As a pastor for more than 30 years I have seen many people serving in ministry burn out in the name of Christ, then fall away from their purpose. This is even very common among senior leaders but it can be avoided. In the past several years, I have personally experienced my mind being tired, requiring me to pull back for several months lest I burn out! The following are signs that show whether you are on the verge of burnout or breakthrough:
I. When in breakthrough mode you can’t wait to start the day. In burnout you can’t wait for the day to end.
I know from my own life when I have pushed myself too much I have dreaded all the work I saw in front of me. However, when I am living out of the overflow of the life of Christ in me I can’t wait to tackle the greatest challenges in front of me.
II. In breakthrough mode you are ministering out of the overflow of Christ’s life in you. In burnout you are ministering purely out of your natural giftings and spiritual anointing without a fresh infilling from the Holy Spirit.
Those heading for breakthrough are ministering out of a fresh word they receive daily from God (Isaiah 50:1-4). Those headed for burnout are depending only on their natural wisdom and abilities that God anoints, just like the Corinthian Church who operated in the gifts of the Spirit but were moving in the flesh and were not spiritual (1 Corinthians 3:1-4).
III. In breakthrough mode you have passion to serve. In burnout you have passion for pleasure and relaxation.
Those in breakthrough mode have an excitement and exuberance regarding their ministry, while those on the verge of burnout continually attempt to medicate themselves with entertainment, overeating, and are in danger of falling into vices meant to deaden their pain, or have a sense of being trapped.
IV. In breakthrough mode you are living within set boundaries that enable self-renewal. In burnout you constantly feel like you are living outside of the measure of God’s grace for service.
In breakthrough mode you are able to stay within your limitations so there is a proper equilibrium regarding time with your family, self-care, ministry, and time off. Those on the verge of burnout have no set limitations and are often out of sync with their bodies, their families, and with God’s will for their lives.
V. In breakthrough mode your mind is constantly being renewed with fresh ideas, creativity, and vision to conquer. In burnout your mind and emotions are worn out and you are in maintenance mode.
Those on the verge of breakthrough are filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual knowledge and wisdom (Colossians 1) and are continually being fed fresh strategy from the Holy Spirit. Those on the verge of burnout not only lack fresh ideas but they don’t even want to receive them! Their minds are set on survival; they are happy if they merely maintain what God has already given them to do in ministry and life.
VI. In breakthrough mode you are walking in the fruit of the Spirit; in burnout the fruit of the flesh.
One of the symptoms of walking in breakthrough mode is that you are enjoying the present, enjoying life, and are walking in the joy of the Lord in the midst of your weakness and trials. Those on the verge of burnout find themselves constantly complaining, grumbling about their responsibilities, and are often in a bad mood or grumpy.
VII. In breakthrough mode you have time for soul care. In burnout you only have time for serving others.
Those in breakthrough mode make time to care for themselves because they have a good feeling about who they are. Those on the verge of burnout often neglect exercise, proper diet, and sleep because they lack the motivation for self-care.
VIII. In breakthrough mode you envision great expansion of ministry. In burnout you dream of retirement and contemplate leaving the ministry.
Those in breakthrough mode are constantly dwelling on the vision God has given them, while those on the verge of burnout are constantly dreaming about what it would be like not to have all these responsibilities and live a normal life without the pressures of ministry and community service. When a person lives for retirement or vacation they are either slothful or on the verge of burnout.
IX. In breakthrough mode you proactively spend time with key relationships. In burnout your time is spent reacting to relational problems.
Those in breakthrough mode proactively prioritize and spend time with those people who mean the most to them and their ministries, while those on the verge of burnout often find themselves busy dealing with putting out fires because of troubled relationships.
X. In breakthrough mode you are in faith; in burnout you are living in fear.
Those on the verge of breakthrough have entered into the rest of God through faith according to Hebrews 3 and 4. That is to say, they are believing God to control their situations and order their steps because they are flowing in the will of God. Those on the verge of burnout are not sure if what they are doing is God’s will, and are anxious about the future.
XI. In breakthrough mode you are refreshed in spite of your stress. In burnout mode you are depressed because of the stress.
Both those in breakthrough and burnout mode will experience great stress in their lives; this is par for the course for all leaders. The difference between the two is that those in breakthrough mode are walking in the power of God’s Spirit in the midst of stressful situations, even as Paul did when he ministered out of his weakness so that God’s grace could be sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:1-7). Those on the verge of burnout can’t handle the pressure and are depressed because of the stress.
XII. In breakthrough mode you sense clarity of vision and purpose. In burnout you experience confusion regarding your purpose.
I have seen folks on the verge of breakthrough; one common denominator with all of them is they have a strong sense that what they are doing is significant and based on the will of God. Those on the verge of burnout have lost their way and are questioning whether or not they are doing what God has called them to do, even if they are generally in the will of God. (The enemy takes advantage of us and puts seeds of doubt in our minds that make our attitudes worse when we are worn out and on the path to burnout.)
In summary, if any of the signs of burnout fit your situation, it is not too late to begin to change course and avoid a complete collapse. You can start with something simple like forcing yourself to meditate 15 minutes a day on the word of God, worship God every morning, doing aerobic exercises a few days per week, and getting enough sleep. The word will renew your mind and impart faith, worship will fill you with a renewed sense of hope in your spirit, exercise will release chemicals into your body that will give you a better sense of self, and getting enough sleep is absolutely necessary for your mind and emotions to function on an optimum level.