In this article, long-time member of Church on Mill examines the idea of being burned out on serving and what to do about it. Pat has served in a multitude of ways through his years as a part of the COM family.
Reading through 1 Corinthians with a friend, something struck me in chapter 12. We don’t get assimilated into the church by joining a Bible study, attending worship or letting everybody shake our hand. Rather, we get assimilated as we exercise our gifts and serve for the good of the body.
The response of the church family to the church’s request for volunteers in the current COVID-19 pandemic amazed me. Many people quickly volunteered to help give rides, deliver groceries, move furniture, pray, give financially, and do many other actions. It seems apparent that these people feel like they are a part of this body of believers.
However, as time goes on and self-isolation, work restrictions, or home-schooling start to wear on us, it would be understandable if some of us see our desire to serve others drop along with our general energy and enthusiasm levels.
Priorities pull us in different directions and make demands of our time. We might not be getting enough sleep or exercise. These may be legitimate reasons to alter the areas we serve in, but they are never reasons to not serve at all.
Alternatively, if we are having trouble serving because we don’t see the point anymore, because we put in a lot of effort and see little appreciation, or because we don’t see heart change from others, we can get burned out. We can even stop caring. That is the type of burnout I want to address here.
What is your motivation?
Motivation 1: Duty
I have attempted to serve people for a lot of reasons over the years. One is a sense of obligation, like my role in the church structure demands of me. That gets old pretty fast. Biblically there are some basic “demands” like caring for widows and orphans, but driving someone to the doctor or helping them move is not mentioned specifically in Scripture. When a sense of duty has been my only motivation, it hasn’t seen me through.
Motivation 2: No One Else Will
Another reason for serving I have used is, “If I don’t do it who would?” It wasn’t that other people couldn’t do the things I did, but I didn’t expect they would be willing to volunteer. We tend to act like God’s superhero. Then, when things get rough and we get tired, this motivation leads to guilt, depression, and self-loathing. This is a natural consequence of thinking the world (or church) depends on you. When we are prideful enough to believe in our ultimate importance, we are absolutely crushed when this idea of ourselves is proven false in our failure.
Motivation 3: WWJD
The most holy motivation seems to be, “What would Jesus do?” In this mindset, I would try to act like Jesus by doing some kind of service without the love, compassion, and desire of Jesus. The problem is this: that isn’t the example he set. With both the Father and the Son, love and compassion came first, and the action of service and giving followed naturally. John 3:16 tells us that God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. Matthew 15:32 recounts that Jesus fed the crowd because he had compassion. He always did because he was.
These motivations will not solve the problem of burnout or exhaustion, but instead will contribute to it.
Instead, Start with God
God’s motivation is love. His very being is three persons who constantly serve the others in their roles. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love one another perfectly. Then, when we became believers, they wrapped us into that beautiful pattern and identity of love by putting the Holy Spirit in us! If we have the same love for the people we serve as all of the members of the Trinity have for one another and us, we can serve them despite our own energy level. It’s much easier for me to serve the people close to me, my wife and children in whom I’m deeply invested, because I already have love for them. How can I have the same lasting love for other people in my life? How can I selflessly serve others in my church family or even the broader society?
First John 4:7-21 tells us to love one another, but John makes it clear that the love we have for others comes from God, not ourselves. This is where the Spirit inside of us comes in and the Word of God assures us. If we don’t feel his love for us, we will be working out of an inferior human love. It is vital for us to spend time in prayer and Bible reading, drawing near to God, to give us the ability to love and serve others in the same manner that he loves us.
Rehearsing the gospel and recounting in my mind the key aspects of God’s work in me helps me to focus on the love he has for me despite my flawed nature. Remembering that Christ’s perfection covers me and makes me beautiful gives me energy to serve others. Praying that the Holy Spirit loves others through me when I feel incapable gives me divine power to move forward in love.
What would I do for Jesus? I mean, if he was right in front of me and clearly needed something, would I just watch him struggle or would I lend a hand? If I was focused on how much he loves me, I think I would run to his side. That’s easy for me to say without a bunch of Pharisees looking down upon me, but I hope you get my meaning. I love Jesus like I love my family.
When Jesus was describing the final judgment in Matthew 25, He said “As you did it to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” When we serve others without a desire for anything in return, Jesus counts it as serving him. That is tremendously energizing!
You Are Not Alone
A beautiful thing about the church is that we are on this journey together. We strengthen each other. Hebrews 10:24-25 tells us to stir up one another to love and good works. If you feel burned out, maybe you can join with a partner for prayer, encouragement, Bible study, and service. As you prayerfully seek ways to serve, be as willing to receive the help of others as you are to give help. Serve with humility and receive in humility.
Discouragement and burnout in serving come from hopelessness or a belief that what we do really doesn’t have an impact. Turning our eyes to God and realizing his love has eternal impact that we don’t see inspires hope. Knowing that the act of service that appears to be to a brother or stranger is really to Jesus gives us certainty that our service does have an impact. When we are exhausted and overwhelmed, Jesus calls us to take his yoke and find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:29). His work is easy and light because he shares it with us.
Also for use as verses to scribble on a notecard and tape to the mirror.
John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Matthew 15:32, “Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.”
1 John 4:7-21, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. … (10) In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (11) Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. … (15) Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (16) So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.(17) By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. … (19) We love because he first loved us. … (21) And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Matthew 25:31-40, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, … (34) Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.(35) For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, (36) I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’(37) Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? (38) And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? (39) And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ (40) And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”
Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, (25) not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Matthew 11:29, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”