spiritually empty tired ministry leader burnout

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Right now is a difficult time as a ministry leader. Some leaders meet with their students in person while others meet online. Times, dates, and numbers continuously change. As you care for others, we care for you. As a part of our Care for the Soul Series, here is “What To Do When You’re Spiritually Empty: 3 Steps to Care for Your Soul.”

What To Do When You’re Spiritually Empty: 3 Steps to Care for Your Soul

It’s likely been a minute since you’ve flown on an airplane. But regardless of how much time has passed since your last flight, I’m sure you remember the safety instructions attendants shared on every trip.

“Thanks for flying with us. Sit down. Buckle your seatbelt…” 

“And, oh, by the way, if your worst nightmare happens and this thing starts to go down, these oxygen masks will pop out…” 

“If you’re flying with a child, please put on your oxygen mask before assisting your son or daughter.” 

Wait. What!?! Why is this so important?!? But, in the same breath, wouldn’t any self-respecting parent immediately sacrifice their safety and well-being for that of their son or daughter? Yes. This decision is why parents are instructed to put their mask on first.

Simply put, we can’t help anyone when we’re unconscious. 

As ministry leaders, we frequently ignore this obvious truth. We brush our needs aside in an attempt to save the person next to us.

We act like superheroes and pretend we don’t have the same basic needs as other humans. 

Ministry leaders serve the church in every way possible. They minister to families in crisis as they spend time investing in children or teens. They share Truth from God’s Word so others may grow in their personal walk. This is the task. The calling. This is what our “Yes” looks like to God.

But…what happens when a family is in crisis, or a teenager needs to talk, and our desire or willingness to step in and serve simply isn’t there? What do we do next? The normal becomes abnormal because this isn’t how we usually respond. We say to ourselves: “What’s going on? Why do I feel this way?”

Perhaps we keep the foot on the gas and push through the moments and opportunities. We keep taking the calls and teaching the next message. All the while, the heart’s fuel light continues to glow brighter each time it runs on empty. Sound familiar?

If so, take heart, my friend. You’re not alone. And God’s not done with you. The Christian race isn’t easy. Hebrews 12:1 encourages you to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (NIV) It can get lonely in leadership and, at times, even leave you feeling empty. You may get winded and grow weary. And sometimes, you may be tempted to believe you can run on empty and that if you ignore the fuel light long enough, maybe it will just go away. I’ve done it. Maybe you have, too.

The next time you find yourself feeling empty, I encourage you to take these three key steps in caring for your soul:

  • Stop
  • Check
  • Refuel
STOP

For many in ministry, you’re never “off the clock.” Because of the role you have on staff at your church, your schedule may not look like that of your peers. The day-to-day schedule doesn’t always begin and end the same way each week and, when you factor in special events, it feels like a non-stop roller coaster ride – but more like a nightmare and less like an amusement park!

In Psalm 46:10, you’re encouraged to simply “Be still and know that I am God.” If you’re like me, I’ve preached that Psalm and quoted that verse while counseling others. But I’m not the best at applying it to my own walk.

Jesus understood this key principle, as He often withdrew to spend time with His Father. He did so in the presence of His disciples, hoping they would also go and do likewise. Too often, they became distracted, discouraged, or simply didn’t understand.

How do you take the first step and STOP? 

  • Learn to say, “No.” Early in my ministry, an opportunity or invitation to say or do something was an automatic, “Yes.” Stop and ask, “God, is this really something You want me to do?” Saying ‘No’ for your rest and refreshment can be difficult for one who continually serves others, but it’s necessary for your long-term health and effectiveness.
  • Get still. Turn down the noise. Walk away from screens. Ignore the ‘to-do’ list for a moment. When was the last time you sat in absolute silence and stillness? Are you able to name the moment? Spiritual emptiness can partly be a result of physical overstimulation.
  • Rest. God created Sabbath for a reason. Each week, your heart, mind, and body need time to recover. Most importantly, you need time to check the strength of your connection with God. You may rest and reconnect in a variety of ways. Sometimes that will involve physical rest and stillness. On other occasions, your heart and soul may yearn for active resting. What makes you come alive inside? Do something you enjoy. Get outside. Spend time with someone you love.

After you’ve stopped, then you are ready to take the next step: CHECK.

CHECK

You didn’t get here overnight, so that’s why it’s important to stop and rest so that you can engage in healthy self-reflection. When the fuel light comes on in your car, you know there will be a point of no return if you don’t heed its warning.

When it comes to your heart and soul, you will do well to ask how you arrived at this point. I love David’s prayer in Psalm 139, where he asks the Lord: Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23-24, NIV).

Remember this is the same man who, while a king, committed adultery and plotted murder.

Leaders aren’t immune to breakdown or crisis of the heart and soul. You must regularly invite the Lord to investigate the pains and motivations of your heart so that you can gain wisdom.

Here are a few questions that help you CHECK how you got here. 

  • What’s my motive? Wise Solomon reminds us that, “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe (Proverbs 29:25).” If leaders are honest, the approval and applause of man can be a prime motivator. Who doesn’t want to be liked? Who doesn’t want to be affirmed by those they serve? If you sacrifice our health and holiness to please men more, you won’t experience affirmation from the Lord.

Questions to ask:

What drives me in life and ministry?

Am I driven to appear successful more than anything else?

Do I run from conflict to maintain control? 

If you avoid answering these questions, any improper motives will keep you from experiencing growth as a leader. Whatever your calling, check your motive daily to gain a much-needed perspective.

  • How am I doing? Routine oil changes provide system checks for your vehicle. If a part isn’t working or fluids are low, the mechanic offers suggestions on how to make it right. How frequently do you perform a checkup of your heart and life? It doesn’t always have to be a full workup, but taking regular inventory of your life can prevent significant breakdowns or greater issues.

Questions to ask:

How’s my physical health?

Am I getting enough sleep?

What does my heart or my head need today? 

How’s my connection with the Lord? My spouse? My kids?

  • What needs greater attention? If you’ve done the hard work of asking questions and checking in with the Lord, you may have discovered some areas of your life that need more considerable attention.

If you’re still struggling to identify those areas, try the following:

Ask those who love you. Invite them to help answer the questions you’re processing.

Try journaling. Writing out your thoughts and prayers can prove to be both enlightening and inspiring.

Find a counselor. Talking to a trained and skilled encourager can provide the insight you don’t have on your own.

The final step to take when feeling spiritually empty is just as important: REFUEL.

REFUEL 

When you see your vehicle is low on fuel, you know what it needs. You pull into the gas station and refuel. When your heart and soul feel empty, do you seek to fill it with what it needs, OR do you settle for something artificial and insufficient?

If I’m honest, I’ve sought fulfillment from idols that left me longing and empty in my life. Are there certain things or people you run to as a way to self-medicate instead of asking God to meet your needs?

I’m thankful for Jesus’ example that reminds us all what we need to live. After His baptism, we read in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus was then, “led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:1-4)

We know that Jesus was then tempted twice more by Satan, and each of those times, our Lord responded by recalling commands from Scripture. This example shows how Jesus dealt with temptations and trials, so we know what to do when we are empty and overwhelmed.

How do you REFUEL spiritually?

  •  Spend time in His Encouraging Word. Write them down. Memorize them. Dwell on them. Enjoy them.
  • Devote yourself to prayer. I heard one pastor define prayer simply as “keeping company with God.” Some pray aloud in a closet, pray quietly in the corner of their living space, use helpful guides, or journal.  Do what you need to keep company with God.
  • 3. Worship in spirit and truth. As David prayed in Psalm 139, ask God through the Holy Spirit to show you areas of your life not fully yielded to Him. He is our Great Counselor! Therefore, ask Him to fill you with His Spirit so you can press on.
Remember, if…
  • you’re spiritually empty, it’s the soul that needs refueling.
  • the soul will starve if you neglect to feed it.
  • if you have a dry well, you can’t draw water. Ministry leaders can’t give what they don’t have.

Last, The Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 5:25, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” Whenever your soul feels empty, or your heart is on the verge of burnout, remember God is near. His Spirit is within you.

You are not far off, so keep in step with His Spirit, and He will make sure to keep you running. He’s not done with you yet!

Nick Mobley has served in student ministry for 20 years and currently serves as Family Pastor at Northside Baptist in middle TN. His passion is helping families show and share their faith from house to house. He and his wife Courtney have 3 children, Samuel, Sophia, & Asa. They love ice cream, the outdoors, and think that Dauphin Island, Alabama, is one of the coolest places to spend a vacation.


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What To Do When You're Spiritually Empty: 3 Steps to Care for Your Soul

 

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