I have been a vicar for 22 months. When I arrived from a great curacy I was spiritually close to the Lord, physically healthy and emotionally robust. After 15 months in post I was suffering signs of stress; poor sleep, low grade physical problems, prayerlessness and a loss of the sweet fellowship I had enjoyed with the Lord in my last 18 months as a curate. This week as I prayed “The infinite and the finite” from “The Valley of Vision” I found a little trio of Christian attitudes which help shine light on the road to burnout: mortification, crucifixion and prayer.
The following Venn Diagram shows how the three are essential for an effective ministry or Christian life, but how easy it is to lose one or more.
Prayer and mortification – Withdrawn devotion
To be effective in ministry there must be crucifixion, acts of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. It’s easy, however, after a season of self-sacrifice to withdraw into a life of private prayer and the mortification of sin whilst avoiding the pain of giving and bearing with the sin of others.
Mortification and crucifixion – unsustainable ministry
It’s also easy to be busy and active, living an apparently holy life, at least in the eyes of the world, but to have a vacuous prayer life. This cannot be sustained, as ministry done in our own strength is ultimately self-defeating.
Crucifixion and prayer – unholy service
Unless we die to sin our service is ineffective. We can self-sacrifice all we like and pray ourselves blue in the face, but a life which does not match the commands of God, lived in the love and grace of Christ, will convince no one of that love and the necessity of salvation.
I have been burned out in work in the past, driving myself way too hard against impossible economic and cultural obstacles to sell steel in Asia whilst working for and trying to please too many bosses. I know the symptoms and the ways to avoid burnout, but as I reflect on the above Venn diagram I can clearly see the road to ministry burnout and it starts with over extending myself. If I put self on the cross too much I tire and don’t have time or energy for prayer. Once my prayer life dries up then sin is given the opportunity to flourish. Once holiness is gone I must work harder to sustain the ministry for the sake of the church and so crucify myself more, leading to less prayer and yet more sin!
I need to know my limits of self-sacrifice and work within them. I must never forget the benefits of prayer and prioritise it. To use the illustration of Mary and Martha I cannot let busyness in the kitchen stop me from sitting at the feet of Christ my Saviour, listening to him and feeding from him so that the old nature dies in me to the glory of God.