• Diana Gruver

Can Whole-Life Discipleship Prevent Burnout?

In a time when he was struggling personally, someone came up to Drew Thurman after his sermon and said, “I just wish I had your faith.” He says, “I was dying inside, but they equated the fact that I was on a platform, with theological training, presenting the Word in a way that stirred them with a certain spiritual status.” It became a paradigm he knew he had to shake, but not only because he wanted to embrace a vision of whole-life discipleship that saw all believers as equal partners in God’s work in the world. He needed a new paradigm for the sake of his own mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

Drew has seen friends, colleagues, and family members in ministry experience burnout, and he’s experienced it himself in both small and large church settings. He’s come to believe burnout is reflective of a particular paradigm of church, one in which paid clergy are the “dispensers of all religious goods and services,” such as preaching, leading evening services, teaching Sunday school, planning events, meeting elders, and pastoral duties like hospital visits. Pastors in such a paradigm are often expected to have all the information and to not have any cracks in their personal façade. Drew believes this focus of pastoral ministry, which is predominate in America, sets pastors up for burnout.

He says, “It’s not even just that we’re working too hard. It’s that everything in that model of ministry is one way. I give and give, but never get to be me to enjoy other people because I always have to wear this ‘pastor hat.’ You begin to feel alone, like you can’t be real with anybody. You’re working hard in a highly relational setting and bearing a lot of other peoples’ burdens, but you don’t have a lot of space for others to bear yours.”

The solution for this is not only taking a sabbatical, adding a few new spiritual practices, or getting a counselor, though Drew says these are important things. To be sustainable for the long haul, an adjustment must also come to the relational dynamic of ministry. “If I can’t create a healthy rhythm where I’m already doing my life and my ministry, I’m not going to sustain and thrive. If I have to constantly escape to a conference or retreat to be okay, that alone should be a red flag that something is unhealthy. I need to be in a rhythm where I’m already in ministry and doing life where I can be myself, where I can be Drew and not only ‘Pastor’ Drew. I need a space where I can be a human being.”

Drew admits some of these pastoral expectations are self-imposed. He’s seen some pastors take on burdens because it makes them feel needed and wanted, which provides them with affirmation and a sense of self-worth. But some of these expectations point to a need for a larger church paradigm shift, one rooted in a model of whole-life discipleship.

Whole-life discipleship undermines the idea of a sacred-secular divide, in which some activities, places, jobs, or people are more valuable to God. Instead, all Christians are engaged in ministry in their everyday lives. Though this has important implications for how we think about things like our work and neighborhoods, it also has radical implications for how we understand church and pastoral ministry. In Drew’s experience, this paradigm shift nourished his soul, as it freed him to be a fellow disciple journeying with Jesus.

When we think about culture shifts, though, Drew says we don’t need to think about going in with a wrecking ball. There may be some congregations in which a culture is so ingrained that change feels impossible without significant changes. But many congregations, he believes, are much more open to a shift than we think they are.

In relation to this shift specifically in pastoral ministry, Drew suggests starting small, with a few small shifts or in the context of a few relationships, like with the church’s elders or even one elder, and build from there. He has a few questions for pastors to consider:

  • Is this a place where I can begin to do ministry in a healthier way?

  • Am I in a place of my own doing by adding expectations on myself or because I walked into a culture where people want someone else to serve them?

  • Are there a few things I can hand off? Can I raise up other people to do the things I’m seeing God doing?

  • Can we set up a discipling culture so it’s not so Sunday-morning, church-building centric, but where we’re expecting change to happen throughout mentoring relationships through our entire congregation?

  • Do I have people who are checking in on me and keeping me accountable?

  • How do I debunk the idea that I have it all together? How do I begin to alert people to the reality that I’m not okay? Where are the relationships in which I can be honest and be a human being?

  • How do I create more space to be contemplative and to process and reflect?

This last question has resulted in a regular rhythm of Sabbath and reflection in Drew’s life. He says, “I need space to sense where God is moving and working, so I can join Him there. I am much less exhausted when I feel like I am riding God’s coattails and where I see him opening doors rather than me having to trailblaze, hoping he blesses me. I also need space to evaluate and understand who I am and what my needs are. If I don’t do this, I can’t be surprised if I never address those needs.”

For pastors who may be experiencing burnout, Drew has a word of encouragement: “Often when we hit rock bottom, those are the moments God seems to join us. He so often meets us in the midst of loneliness, brokenness, and pain. If we’re open to it, it can be an opportunity for Him to wake us up and teach us something.”

In his own experience, this lesson has been consistently two-fold. First, he’s learned that ministry is done best when it’s in the context of participating with where God is already working and moving. Second, he’s reminded that he is not alone—there are other faithful Christians participating in this work as well.

When he’s experienced burnout and exhaustion, he says, “I’ve probably missed God’s voice, and I’ve probably missed where other people are doing good and wonderful things. That lets me catch my breath and say, ‘I’m going to be okay.’ From that place I can set up some better patterns in my life so I don’t end up in the exact same place again.”

Drew says, “If I can’t create healthy rhythms where I’m doing ministry now, something has to change. In whatever context and paradigm of church, there needs to be a place for mutual relationships in some form, where I am seen as a human being and I’m being nurtured and cared for. Pastors are also on the journey with Jesus, and me serving God vocationally is not more important than my soul.”

Drew Thurman focuses on leadership development with the church-planting network Renaissance and is a leader with Forge Boston.

This article is part of our ongoing series, Through the Valley: Real Conversations About Following Jesus When the Road Gets Hard, in which we're talking about discipleship in the parts of life that are difficult, complicated, or sometimes controversial.

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