~by John Chisum.
Okay, let’s get real for a minute. Have you ever gotten through with a rehearsal and felt so upset or agitated by it that you immediately started dreading the next one? Have you ever gotten to the start of a Sunday service only to realize that the last thing you really felt like doing was “worshiping?” Have you ever sat in a worship planning meeting and felt so far from the Lord that the songs all started sounding the same to you and you even doubted your call to lead? If you’ve felt any or all these things, you’re not alone.
Any worship leader who’s willing to be honest would probably describe these or similar feelings from time to time. Dealing with volunteers, congregations, and very human church staffs requires a lot of love and patience. Sometimes that patience wears thin. Sometimes it wears so thin that we find ourselves dangerously close to burnout, and, without a disruption of the patterns we’ve fallen into, we could find ourselves in a very bad place, even losing our ability to lead. I know this because it happened to me.
Oh, it all started subtly enough.
I am as called as the next guy and I’ve spent the majority of my adult life on a platform leading songs. So, how could I let myself get to the place of feeling so knotted up on the inside that the very thing I love the most became such a source of pain and even threatened my livelihood and relationships? How does it happen? Are there warning signs for burnout? Was there anything I could’ve done to prevent it and is there anything you can do now to save yourself from it? Read on.
We all know that the enemy hates authentic worship. Anything he can do to hinder it is all the greater for his dark agenda to destroy those who love God. We also know that all worship leaders wear targets on their backs and must absorb fiery darts not only from the devil, but from dissatisfied congregants and sometimes very unhappy pastors. You only understand this if you’ve been there.
The spiritual warfare we go through as pastors and worship leaders is almost always hidden from others and requires much more of us than most people will ever grasp on the “outside.” According to research I’ve read by Thom Rainier and Ed Stetzer, over 1,400 pastors a month leave the ministry discouraged and burned out. That is FOURTEEN-HUNDRED. And who knows how many worship leaders quit?
Obviously, there’s a lot at stake in our churches, communities, and the entire world that we might overlook if we don’t take burnout and ministerial turnover seriously. When a pastor or worship leader burns out, the church suffers, but there’s even more collateral damage in the lives of the loved ones surrounding them. Spouses, children, and friends for starters. Watching burnout happen is a very sad thing indeed as vision, mission, and joy begin to fade and someone once filled with life suffers an agonizing grind to a ministerial halt.
There are three primary problems in ministry life that I think contribute greatly to the likelihood of burnout. They are a lack of personal soul care, a “messiah complex” that is promoted in church leadership, and a ubiquitous lack of staff-oriented care in our churches.
Most people, including leaders, have no real soul care regime. They race through life (and church leadership) with the agenda to accomplish more and more every day. It’s always about getting more people in the door, staying relevant, and keeping up a mad pace fueled by budgets and quotas. Staffers become corporate cogs in church machines that have bills to pay and souls to save. All too often it’s no different in church than the corporate world and staffers burnout because they have never built true soul care into their lives.
What does “soul care” look like? Is it daily prayer and Bible reading? Yes, but it’s a whole lot more. The common cycle of reading and praying just to have nuggets to toss out to the choir and praise team leaves one far short of authentic discipleship. Grace at every meal, even in public, is a far cry from true surrender and heart-serenity.
Soul care probably looks a whole lot more like great hobbies than holiness. It probably takes the form of pre-scheduled breaks from the weekly routines and a discipline of distracting one’s mind from the grind often enough to detox from the built-in battles of church work. It might look more like spending regular time with a counselor or therapist to release the pressure valves of serving on the front lines than “manning up” and being a “good soldier” all the time. It certainly looks more like rigorous honesty of one’s inner state than waiting until things are too far gone to salvage.
Secondly, church leadership (and especially worship leadership) brings a strange expectation to “make worship happen” for other people. This means different things in different churches, but I bet you know what I mean. Every church wants things the way they want them, songs and sound and lights and windows and stages and sermons and all the religious trappings that mean we “worshiped” in church today, whether using the oldest hymns or the newest modern worship songs.
We worship leaders may then sometimes take on a “messiah complex” and begin to believe people’s worship really is our responsibility. We buy into the lie that we must pick just the right songs or create just the right vibe for people to “enter the presence of God.” If we don’t, they won’t. And, if they don’t, God, the pastor, the board, the elders, and everyone’s pointing fingers right at us. Believe me, if this happens, it doesn’t end well.
Yes, I’m exaggerating here for effect, but I think the point is worth considering. The devil is subtle and even our own minds and mixed motives may subtly contribute to this unbiblical view that we are responsible for whether or not people worship. Let me say it clearly and unequivocally. We are not.
Sure, we are called. We have a part to play in preparing as well as we can and making the best effort we’re capable of to bring excellent opportunities for people to choose to worship God. But when did this thing take on such enormous proportions that it’s worth losing our health and relationships over? When did we shift in Christendom to the point that song services equated real worship? Isn’t real worship still measured by the quality of one’s relationship with God, one’s level of devotion and discipleship, as specifically displayed in one’s caring for the widows and orphans? When was it ever about one’s ability, or even desire, to sing?
The point is that we’ve subtly started worshiping our worship instead of God Himself. We’ve put an ungodly pressure on the pastors and worship leaders to provide our worship and lead us “into” worship when it is always and forever our own responsibilities to lead ourselves into worship.
And, finally, I believe there’s a tremendous dearth of adequate staff care in our churches. Everyone’s so busy that few are getting what they need at a deep heart level. We’re so concerned with keeping the church running that opportunities for authentic community for the staff are non-existent and much less the kind of atmosphere that is open enough for staffers to express their soul needs. I know of a prominent worship leader who was immediately escorted to the door for admitting he was feeling depressed. The pastor said there was no room there for anyone like that.
When did we become less human as believers? When did we slip into the phone booth and put on the spiritual Superman suits to serve in the church with bright smiles and flawless lives? When did we decide it was a sin to have a bad day or struggle with depression or not be “practically perfect in every way?” When did ministry become about losing ourselves (in the bad way) instead of about bringing out the best in us and in others? How did we fall so far from real worship that it could ever be about us and our abilities instead of about God and His?
But I’m ranting again.
Church staffers are as broken and needy and messed-up as anyone else. Maybe their hurts aren’t showing, but they’re there. Maybe they don’t say out loud that things are less-than-perfect inside, but they’re saying it anyway in the way they respond when things don’t go their way. Maybe you or the pastor or some elders and deacons aren’t talking to anyone about what might show up if your internet surfing suddenly came to light, but that searching indicates something far deeper than needing a little entertainment. It means that much deeper needs, spiritually, emotionally, and physically are going unmet due to an inadequate atmosphere of safety and accountability and not that you’re just a “bad Christian.”
I believe these three things account for more burnout than anybody can measure.
We’re not taking good care of ourselves because we think that’s selfish. We’re taking on a role that only the Holy Spirit can manage in taking responsibility for other people’s worship. And we’re hiding deep heart needs from others on our church staffs because we don’t feel safe. This leaves very few other choices but to go underground, to hide, and to eventually burnout, flameout, or crash so hard that we are beyond restoration. I just winced when I wrote those words.
If you’re sensing burnout coming on and recognize the symptoms of being angry at your leadership, your congregation, or yourself all the time, take a minute to acknowledge it, at least to yourself. If your relationship with God is anything but intimate, or you feel it’s starting to slip, get honest about it, at least with yourself, and start turning it around. If you’ve found yourself in compromising places and attitudes or actions that are dangerous to yourself and to the life of your church, there is help for you that is confidential and transformational. You can find it. It’s closer than you think. But you need to act now. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
Burnout is caused as much by inactivity as it is by too much activity in the wrong direction. If you’re going to successfully lead others week after week in worship, you must learn to lead yourself there first. Soul care and avoiding burnout is worship. It is every bit as much worship to exercise your own discipleship and self-care as it is to teach others how to do it for themselves. And, in the end, no one can avoid burnout for you. It might be a strange thought for you, but when you take care of yourself, you’re taking care of the gift of God that is you. You’re actually worshiping at a deeper level when you honor yourself, and Christ in you (Col. 1:27), by taking the time and space you need to be an authentic worshiper week after week as you lead others to choose to worship, as well.
About the author: John Chisum has been active in the Christian music industry as a songwriter, arranger, producer, music publisher, and recording artist. He has served alongside some of the world’s greatest and best-loved artists such as Bill & Gloria Gaither, Don Moen, Twila Paris, Paul Baloche, and many more. John is currently Managing Partner of Nashville Christian Songwriters and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org