Burnout Prevention for the Helper

Over the years I’ve had dozens of conversations with pastors, helping professionals and lay ministers who want to know how to protect against the exhaustion and frustration that can come with serving those who are suffering. We hear difficult stories and walk alongside people for long stretches of time, sometimes with little evidence of change or healing. It’s hard work to care for others, and sometimes their burdens become burdensome to us. What are some ways we can be anchored to the Lord and prevent burnout?

Pay Attention to Joy

Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). We’re not meant to scrape by and survive on crumbs. His power has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). So we must examine the things He has given us to infuse our lives with joy, and then put those things strategically into our everyday existence. 

We’re all wired differently. You may be energized by being with other people in a social setting, or you may be recharged by a quiet evening at home. Perhaps you are fueled when you listen to music or go for a run, or maybe you feel your whole body relaxing upon going for a drive or taking a nap. Finding joy and rejuvenation is something we need to work at – it won’t come by accident. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What brings joy into my life? 
  • What do I wake up in the morning feeling excited about? 
  • When am I most able to be relaxed and refreshed? 
  • What prevents me from including these things in my daily and weekly life?

That last question is the kicker. It’s one thing to pay attention to what brings joy to your life, but why don’t you engage in those things regularly? The most probable answer? “I don’t have time.” This leads us to our next tool for preventing burnout.

Prioritize What’s Important

Everyone is busy. I get it. But every time you say ‘yes’ to something, you’re saying ‘no’ to something else. And the thing you’re saying ‘no’ to might be the most important choices. Is it worth it to answer fewer emails or have fewer meetings in order to rest or renew? Many times I’ll decide it’s not worth it. Why? Because I am viewing my life and schedule through the lens of what other people might find important. This person needs an answer to his email, that meeting needed to happen last week and now the person is frustrated. So I choose to let other people decide what is best. But this is not how Jesus lived. He listened to and obeyed the voice of the Father, not the voice of his peers or those to whom He was ministering. 

I’m not asking you to ignore people’s requests (or demands) of you. I am saying that when we make decisions solely on what other people expect from us, we are destined to be forever at their mercy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live that way. I want to have compassion for other people’s needs without letting them rule my life. It’s not selfish to find joy – whoever taught us that lesson was reading from the wrong textbook.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about priorities:

  • How do I gauge what is most important in my day/week/month?
  • Who helps me think about how I spend my time? Do I have wise advisors?
  • What kinds of things can switch my priorities quickly and make my whole day different?
  • What happens in my heart when I don’t meet the expectations of others? 

Once again, that last question is an important one. If you’re going to walk alongside people who are suffering, you need to know the answer and then keep asking the question regularly. When we are blown and tossed by other people’s perceptions of us, we won’t be able to prioritize what’s really important. And many people who are compassionate also have a particular weakness – they hate to be disliked or rejected. So keep a close eye on priorities and the kinds of things that can shift those priorities quickly. 

Celebrate Your Humanity

I don’t know anyone who likes to show off their weaknesses … except maybe Paul. He wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that he would boast in his weaknesses so that the power of Christ might rest upon him. What is he saying? He’s stating that in no greater place do we see the power of Christ displayed than in the weakness of our humanity. He also says in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” 

So what does it look like to remember and even celebrate the fact that we are ‘jars of clay’? How can we lean into the natural and God-given weaknesses that make us human? This is something I have to work hard at. I was born and bred to be independent and strong-willed. In my flesh I never want anyone to know I have weaknesses. But God gave us weakness as a gift. We should not be without it, because then we would not need God. And Jesus demonstrated the gift of weakness in really beautiful ways. He didn’t heal everyone who asked. He stayed fully present in moments with people. And even though He was fully God, He paid attention to His human need to rest, meditate and find nourishment. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What weaknesses do I dislike in myself? What might make me dislike them?
  • How do I want people to view me? Am I able to show my weaknesses with others?
  • What thoughts permeate my mind when I feel weak? What do I typically do with those thoughts?
  • What is my understanding of godly rest? 

Resting in the Lord is essential for preventing burnout. Remember the words of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” When He leads us, we can rest knowing that we’re going in the right direction. He tells us when to lie down, and we listen. He leads us in paths of righteousness, and we follow. May we hear His voice, know it, and follow. And may our trust in Him strengthen us to continue walking alongside others who are suffering, so that we may comfort others with the same comfort we’ve been given.

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