Burnt out within 4 years: The full-time ministry worker who is glad she “failed”
“I think I need a break,” I blurted out to my co-worker one day after a ministry meeting.
Looking surprised, he replied: “Huh, but you’ve only been in full-time ministry for four years.”
His reaction rattled me. Four years were rather short for me to have felt the way I did, didn’t it? After all, people usually only go for sabbaticals after seven years of service.
And yet the reality was that my everyday ministry activities were constantly accompanied by a tumultuous internal war. One half of me demanded to keep running. Another half was screaming for me to stop.
But how could I stop? I’m a full-time ministry worker overseeing 30 to 40 youths at any one point of time. If I took a break, who would take care of them and the ministry I was overseeing?
And so, I made it a point to daily silence these anxious thoughts and busy myself with a constant stream of ministry activity.
But the anxiety mounted. Youth ministry, which had always been my heart’s burden, became an unnaturally heavy weight on my back that I could no longer lift.
Soon enough, I couldn’t move.
OVER THE EDGE
One Monday morning last October, I received a text informing me that two youths I was journeying very closely with had been admitted to the hospital on the same night.
After I read the text, the floodgates opened. I cried the entire morning and was unable to go to work.
From that day onwards, I was no longer the same. It was like I had gone over some unspoken emotional boundary that I had strictly set for myself.
And once that happened, I was in deep waters and could no longer get back to shore.
I cried everyday for no reason. Even after my youths were discharged.
There were times I couldn’t work and could only stare at my laptop screen. I lost interest in most of my hobbies. I had no desire to meet or talk to anyone, including my best friend and boyfriend.
Through God’s tender mercy and wisdom, my supervisor recognised I was not doing well and gave me a five-week break from ministry.
I flew to Australia on New Year’s day with no agenda in mind other than to spend time with God. And it was there, away from all work and distractions, that God met me.
A DAUGHTER, NOT AN EMPLOYEE
When I touched down in Sydney, the first thing I did was to sit down in a café and start talking to God and journaling.
I didn’t feel excited about it. In fact, it felt super awkward, like I had just met an old friend I was no longer close to and had to force myself to make small talk.
That was when it dawned on me. Despite knowing and talking a lot about God in ministry, I hadn’t talked to God directly in a long time.
There was hardly a personal relationship. I realised that our relationship had been reduced to a highly professional, employer-employee situation.
I had wanted to do big things for God and be His star worker.
Therefore, I would feel extremely stressed when I failed to hit some self-perceived standard and, conversely, greatly pleased and proud only when I had some ministry achievement.
There and then, I started praying everyday that God’s love would become a personal reality to me.
And as a highly-involved and loving father would, God came to meet me exactly at my point of need and request.
WORDS OF LOVE AND LIFE
I retired to the Blue Mountains for eight days to live out my dream hermit life during the first week of my trip.
I was there to attend a Christian conference that I barely knew anything about.
When I reached and found out it was a missionaries’ conference, I wanted to cry, dreading the speakers’ inevitable calls and challenges to serve God.
After all, the precise reason I was in the Blue Mountains was to take a break from service!
“It’s good that you’re here,” the speaker said on the first day.
Sure it is. I thought cynically. And yet, he was right. The conference would kickstart my rediscovery of God’s love, the true motivation behind hard missional labour.
The missionaries I found myself in the presence of had served in countries where there was hardly any fruit, for years, and they kept going anyway!
What fuelled them? What kept them going? They attested to a conviction that God was at work in not just the lives of their sheep, but in their own lives as well.
While we may be tired and limited, God never is.
And so I learned that while we may be tired and limited, God never is. He is always labouring. And His labour is constantly fuelled by His love, clearly displayed and communicated through the gospel.
It is a love that never runs dry.
It was also at the conference that I began to understand why the psalmist said God’s word is sweeter than honey (Psalms 119:103). Because honestly, while I had always known God’s word is good, I had often found it a little bit boring.
However, during the conference, I found myself surprisingly attentive when it came to the scriptures.
As we unpacked 1 Timothy together, I was amazed at how applicable it was to my life. It was a book written by Paul to Timothy, a young and struggling minister in the Ephesian church.
There were numerous times in that conference where it felt like the Word preached applied directly to my situation in ministry – challenging my hidden idols and comforting my specific anxieties.
In particular, I remember one thing that made me tear up when I heard it. Referencing Paul’s advice to young ministers in 1 Timothy 4:11-14, the preacher encouraged: “Don’t be discouraged that you aren’t good, you are on the road.
“We may feel like we begin feebly in ministry and continue feebly… But take heart, because we do progress!”
FEEBLE BUT PROGRESSING
And feebly I progressed. After I came back to Singapore, I felt like I had barely began healing. I was still antisocial and still struggling.
Yet thankfully, God sent me a few sisters-in-Christ who were so insightful and provided me a safe space to share and receive care.
Through one such sister, God identified and “legitimised” my internal struggle for me. After hearing my struggles, she told me a few times that what I was feeling sounded like burnout.
It took me months before I had the courage to admit that it was indeed burnout that I was suffering from.
But with this admission, I finally began to be ready to admit just how weak and even wayward I can be. And in turn, I learned how to lean into the embrace of my heavenly Father and truly enjoy trusting and depending on His Word.
Soon, God emboldened me to own up to the issue in my heart. I realised that the root of my anxiety was misplaced hope. My hope in life was built on ministry success, on my terms.
A quote from a book I picked up during my break describes what I was facing best: “We are all trying to do what God has asked us to do, but certainly there are some of us who try too hard to keep up with the image of what we feel a missionary should be like.”
I had confused ministry with identity, stewardship with self-dependence, purpose with results. And in all of that, I had confined God to the desk of an unapproachable and uninvolved CEO.
My hope in life was built on ministry success, on my terms.
Yet on the surface of things, not many were able to tell how wayward some of my perspectives were. After all, I often looked pretty driven in ministry and “on fire” for the Lord.
It is in light of this that I started to understand what Paul meant when he said “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 10).
My breaking apart, while painful, was good in revealing the hidden idols and weaknesses of my heart.
I was never able to understand the greater reality of Christ’s love and power to fuel me because I was so busy trying to rely on my own strengths and capacities to do this work.
Hence, in a dramatic twist of events, my complete drain-out became the very opportunity for me to topped back up with God’s love and wisdom. His Word became my lifeline.
ON THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
It’s been about one year and two months since my initial breakdown.
I have not yet been able to get back to doing youth ministry in the same capacity as I used to. And I’m still leaning into learning and loving God’s Word and building my relationship with Him.
Sometimes I wonder how my colleagues and my youths think of me. Do I look like a failure to them? A weakling? Do some of them think that perhaps I have grown cold in my faith?
Nevertheless, more than ever, I feel my heart growing to love and cherish more my God, my Father, my Lord, my Saviour.
He walks with me daily, through my ups and downs. And that fellowship is so sweet. I would not trade that (and all that it took to bring me here) for any other “ministry success” or human affirmation in the world.
I had started out wanting to do big things for God. But now I know that the things I do – whatever the size – is because my God is big.
THINK + TALK
- What fuels you in ministry?
- When was the last time you took a break? Or paused to hear from God?
- What might God be saying to you through this article? Take a moment to be still with Him.