I know what you’re thinking—another article about burnout. With so much already written on this topic, do we really need more? It seems we do. Despite the many helpful warnings, church planters continue to hit that wall. Whether a disastrous fall, or a gradual decline in spiritual vitality, burnout occurs in many different forms. We must continue broaching this pressing topic to save churches, marriages, families, and lives.
I know this all too well. In 2014 my soul was like that small chip on your car’s front windshield. You know it’s there, but it’s not affecting your driving, so you ignore it. Only for me, while working toward our replant, that tiny crack began to spread rapidly into a shattered windshield. My mind, emotions, and body shut down. Severe anxiety attacks began to occur monthly, then weekly, then almost daily. Riddled with anxiety, I flamed out.
This doesn’t have to be your story.
Church planting is a joyful yet arduous calling. Maintaining our joy is the tricky part. Three principles have helped my ongoing recovery; I hope they can help you avoid burnout while church planting.
1. Don’t Formularize the Gospel
As our church plant sought to build a gospel culture, I turned issues “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) into issues “of sole importance.” Gospel-centrality became gospel-exclusivity. Christ and his salvation were the fix to every problem and the answer to every question. While it’s true the gospel is what we ultimately need when planting a church, it’s not the only thing we need. Developing leadership, communication, systems, and skills all play significant roles in establishing a healthy church.
The gospel is a beauty to behold, not a formula to use.
In my immaturity, I also treated the gospel as law, because it told me what to do. In time, though, I realized the gospel is a beauty to behold, not a formula to use. We’re to bathe in the ocean of Christ’s grace, enjoying our union and ongoing communion with him (John 15). His Spirit gives rest to the weary, softens the hardhearted, cleanses the shame-filled, comforts the grieving, and restores the wounded soul.
Instead of formularizing the gospel, we should enjoy it.
2. Don’t Neglect Soul Care
As a church planter, it’s tempting to take on responsibility for many things—some of which aren’t our responsibility—and neglect the very things for which we are responsible. Either way, the outcome is often a boosted ego or a crushed spirit. Church planting involves embracing complex tensions involving time, energy, resources, and people. These tensions inevitably generate stress and bring disappointment, confusion, and hurt, all of which can seep into the crevasses of our hearts—a heart that God says we’re responsible for (Prov. 4:23; 1 Tim. 4:16). As a young planter, I overlooked the importance of caring for my soul, and it cost me, my family, and our church.
We’re better spouses, parents, friends, and leaders when we’re physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy. As we steward this responsibility, we’ll be better equipped to care for those under our leadership. To “keep our hearts,” we must establish healthy rhythms that place us on the front foot of prevention, not the back foot of recovery. Consider how to foster a rhythm of daily communion, weekly sabbath, monthly solitude, and yearly retreats. It’ll be good for your soul.
3. Don’t Ignore Wise Counsel
As we plant churches, we’re going to experience great difficulties, carry heavy burdens, and even become wounded. It’s critical that we build into our lives channels for wise counsel and oversight. We should surround ourselves with people who really see us—all our fears, anxieties, insecurities, frustrations, hurts, and sinful dispositions. People who can genuinely speak into our lives and assist us as we process pain, disappointment, forgiveness, and repentance.
We church planters are an energetic and ambitious bunch. But our zeal can often lead to burnout when we’re trying to plant churches in our strength.
One of the most significant changes I’ve made is to put in place what I call my three-piece band: my wife, one of our elders, and my counselor. They see and speak into my life, and have permission to communicate with each other when needed. For me, this has been incredibly freeing and healing.
We church planters are an energetic and ambitious bunch. But our zeal can often lead to burnout when we’re trying to plant in our strength. As the apostle Paul wrote, “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I also labor, striving with all his energy working powerfully within me” (Col. 1:28–29).
Like us, Paul worked hard for the kingdom of God. Yet he strove with energy not his own. This is a good reminder for weary church planters on the verge of burnout. The race we run is long, full of obstacles ready to steal our joy and crush our endurance. We need our Father to daily revive our souls and empower us to run our race well for his glory.
The gospel is for church planters, too.