On Fire or Burned Out

by Charles Whitehead

"Not by might, not by power but by my Spirit..." (Zc 4:6)

Every leader longs to be on fire with the Holy Spirit of God, but sadly many of us today are more likely to be burned out and exhausted. Why is this? Surely it's not God's plan to make his leaders so weary that they start making serious mistakes, fall into sin, become ineffective, and so produce little fruit. Were we wrong when we were so sure we heard God calling us into leadership, and were all those faithful people who accepted and affirmed our leadership also wrong? Of course we can be wrong, but this is not usually the answer to my questions. The problem is that leaders often start believing that we are the saviours of the world and that we need to do everything ourselves because no one else can be relied upon to do it properly. We then start trusting in our own strength and ability, and not in God's provision of grace and power through his Holy Spirit. When we start thinking like this we put ourselves and those we lead at risk of moving away from God's plans and purposes. As St. Paul expresses it in Galatians 3:1-5: "Are you people in Galatia mad? Are you foolish enough to end in outward observances what you began in the Spirit?" To begin to trust in our own strength and ability again quickly leads us to the end of life in the Spirit, and to the start of burn out. How can we avoid this?

MY RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LORD "Come to me..." (Mt 11:28)

The most important thing for every leader is to be fully submitted to the Lord. This means being faithful in our prayer, in our reading of Scripture, in our sacramental life, and in our acceptance of those the Church places in lawful authority over us. These things are so much more important, if we want to be on fire with the Spirit, than courses, conferences, programmes, techniques, or good ideas. If we are the busiest people in the world but neglect our relationship with the Lord we will certainly fail. This is the simple truth – we all know it - but somehow in the hectic lives we lead we can so easily forget it, with sad consequences. Christian leadership is not about exercising power – it is about having good discernment. It is not about being popular – it is about being faithful to what God asks of us. It is not about having a relevant and dynamic ministry - it is about being a prayerful person. Here are some questions for each of us to consider:

  • How would I describe my relationship with the Lord?
  • Am I spending good quality time in prayer and in listening to him?
  • Do I make time to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, for Adoration, for the Eucharist?
  • Am I feeding on the Scriptures and learning God's ways?
  • Do I have a wise person to guide me and help me grow spiritually?

Having reminded us of these simple needs, I will not look at some practical things we should do to avoid burn-out through overwork.

"My thoughts are not your thoughts" (Is 55:8)

It is essential to know that God has called us, and to have his priorities for the particular work he has called us to carry out. This will help us in a number of ways, in particular it will ensure that we are not dominated by other people's ideas and expectations of what we should be doing. We must be led by God's priorities, not by demand or pressure from others. We also need to recognize and use the gifts God has given us.

  • Do I have a sense of calling, of purpose, of being part of God's plan?
  • Do I know the direction in which to go, and do I have the endurance to keep going?
  • Am I focused on my particular calling, and do I have clear priorities so that I know when to say "yes" to something, and when to say "no"?
  • Am I able to use the special gifts God has given me, and do I know in my heart that when God calls me he also equips me for the task to which I am called? What particular gifts have I received?

Knowing God's priorities for my ministry and using my God-given gifts will bring me life and will motivate me, because I will see good fruit, and this will encourage not only me but also those I am leading.

"There's a time for everything..."(Ec 3)

There is always enough time to do those things the Lord is asking us to do. Burn-out occurs when we start trying to do a lot of other things which he is NOT asking us to do, and for which we do not have his anointing or his gifting. Stewardship is a biblical principle which we need to apply to every area of our lives. How am I using the gifts God has given me, the money he gives me, the resources he provides, and above all how am I using my time? There is the same amount of time in a day for all of us, and we are accountable to the Lord for the way we use it. Time is usually lost or wasted in small amounts, but they all add up. So how are we using our time? Here are some questions we need to look at:

  • Who controls my time – me, God, or other people?
  • Have I learned to say no those things which are not priorities?
  • Do I give enough time to my relationship with the Lord, with my family and friends, to relaxation and refreshment?
  • Are there ways I should be saving time for God's priorities by cutting out those things that are a waste of time?
  • Who helps me to evaluate the way I use my time?

"Better two than one by himself..." (Ec 4:9)

Many of us are reluctant to delegate. We seem to believe we can do everything better ourselves, but the truth is that we can achieve far more as a team than we can on our own. It's better to train 10 people than to do the work of 10 people ourselves, but of course it's harder to do this and it takes longer. But every leader needs to delegate to train others. This does not just avoid burn-out, it also allows others to use their gifts and to grow into their own areas of service and ministry. Here are some excuses people often give for not delegating tasks to others – how many of them apply to you?

  • No one can do it as well as I can.
  • It takes too long to explain it to someone else.
  • I work better on my own.
  • I have been let down to often in the past.
  • No one else is willing to do it and it's my responsibility anyway.
  • I like to keep control of everything.
  • It must be done properly. I cannot afford any mistakes.
  • I don't have the time to follow up what they are doing.
  • People expect me to do everything because I'm the leader.
  • Write your own excuses here – you may have some new ones!

None of these excuses are acceptable, and all of them just add to the pressures on you, the leader. We can avoid stress and burn-out by delegating tasks to those around us who are able to do them. This will allow us to concentrate our efforts on the main things God has given us to do.

On Fire or Burned out...

If we want to be ON FIRE WITH THE SPIRIT we must take good care of our relationship with the Lord. There is absolutely no substitute for this. Then we must take care to avoid BURN-OUT by making sure we know the priorities the Lord has given us, and giving our time and energy to these. Don't fall into the trap of taking on too many things which are not priorities for you, even though they may all be very good and important. Try to delegate and to ask for help, because this will encourage initiative and growth in others. Never forget that we are not the saviours of the world. There is only one saviour, Jesus Christ, and he invites us to work with him using the gifts and the power he gives us. If we are to avoid burn-out we must never forget that it's: "Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord".

Jan-Feb 1999 Newsletter – ICCRS: With Permission.

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