Avoiding Burnout in Pastoring the Needy

I have been through challenging seasons of ministry. I shepherd homeless moms and kids in the Seattle area. My days in ministry are often heavy because there’s brokenness everywhere. I thrive in this setting, pointing women and children to Jesus. But there are days when stories are heavier and growth feels slow, and I crumble under the weight of ministry.

I recently had a season of ministry where every day was heavy. Every evening, I came home and told my husband, “Let’s do something fun. It’s been a long day and I don’t want to think about it.” I had convinced myself I could circumvent sad emotions and feelings of inadequacy. I spent a couple hours watching Netflix only to realize that the feelings from the day never left. I imploded in the eruption of emotions that had been compounding all day. I am not sure where you go on the days you feel the weight of ministry, but it’s crucial for us to examine our hearts by looking at our habits and see what we do in stress. Because it’s impossible to prevent burnout by covering up the pain.

Our example for human flourishing and endurance in ministry is modelled perfectly in Jesus. His ministry was hard. Jesus understands heavy ministry. He knows how it feels to have draining days where everyone was begging for his attention. Jesus is well aware of the cost of caring for needy people. He sacrificed his reputation, his time, his energy, and his life for the sake of sinners and hurting people. Yet, Jesus joyfully endured in his ministry.

After the Gospel accounts, I believe the greatest expression of Jesus’ ministry, humanity, and endurance is described in Hebrews. We can only last in ministry by following Jesus, who empathizes with the challenges in ministering to the needy. And the author of Hebrews knew the significance of this. He didn’t dismiss his readers’ pain but exhorted them to endure in their race of discipleship, something we need to be reminded of in our challenging ministries.  

Lay Aside Every Weight

Hebrews 12:1 commands us to lay aside every weight that slows us down. Think about the things in your life weighing you down from fully enduring in the race of ministry. What are the things you pursue when you are tired that are not good for you? What kinds of habits could you establish in their place to help you have the willpower to turn to God for your source of refreshing?

For me, this looks like thinking through my daily rhythms and considering what habits I need to implement to replace watching Netflix. So I started journaling my prayers to God after a long day so that I can get the emotions out in a healthy way. And on especially hard days, I ask my husband if we can spend intentional time together or with other people so that I can remember God’s care for me through connection with others. When I come home and watch an episode (or four) of a Netflix show, I get the illusion of rest, but it does not help me at all. TV cannot give me rest, even if it does help me temporarily mute the pain of my day. The heart needs something life-giving that can help me look to Jesus and remember his faithfulness. This is best done through laying aside weights that do not help us endure and establishing good habits that give us the ability to look to Jesus.

Look to Jesus

Ministry is still heavy, even when we are the healthiest people with great self-care rhythms. Jesus’ ministry was heavy, and he did it right. Jesus understands the weightiness of ministering to the needy. Think about Jesus’ to-do list: (1) he discipled messy people, (2) he sat with sinners for dinner, (3) he performed miracles, (4) he dealt with the Pharisees, and (5) he preached the kingdom of God to multitudes. And that isn’t counting the ways he made time for people he encountered on his journeys. What an exhausting ministry! If anyone would have grown weary and burned out, it should have been Jesus. But he endured and finished the race, even to the point of a brutal death. He even endured ungrateful people. He endured betrayal and friends leaving him. And yet, he did this all for the sake of human flourishing. When we remember Jesus, we see that his joy often looks different than how we feel, which is convicting to me and my ministry.

His joy and endurance humble us as we remember that Jesus joyfully suffered not just for the sake of those we are helping, but for the sake of you and me. We are included in the needy people Jesus endured for, and we needed his sacrifice deeply. When I remember this, as his disciple, I am compelled to endure for him. Our endurance no longer becomes about our ministry success. It becomes about our faithfulness to the one who endured for us.

Ministry is hard and discouraging. At times, the burden of ministry can feel very heavy. But we are not alone in it. The same writer of Hebrews who calls us to endure in our discipleship, encourages us that Jesus is the great High Priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses and extends grace to us (Heb 4:15-16). In the grind of ministry and in the days when we fail to maintain healthy habits that bring refreshing to us, we’re beckoned to hope in the empathetic Jesus who gives us the grace we need for our endurance.

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