What I Learned on Sabbatical: Lesson 2

In my previous post, I began a series of blogs on lessons I learned while taking a 6-month sabbatical from pastoral work. Check the links below to follow along the series, and read Lesson 1 if you haven't.

Lesson 2: Burnout is Not the Result of Working Hard but of Working Wrong

In the few months preceding my sabbatical, I found myself regularly making mistakes I would never have made before, and forgetting things I would never have previously forgotten. In meetings with leaders and church members alike, I could not stay focused; my mind wandered to virtually any topic other than the one we were discussing and any environment other than the one we were in. Criticism – which pastors receive almost as frequently as Justin Bieber – no longer bounced off me without damage as it had in prior years. I began to question if pastoring was what I should be doing, if Emmaus Church was where I should be, and if there were other ways I could use my gifts and provide for my family. In short, I was exhausted and I craved at least temporary escape.

Since all of this was the exact opposite of how I had felt during prior years since founding and pastoring Emmaus Church, I could only surmise one diagnosis:


I assumed the hard work of ministry must have finally caught up to me and I simply needed a break. And that seemed like a very reasonable diagnosis…until my church granted me a sabbatical and I had time to take a closer look at my heart.

What I eventually discovered was that I was right to describe my condition as burnout. However, I was wrong to conclude that my burnout was a result of me working hard. It was not. It was a result of me working wrong. I was working wrong by working for my reward from people instead of working from my reward from Jesus.

@@My burnout was not a result of me working hard, but of me working wrong@@

In his excellent book written for pastors, Dangerous Calling, Paul David Tripp explains,

“I am convinced that what we often call ‘ministry burnout’ (a term I don’t think is particularly helpful) is often the result of pastors’ seeking in their ministry what cannot be found there, and because it can’t be found there they end up weary and discouraged.”

@@I was working wrong by working for my reward from people instead of working from my reward from Jesus@@

This is precisely what had happened with me. When I honestly evaluated myself, I saw that I was not tired because of the work of ministry itself, I was tired because the work of ministry was not getting me the things I was hoping it would get me. For example, I was tired of counseling people who never seemed to apply the “incredible wisdom” I spent hours distributing. I was not burned out because of the counseling itself – I was burned out because broken people did not pay me the respect I convinced myself I was owed by doing what I said. As if a few well-delivered words from me could convince a person who refuses to listen to the God of the universe! As if pastoral counseling was about getting people to follow me instead of helping people to follow Him!

Similarly, I was tired of pastoring a church that seemed to grow steadily, but not at a rate that matched the hours of energy and effort I put in. I was not burned out because of the work of pastoring itself – I was burned out because the work of pastoring did not bring me the “bigger and better” things I subconsciously thought it should. As if there is anything bigger or better than Christ’s Church! As if the growth of his Church is for my pleasure and glory instead of his!

These discoveries were horrifying to see, and, as I write these words, humiliating to admit. But they were a glorious gift from God. He has reminded me that every reward I could ever desire is already mine through the work of Christ. I am loved. I am accepted. I am welcomed. I am valued. I am forgiven. I am noticed. My work matters, and – most importantly – I am his. As a result, I do not need to work for anything. I have the privilege of working from everything He has freely given me. If I do this, instead of using my work to pursue selfish gain, then “when the Chief Shepherd appears, [I] will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:2, 4).

@@I do not need to work for anything. I have the privilege of working from what Christ has given me.@@

These promises allow me to work harder than ever with less burnout than ever because I’m working as a person who is already fulfilled through Jesus’ finished labor instead of working as a person trying to be fulfilled through my current labor. These promises do the same for you if your faith is in Jesus Christ in whom every promise is “yes” and “amen” (1 Corinthians 1:20).

Question for Reflection: Do you know what you’re hoping to get from your work or studies? Are you working for a reward from people or from your reward from Jesus? 


Cole Brown is a Humble Beast author and speaker. He is the founding pastor of Emmaus Church, a multi-ethnic church in Portland, and now serves as a missionary helping plant churches in Mexico City, Mexico. Connect with him on twitter or facebook