Beating Burnout

I’ve always been fascinated by the character of Elijah. He just kind of shows up on the scene in the Bible. There isn’t much to his backstory at all…but I bet his parents were shot in an alley right in front of him. I’ve always pictured him kind of like Batman.

I mean…seriously. The first time we read about him, he walks right up to the most wicked king of Israel the Bible records and says, “It isn’t going to rain until I say so.” How intense is that?? But that’s Elijah for you. 

The story I find most fascinating is the day he congregated on Mt. Carmel with the prophets of Baal. Think about this. In the course of one day, he:

  1. Holds a sacrifice competition
  2. Kills thousands of false prophets
  3. Prays for rain until he sees a cloud the size of a man’s hand
  4. Runs back to Israel (beating chariots as he runs, by the way) to alert the king

What an incredible moment of victory! And then, the next day, we find him running for his life from the queen. Finally, we find him whining and crying in a cave about how he’s the only one who lives for God. This is a much different picture. What happened? While I don’t claim to be a theologian, and certainly there’s no specific explanation in scripture, I have a theory.

I think he got burnt out.

The victories Elijah won didn’t come easy. He had to fight and scrape and claw for them. It pushed him to the brink physically and spiritually. He had to stretch his faith. And by the time he heard the queen was after him, he was so physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally drained that he didn’t have the strength to fight it.

Student workers, I don’t have to tell you…working with students is exhausting! It taxes us physically with graphic design, stage prop building, errand running, football game attending, etc. It exhausts us spiritually as we travail in prayer, read, study, preach, etc. It exhausts us mentally as we counsel them through life’s issues. It exhausts us emotionally as we go through hard times with them. And then, all of the sudden, the staff member loses the receipt that you have to turn into the secretary and you. just. snap.

Was that REALLY a big deal? No…but you’re burned out, so EVERYTHING is a big deal.

Thankfully, though, burnout can be beat! Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

  • Learn how to say no. You can’t be everything for everybody, no matter how much you want to. It really is okay to say “no” sometimes. I promise, if you’ve been to 9 of that student’s baseball games, missing the 10th is okay. If you’re like me, and you’re so strongly phlegmatic that the word “no” doesn’t exist to you, give someone else permission to say no! I don’t agree to anything until I’ve talked it over with my wife. She helps me prioritize and determine if this next task is doable for me, and where it ranks against other things.
  • Attend a conference (without your students). Florida Men’s Conference is my favorite every year. Why? Because all I have to do is show up and go to church! We get so busy ministering to our students sometimes that we forget we need to be ministered to, as well! Sometimes you need to just “go to church.” Find a conference, and go with the purpose of enjoying it and recharging your batteries.
  • Take a vacation. NO, Youth Camp and NAYC don’t count. Take a legitimate vacation with your family (or friends, if your single). If you can’t afford to go somewhere, make it a “stay-cation.” You’d be surprised how much better you’ll feel after reading books and eating ice cream all day.
  • Set boundaries with your time. The kitchen table at my home is a “no cell phone” zone. 99.99999% of calls, texts, etc. that come in can be handled after dinner. This is a time for me to enjoy my family. I need that to recharge.
  • Have a time management system. I’ve talked about this several times on this blog and at youth worker conference. Find one that works for you, and prioritize! It’s much easier to deal with the busyness of life when we have a plan.

You may say, “I’ve tried all these things, and I still can’t find that next wave of energy. I still feel burnt out.” If that’s the case, spend some serious time in prayer. The truth is, most of us don’t stay in Student Ministry our whole lives. If all it is doing is draining you, if you find little-to-know satisfaction even in moments of victory…it may be time (for the sake of you AND your students) to consider a different phase of ministry. That may not be popular to say, but most people I’ve talked to that have moved on to other ministries have offered that advice.


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