Four Principles to Avoid Burnout

by Tim Keller

I want to talk today about you. There are a lot of questions about what kind of unique witness should the church have at a time like this—how do you pastorally care for people who are experiencing anxiety on a unique level? But I don’t want to talk about those. I want to talk about you.

If you have ever flown on an airplane, you know that the flight attendants are required to give a safety briefing at the beginning of every flight. At one point they always say, “If the cabin pressure falls, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling.” Then they show you an orange cup-shaped mask attached to a hose and demonstrate how to put it on, while saying these words: “Don’t try to help anybody else unless you put your own oxygen mask on first.” That’s because if you pass out from lack of oxygen, you’re not going to be able to help anybody else. That’s what I want to talk to you about.

Two days after the attacks on 9/11, I got a phone call from a pastor in Oklahoma City. There was a bombing in Oklahoma City, as many of you know, in 1995—a domestic terrorist bombing that not only killed 168 people, but maimed hundreds more. Oklahoma City is not a massively big city, and it had a huge impact on all the families and caused a great deal of suffering. What the pastor told me was that, “You have to be very, very careful. At first, you’re going to go into 200% overdrive, and you’re going to be helping everybody and talking to everybody and dealing with everything.” He said, “Right away you’ll just think you’re sort of tired and you just need one good break and it’ll be okay, but no. Two or three years later, suddenly everybody on your church staff will go into depression. They will have burned out. They will have been eating into their emotional and spiritual capital, as it were, and not realizing it. Don’t let it happen to you.” Now, I wish I could tell you that we avoided that. We didn’t, actually. Over the next five years, the same thing happened to us.

The typical type of ministry burnout usually has to do with the minister’s own heart, identifying too much with the ministry, making their own ego basically the same as the ministry. If the ministry does well, you do well. The ministry doesn’t, you’re a bad person. That kind of burnout is more our own fault. But in times of crisis like this, the burnout is different. You have to get your oxygen mask on or the burnout will be deeper and more widespread. And you cannot help anybody else if you don’t have your own mask on, spiritually speaking.

There are four texts I’d like you to reflect on as the days go on. They give us four principles for avoiding burnout: extraordinary prayer, resilience without stoicism, radical refocusing, and gospel resolve.


“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else, to the nearby villages, so I can preach there also. For that is why I have come.” 

This was not a perfunctory prayer; this was a lot of prayer. The more popular Jesus became and the more people he ministered, the more time he had to get away to spend in solitary prayer. The exterior ministry of strength was contingent upon an internal dependence on his father. The stronger he was out there, in a sense, the more dependent he was on his father.

We’re talking about immersing oneself in the Bible and prayer. Having time daily, weekly, monthly in spite of the crisis—getting your oxygen mask on first. We’ve got to do what Jesus did. He was at the beginning of the most important ministry in the history of the human race. People are after him for healing and all their needs, but he took the time to pray. We’ve got to take the time to rest. We need to get to bed on time. We’ve got to take our time in meditation and prayer. We cannot let those things go. If anything, we have to enhance them. Extraordinary stress takes extraordinary prayer.


“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we’re being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

This passage has fascinated me for years. Resilience without stoicism. Paul is not saying, “Keep a stiff upper lip. Don’t let it get to you. Don’t let anybody see you sweat. Don’t express emotion.” He actually tells us we’re pressed, we’re perplexed, and we’re struck down. He says he has been knocked flat but not destroyed.

There are different translations of Proverbs 3, but it basically says that when troubles come, don’t make light of them or faint under them. Some translations say don’t make light of them or lose heart. There is permission to lament. There is permission to cry. There’s permission to break down, to literally get on the floor, and yet not stay there.

In a sense, extraordinary prayer is necessary for this principle. The end of the passage says, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. Because what is seen is temporary, what is unseen is eternal.” This refocusing of perspective is what gets us off the ground. But there is a real need for grieving. In this world, many people respond to tragedy with sheer stoicism or total brokenness. This is neither of those. It is lamentation.

The psalms are particularly helpful with lamenting. You need not only be in the psalms, but when you’re doing your solitary time of study and prayer, make sure whatever else you’re reading, whatever else you’re thinking about, you include the psalms. They bring study and prayer together.


“The men of Issachar who understood the times and knew what Israel should do…”

The verse is about the people who went out into the wilderness to throw their lot in with David when he was a fugitive. These men were taking a radical step. They left their families and certainly left the safety they had in the rest of the country where Saul was king, but they recognized that David was God’s anointed. The verse states the reason they sided with him was because they “understood the times,” or as we might put it today, the cultural moment.

Just as a good farmer realizes it’s time to plant or it’s time to harvest, they understood the seasons. During times like we are in now, we have to—at least for the sake of brainstorming—break free from all our older goals, traditions, and priorities, and question everything about our ministry, except the things the Bible absolutely prescribes. We need to be willing to think outside familiar categories and pathways.

This means to question everything but the things that the Bible mandates. Things have changed, so we should be careful to know what in our approach to people and ministry needs to change as well. There may be many, many things that we’ve done in the past that we should continue. There should be some goals that we should stick with, but we need to re-examine everything to understand the moment we live in.


Last, there is gospel resolve. This principle does not work without the first three. If we aren’t getting enough rest and spending enough time with God despite the huge amount of pressure to basically work 24 hours a day, if we aren’t expressing our emotions to God and yet doing it with resilience, and if we aren’t rethinking our ministry and what we should be doing, gospel resolve can lead to burnout.

Gospel resolve means that at some point, we just do it. At some point, we just summon up the willpower and do the next thing. Elisabeth Elliot used to tell me and my wife that sometimes you just put one foot in front of another. You do the next thing, even if that is just combing your hair. You don’t know where you got the strength to do it, but you just do it. It’s gospel resolve.

The Bible gives us a great example of gospel resolve and finish with this.

“When Esther’s words were reported to Mordecai, he sent back this answer: “Do you think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape? For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from some other place, and you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you were brought to your royal position for such a time as this? Then Esther sent this reply to Mordecai: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it’s against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”

That’s resolve. Okay, I’m going to do it. I want you to consider—whoever you are, wherever you are, if you’re a ministry leader, if you’re a church leader—you have been brought to the position you’re in for such a time as this. You need to have Esther’s resolve. You need to say, “Okay. I’m going to do it.” It’s going to be very difficult. Do you see how this would lead to burnout if you don’t do the other three things?

With the other three principles, there could be many days in which you just say, “I’m going to do it and if I perish, I perish. I’m going to be obedient. I’m going to be faithful to the people. I’m going to be faithful to my Lord.” Actually, like Esther, you won’t perish—and you know why, of course. You have your eye on the one who perished for us and rose from the dead.

Jesus made atonement for his people and now, like Esther, stands before the throne of the universe, and the favor he procured is ours. That’s the reason why just looking at what he did for us can strengthen our gospel resolve through him.

Here’s my prayer for you:

Our Father, we ask that over the next two or three years, in which there will be death and fear, that you will be with your people. There will be economic devastation. Many of our ministries may experience economic contraction, but don’t let there be any contraction of our ministries at the spiritual level.

I pray that all of the leaders reading this right now will go to these passages and say, “This is how I will get through. This is how we will get through. This is how we’ll be able to lift up the name of Jesus over the next few years.” We expect and pray that many, many people who are spiritually careless right now will listen to your word and turn to you.

We pray you work through the people who are reading these words. I pray the words of these passages from scripture would live in us and prevent us from sinking in the mire of depression and burnout. We pray that you would bear us up. Help us to walk on the waves as we fix our eyes on you. Don’t let us be like Peter who looked at the waves and not on you and sank, but rather let us look at you and walk on the water.

We pray that you would help us in all these waves. Used by permission.

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