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01 July 2011

The perils of Christian Burn-out

The perils of Christian Burn-out

Burnt-out? According to research, we are busier than ever. Modern life means children don't spend enough time with their parents, adults struggle to achieve a worklife balance, and many of those living the single life are completely flat out with back-to-back schedules. For many it feels life is on permanent fast forward. And that's before any church commitments. Rebecca Taylor looks at what is causing the meltdown...

You know God wants you to have a happy and varied life. But sometimes it gets ridiculous. You shouldn't have committed to 'that thing' your friend / church / family member asked you to. And now you feel like it's going to tip you over the edge.

Christians aren't immune to the pressures of modern life which make the important things suffer.

Evelyn Sharpe, consultant psychiatrist at InterHealth, who run a work-life balance programme for those working in Christian organisations, says that it is when people start to feel out of control that they need help.

"People tend to come to us when they don't feel right with the way that they are living and it is affecting them and their families. They may be feeling anxious, overwhelmed or depressed. These are the common things that show that all is not right." 

Crunch point

Out earlier this year, Craig Groeschel's book Weird asks: "Will you have anything to show for the all the busyness, competitions, and activities…? If you're constantly burdened by the weight of all the many chores, tasks, responsibilities, obligations and commitments in your life, then it's time to change."

"I think perhaps we all put pressure on ourselves. We like our houses to look nice and host friends. We feel we need a holiday at least once a year to get over the stress of the rest of the year."

Josie, a 30-something single Christian who is involved in church life and leads an active social life, says that despite the fact she enjoys busyness, a 21st century schedule does add pressure: "Modern life means everything moves fast, and we expect to keep up. Social media means it's easier to keep in touch with lots more people with whom we would simply have lost touch with in previous times."

James, a vicar in an inner city parish, feels that it is not modern life per se that contributes to pressures but the options life presents us: "I don't think modern life is primarily responsible for people's busyness but modern life can give the impression of being busy due to so many distractions pulling us in different directions," he says.

Rachel, mother of two and Christian for six years, says that for those with families, the expectations of having the perfect, well-balanced life actually adds pressure: "I think perhaps we all put pressure on ourselves. We like our houses to look nice and host friends.

We feel we need a holiday at least once a year to get over the stress of the rest of the year. Our families should eat well-balanced home-cooked meals, the kids should be doing a sport and playing an instrument. As a mum it all feels like quite a juggle along with some part-time work to help finance it all."

Time squeeze

And time is often not of the essence. As recession bites and people fear losing their jobs, pressure to work harder to ensure an income and enable that better life is strong, and time, ironically, gets squeezed out.

And the financial pressure really is on. The Office for Budget Responsibility raised its forecasts to average household debts rising to £77,309 by 2015, rather than the figure of £66,291 made in previous projections.

With tough economic times adding work pressures to already busy lives, something has to give with both families and single people finding themselves 'time poor' as a result.

Research by the Organisaton for Economic Co-operation and Development recently showed working mothers spend one hour 21 minutes a day looking after their families and children. In April, new paternity laws meant fathers could take extended leave of up to six months to look after their child if their partner returned to work, but research showed 41 per cent of men would not be taking it for fear of losing their jobs.

So should the Church be helping families manage their time to have a better life balance in hard financial times?

Balancing act

Says Evelyn Sharpe from InterHealth: "The Church needs to make sure people are getting support from somewhere. That duty of care extends from the congregation right up to the minister and all those in leadership."

According to some, the Church needs to encourage people to live a balanced life so that they also spend time with friends and on activities with those not in church.

"My church is fantastic at encouraging a balance, emphasising the need to mix it up, seeing that as integral to our vision, and giving people space to do so," Josie says. "I sometimes see people get totally absorbed by church life and seemingly forget to be involved with 'normal' non-church areas of life or keep up with friends outside the church."

Jesus spent time with his disciples, but he also spent a lot of time with people far away from faith: "While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples." (Matthew 9:10)

For Rachel, getting the balance right, whether on church or outside activity, needs to be decided by each individual or family. "What we mustn't do in the Church is inadvertently place more pressure on single people and families by telling them what is a good pace of life or an acceptable amount of activity," she says "We can't expect to cruise through life at a constant speed. That would be very dull."

James adds: "The Church, by the grace of God, needs to help people with the whole of their lives. However, rather than a balance, my hope would be that people find a rhythm of work, rest, study, prayer and play that works for them."

Determined to combat the pressures that many in the youth ministry face, the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS) launched new programmes Thrive and Pitstop this year, aiming to directly equip people for longer term ministry, and tackle any imbalances and burnout they feel is constricting their work.

Ruth Hassall, leadership development adviser at CPAS, says: "Many youth ministers only stay in a post for a relatively short period, often feeling tired and isolated. If we want to see more young people come to know Jesus Christ, we need youth leaders rooted in a church to develop them through relationship; people who are able to continue being developed and discipled themselves."

So how do we get the magic balance? Weird author Groeschel suggests that instead of trying to do everything - 'I would like to start an inner-city ministry and coach my kids' football team' - focus on making those things an 'or' instead of an 'and'.

"I could start an inner-city ministry or coach my kids football team….Keeping an "or" in the water prevents filling your boat with so many good things that they ultimately sink the ship," the author says.

Despite filling his days, Jesus also had times where he re-charged and rested in order to do the things he knew he needed to do well.

By relentlessly doing activities, the focus of what really matters and what God is calling one to do can often be lost. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

"The Church needs to make sure people are getting support from somewhere"

Taking regular time to rest can be like "punctuation marks in a piece of prose", according to author Ann Persson, whose latest book Time for Reflection explores the value and refreshment found in taking periodic quiet days to recuperate from busy schedules. She says: "I see the book as a woven circle. There are three main strands-time, the Christian calendar, and the seasons of the natural year with their spiritual analogies."

James in Coventry says: "As the Nooma Shells video shows us you have to know what is important in life and recognise what matters. You shouldn't be afraid to say no to people when necessary although it's difficult to say no to something unless you've already said yes to the thing that matters."

In his famous book The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis writes as the senior devil writing to the junior trainee devil about how to ruin a young man's faith in God saying "allow him to keep busy - it'll mean he has less time to commune with God".

Josie adds: "It's a constant battle, with so many amazing and appealing pulls on our time. Currently I am finding creative ways to pray more - too much activity can very easily mean not enough relational time with God. That is my single biggest challenge. CS Lewis highlights that Christian busyness can keep us from communing with God."

Groeschel writes: "Jesus doesn't say he'll need you to work overtime, answer every email within twenty-four hours, or keep your home looking like Martha Stewart's. Jesus says he will give you rest for your souls and peace. When is the last time you were completely at rest?"


  • Fil Anderson author of Running On Empty and Breaking The Rules, will speak about burnout and renewal at Mandate men's conference run by Evangelical Ministries and CARE. Belfast Waterfront Christian Fellowship Church 12 November themandate.net.
  • Weird, Craig Groeschel, Zondervan Publishing
  • Messy Spirituality, Mike Yaconelli, Hodder Christian Books - a book about getting involved in what really matters in the Christian life
  • Time for relection, Ann Persson - to purchase a copy of this book go to brfonline.org.uk
Other Resources
  • Shells, Rob Bell - video resource challenging Christian leaders to look at the busyness of their lives and really think what is important

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