You know, “burnout” seems to be one of the buzzwords of our time; and for good reason.
The stats are staggering:
Consider for a moment that, according to The Fuller Institute, and Barna Group, 50 per cent of those starting out in my profession won’t even last five years, and only 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form. That’s not exactly the most encouraging information you’re likely to come across today — especially if you’re in my line of work.
At any rate, there’s no denying that the battle on burnout is a real issue for many people.
That’s why I’d like to devote this post to breaking down some of the behaviours that I’ve learned can lead to burnout. My hope is that it will help you identify, and better recognize some of its building blocks, to ensure that none of you become another one of its casualties.
In order to do this, I’d like to have a look at the the story of Elijah, as told in 1 Kings 19. I believe there exists in it some leadership gold that offers invaluable instruction to anyone in their battle against burnout.
Now, if you’re not familiar with the story of Elijah, there’s a quick recap of it HERE.
Following his epic victory over the the false prophets of Baal at Carmel, Elijah was finally about to face his adversary, Queen Jezebel. I am convinced that Elijah expected she’d see the error of her ways and finally acknowledge her need for the Lord.
Yet, much to Elijah’s surprise, he was met by an infuriated queen who hurled death threats at him.
Scripture tells us that he ran off in fear for his life, and sought refuge in a cave. Admittedly, it is a surprising response, especially in light of all that God had just done for Elijah.
I suppose it just goes to show that even the strongest amongst us can struggle at times, and that all of us, like Elijah, can “cave” when life gets overwhelming.
So using the story of Elijah, let’s explore some of the building blocks that led him to cave and burnout:
1. He failed to manage the demands on his life well.
“Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of [the deceased prophets of Baal] by tomorrow about this time.” 3 And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life…” (1 Kings 19:2 NKJV)
I think it’s fair to say that Jezebel’s response meant one thing: she still wasn’t done fighting this thing out. She may have had no leg left to stand on, but that wasn’t keeping her from defiantly holding her ground.
How did Elijah feel about that?
I’m convinced he couldn’t do it anymore; he was worn out, done fighting, met his breaking point and snapped.
Now, the scriptures tell us that he ran off in fear for his life. Yet, I find that incredibly odd.
Here was a guy that had just single-handedly laid waste to 850 false prophets, and now we’re to believe he ran off in fear for his life because of the empty threats of one deranged woman?
I just don’t buy it.
I am far more inclined to believe that Elijah grew fed up with the set-up.
In other words, he wasn’t scared, but rather scorned the idea of having to continue fighting a battle he thought he’d already won.
He wasn’t running for his life, he was running from it!
Consider for a moment that in 1 Kings 19:4 he prays that God would kill him.
Now, that sure doesn’t sound like a man that is out to preserve his life, does it?
It’ll sure preach good though.
For instance, have you ever wanted to escape your life and responsibilities, because it all just got to be too much?
If you’re anything like me, you know exactly what it’s like trying to manage the many demands on your life — the struggle is often in the juggle.
In other words, it’s not that any one one demand is too much for us to handle, it’s that the compounding effect of having to juggle all them at once can be enough to push anyone over the edge.
That’s why I am convinced that if this were an isolated event, and had Elijah not just come off one of the most intense seasons of his life, he would have handled this situation much differently. I mean, who was Jezebel when compared to the 850 others he had just defeated? Did he really believe she posed a greater threat to him than they?
Yet, that’s why this scenario is so relatable isn’t it?
So many of us can live life so stretched and strapped that when it comes to our capacity, one added demand can act as the straw that broke the camel’s back. We can allow the little things — like Jezebel in this case — to set us off to the point where we lose all sense of God and ourselves.
If only God would allow us to choose the timing of our battles— we’d fail far less, am I right?!
2. He ran himself down.
“And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah…” (1 Kings 19:3 NKJV)
Is it any wonder that given Elijah’s struggle to juggle the demands on his life that he consequently ran himself down?
Follow me for a moment:
There’s no doubt that, in order to remain outside of Jezebel’s reach, Beersheba seemed like a good spot for Elijah to hide out for a while. Yet, what’s particularly noteworthy about this place is that it was about as far south as one could possibly get in Israel before they entered into widespread wilderness. In other words, Beersheba was the southernmost point of Israel: the bottom. Elijah quite literally ran himself down, and brought himself to “rock bottom.”
How often do we act in a similar fashion?
In an effort to “do it all,” and to juggle the many demands and responsibilities in our lives, we can run ourselves ragged. It happens all.the.time. We work hard, just not always smart.
At any rate, while there is nothing wrong with running hard, what’s important is that we understand this notion of ‘all things in moderation’. We all have loads and we all have limits. Where I’ve observed most people begin to burn out is when they run themselves down, and attempt to continue to run hard while running on empty. I wouldn’t recommend that.
Nonetheless, does this mean that we should avoid any type of pressure and/or demand on our lives that could infringe on our limits and stretch our capacity? No!
Let’s understand the difference between a hard worker and a workaholic: balance.
So before you make the mistake of believing that any periodic burst of overworking in order to meet an important demand or deadline is the behaviour reflective of a workaholic, it’s not.
A hard worker knows that any time these situations occur, they ought to be intentionally followed by a reduced schedule and/or days off to refresh and recharge. Workaholics lack this wisdom.
So work smart, not just hard. Know when to push, and when to pace, because there’s no doubt that too much intensity can be like running your car on high RPMs. Make the mistake of doing that for any extended length of time, and you risk driving your car into the ground. The same is true in our lives, churches, and leadership teams!
So find the balance — work hard, play hard!
3. He isolated himself.
“And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.” (1 Kings 19:3 NKJV)
Does it surprise you that after Elijah failed to manage the demands on his life well, and ran himself down physically/emotionally, he began to develop some really poor perspectives, and make some really bad choices?
I mean, what rational human being would ever decide to ditch his support group and leave his friends behind in a state like that?
Yet, that just goes to show you how stinking our thinking can become when we experience the symptoms of burnout.
I suppose that’s because when we burn out, our first instinct can be to back out: back out of our roles, relationships and responsibilities. It’s only natural. When we wear out, we instinctively look for a way out.
Can I encourage you?
While I understand that you may want time to retreat and be alone in order to regroup, let’s not confuse isolation for solitude.
As Ps. Chad Veach says,
“When you are isolated, you lose two important things; community and accountability.
Community: Having friends, meaningful relationships, laughter (like from the belly type stuff ya know), health, etc. Accountability: Having people that are close enough to you to call you out on your junk.”
Is it any wonder that when Elijah grew isolated, he developed a poor perspective?
I mean, He prayed that God would kill him … that’s dark man! (1 Kings 19:4 NIV) It’s just too bad that he had nobody around to help him see that.
That’s why there is safety in the counsel of many. (Prov 11:14 NKJV)
In any case, when you find yourself going through hard times, don’t leave your community, but lean into your community— ‘cause we’re better together.
4.He sought to prove himself better than his peers.
“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” (1 Kings 19:4 NKJV)
I don’t doubt that Elijah’s motivation for ministry was likely born, in part, out of a love for God and a passion for His people. Yet, could it be that, somewhere under the surface, he was also subconsciously compensating for an insecurity in his life — that is, a strong need to prove himself better than his predecessors?
I mean, why else would he have stated: “I am no better than my fathers!”?
Seems to me that like most young leaders today, Elijah was driven to be the best, and was trying to prove himself. This proved problematic, however, in that Elijah’s success and self-confidence hinged entirely on his performance, which ultimately caused him to be up one day and down the next.
When he was successful he experienced great highs. Consider for a moment his victory at Mt. Carmel: it energized him to the point that he outran Ahab’s horses. Yet, when he failed he experienced great lows. That’s why when Jezebel refused to acknowledge the Lord and renounce her idols following such a massive display of God’s power, Elijah grew completely devastated and lost the will to live.
Now, don’t get me wrong– I like a good roller coaster every once in awhile, but I sure wouldn’t want to live on one.
If only Elijah knew that he didn’t need to prove himself he could have avoided the road to burnout.
That why I’d like to encourage you: don’t spend the better part of your life working at a frantic pace trying to prove to the world that you are a “somebody”.
God says so.
So do yourself the favor: drop the drive and embrace His grace.
‘Cause who knows, it could just change your life.