September may be back-to-school time, but kids aren’t the only ones whose schedules gear up in the fall. Summer vacations are a memory. Businesses focus on projects that languished over the summer. Churches mobilize their ministry programs. Families turn their attention from vacations to home repairs and major purchases.
If that isn’t enough, toss in the holidays. Halloween is just around the bend, Thanksgiving a mere four weeks later. Then there’s the final lap into Christmas and New Year’s Day. Four months of non-stop activity with barely a moment to catch our breath. September isn’t just another month on the calendar. It’s the starting line of a marathon.
September is also when I return to teaching an annual Bible study. Nine months of volunteering to teach a weekly class of 180+ women. Nine months of training a group of leaders to lead in their respective roles. Nine months of study and preparation, only to begin again the following year.
It’s easy for me to feel like a ministry machine or a plane on autopilot. It’s also easy for the leaders who work with me to think about passing on their commitments. A reduced ministry with a smaller bite out of their schedules can look very attractive at the start of a new year.
Maybe you’re also thinking about stepping away from a commitment you’ve made as you face a new ministry season. Before you do, keep reading.
I’ve learned from experience that combating ministry burnout is a combination of stepping out andleaning in. But the stepping out isn’t what you might think. Consider these ten steps to turn ministry burnout into ministry joy:
1. Step out of ministry motivated by guilt.
Lean in to ministry motivated by gratitude.
Guilt can be powerful. However, when it comes to ministry, it’s the wrong motivator. Guilt is effective in the short term because it causes us to seek the approval of others, including God. But guilt leads to resentment. Ministry that flows from the wellspring of gratitude encourages both us and the people we serve.
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28 ESV).
2. Step out of serving on autopilot.
Lean in to being intentional about ministry activity.
When I first began driving a car with manual transmission, I learned the advantages of coasting in neutral gear. But coasting in ministry means we’re not fully engaged. God uses ministry as much for our own spiritual growth as for the growth of others. Are we willing to intentionally press on?
“Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1).
3. Step out of seeing ministry as a task.
Lean in to focusing on the people for whom Christ died.
Someone once said this Christian life would be a piece of cake if it weren’t for all the people. People can be difficult, needy, and messy. It’s simpler to view ministry as a series of tasks—items on a to-do list—rather than a process of growing relationships. But then I remember that it was for messy people, including me, that Christ died.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
4. Step out of cutting corners to make ministry convenient.
Lean in to remembering who you really serve.
Who’s going to know? That’s the whisper of my heart when I’m tempted to take a short cut in my ministry. People may not know or care, but ultimately, I’m not serving them. God knows…and He cares.
“Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people” (Ephesians 6:7).
5. Step out of relying on past Bible study or studying only in preparation to lead.
Lean in to a daily time of refreshing as you meet God in His Word.
I have bookshelves bursting with reference volumes. My computer contains files filled with previous lessons. But if I don’t continually spend time in God’s Word for my own growth, the well will run dry and I will have nothing to offer those I teach.
“But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2).
6. Step out of criticism for those who lead you in ministry.
Lean in to praying daily for your leaders, for God to equip and direct them.
Criticism comes naturally, doesn’t it? It’s easy to point out another person’s flaws, especially if they’re in a position of leadership. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for honest, gracious feedback. But let’s start with prayer and forgiveness before we “speak the truth in love.”
“Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13).
7. Step out of thinking what you share applies only to other people.
Lean in to applying your teaching or other aspects of your ministry, to your own life.
How many times have we heard a message and thought, “I wish ______ heard this!” Fill in the blank: parent, spouse, sibling, child. We can fall into a similar trap when it comes to our own ministries. Truths and applications aren’t just for those we serve. I’ve often found God uses the material I’m teaching to speak to my own heart before I present it to others.
“A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher”(Luke 6:40).
8. Step out of allowing ministry to consume you.
Lean in to being a good steward of your health and your family.
But it’s for the Lord! Aren’t we supposed to put God ahead of our family and our health? Yes, God should be our first priority, but God and ministry are not the same. When we place Him first, He will show us how to balance our time and our attentions to ministry, health, and family in the best way to glorify Him.
“The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights…” (I Kings 19:7-8).
9. Step out of drawing on your own reserves.
Lean in to depending on God to strengthen you for your task.
Christians often speak of relying on the Lord. We quote verses such as Philippians 4:13 “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (NLT). But saying it isn’t enough. True success in ministry rests on our dependence on the One who calls us, equips us, and sustains us.
“God, the Lord, is my strength” (Habakkuk 3:19 ESV).
10. Step out of pride.
Lean in to humility.
Pride is often described as the first sin. It’s one of the sneakier sins, too. People will tell us how wonderful we are to serve the Lord despite the sacrifices. They’ll thank us for allowing God to use us. They will tell other people about our ministry. Problem is, we find ourselves puffing up a bit more with each new compliment. The antidote to pride is simple. Remember that Christ didn’t just die for other people’s sin—He died for your sin and mine, too. There is nothing more humbling than that.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6 ESV).
Of course, God knows we’re often motivated by reward, so He has that covered, as well. The writer of Hebrews tells us:
“God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them” (Hebrews 6:10 NIV).
Following these ten steps (and remembering the reward, too!) helps maintain contagious joy in ministry. It also refocuses our perspective on the privilege of serving the Savior who first served us. May these steps be helpful to you as you enter a new season of service.
Ava Pennington teaches a Bible Study Fellowship class. She is also the author of Daily Reflections on the Names of God: A Devotional, published by Revell Books and endorsed by Kay Arthur.
Publication date: September 27, 2013