit is weak within me” (v. 3a, CSB). He even acknowledged, “no one stands up for me,” and “no one cares about me” (v. 4, CSB). Aware of his weakness, David doesn’t allow the reality of his weakness to keep him from coming to God in prayer.
Ministry burnout is real, but your experience with it doesn’t make you insignificant. God calls pastors to lives of service that have many joyful and exciting moments. Yet, there are also difficult and wearisome seasons. Ministry burnout shows no partiality.
Once you recognize your burnout, acknowledge the reality to God in prayer. God is fully aware of the burnout you’re experiencing, and He invites you into His presence.
2. Go back to the basics
In David’s burnout, he did not have the energy to consider a lengthy address to God like the author of Psalm 119. David simply cried out, “You are my shelter, my portion in the land of the living” (v. 5b, CSB). For David, returning to the basics meant returning to the attributes of God.
If you’re experiencing burnout, the attributes of God are a wondrous place to return. Carefully pray through a select passage that describes the greatness of God. For example, Genesis 1 declares God is our Creator. Exodus 15 praises God as our Warrior. Psalm 23 gently reminds us God is our Shepherd. Isaiah 40 boldly reveals God as our great Comfort.
While burnout often leads to thoughts of hopelessness, revisiting the greatness of God produces hope.
3. Be honest with God
In his prayer, David didn’t hold anything back. He cried, “Listen to my cry, for I am very weak” (v. 6a, CSB). Facing a low point in his life, David was honest with God and asked for deliverance.
You have permission to be honest with God in your prayers. God is omniscient and aware of your burnout. God is omnipresent and is with you through the motions of ministry. God is omnipotent and at work in His church despite your burnout.
So don’t hold back. Be honest with God about your burnout.
4. Show transparency in your requests
While hiding in a cave, David became the leader of 400 men. Burnout often leads to hiding, even while you’re leading others. While encouraging others in their pain, you may mask your own dark loneliness so others can’t see the pain.
David was attempting to hide from others in a dark cave, but he could not hide from God. So David was transparent in his weakness. He prayed, “Rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me. Free me from prison …” (vv. 6b-7a, CSB).
Has the impact of COVID-19 finally caught up with you? Do you find yourself struggling to faithfully prepare a sermon each week? You may be able to hide your burnout from others, but you can’t hide from the God of Light. So in your prayer, be transparent with God.
5. Remember you’re not alone
David ends his prayer with hope. He prayed, “Free me from prison, so that I can praise your name. The righteous will gather around me, because you deal generously with me” (v. 7, CSB). David had hope that he would not remain in the shadow of the cave. God was with him and would not leave him to face uncertainty alone.
Burnout often leaves pastors feeling uncertain about their ministry and calling. However, you are not alone. Psalm 142 gives a good example of David, but it’s an even greater picture of the One who is with you always. On the cross, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46, CSB). Jesus experienced utmost loneliness, and now he’s the victorious advocate who prays for us. In his book Soul-Depths and Soul Heights, Octavius Winslow said, “When I cannot think of Jesus … Jesus is thinking of me.”
There’s not a magic formula for pastors to escape burnout. Even the use of Psalm 142 as a strategy for prayer may need to be repeated often while facing burnout. However, pastors serve a mighty God who hears every prayer — even the prayers that are prayed when you’re burned out.