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  • Writer's pictureAdam O'Neill

Burnout in the Church.

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

“I’m tired, but there’s no one else who can do it,” my friend sighed deeply and I could sense the weariness in her voice. For years my friend had served the church faithfully as a volunteer for youth ministry. Sunday after Sunday she attended to various ministries: walkers, crawlers, middle school, high school. Whenever there was a late call-in or a volunteer no-showed she was there to take their place frequently for both morning and evening services. I expressed my concern for her wellbeing and need for her own spiritual care; it had been weeks since she was able to attend service herself. She protested that she listened to the recording later but as I pointed out, a recording though good does not allow for her to be among God’s people in corporate worship. “You need to be in the service” I pressed her. She pushed back, said that these were all good things to do and if she didn’t do them no one would.

My friend's story is not unique, perhaps she sounds like you. You work as an usher, greeter, homeless ministry, childcare, Sunday after Sunday because if you do not do it, no one will. You serve your neighbor, a real-life Good Samaritan.

I’ve missed the significance of the story of Martha and Mary in Luke’s Gospel occurring immediately after the story of the Good Samaritan. We are familiar with the service provided by the Good Samaritan to the injured man beaten by robbers. Not only does he care for his immediate need but makes sure he has a place to stay, costing him two days' pay, and promises whatever more he needs “I will repay when I come back” (Luke 10:35). Here is the model servant. Giving sacrificially of both his time and money. Lessons we very much need.

But my friend needed the passage that follows.

“Now as they went on their way Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:38-42).

Martha is doing a good thing. She is serving Jesus, literally, yet her anxious and troubled toiling placed her physically and mentally in the direction opposite the savior. In her service, she missed a great treasure.

There are three main lessons I’d like to pull from this passage as it relates to service.

First, it is possible to be anxious and distracted by service. My friend came to understand this through lived experience. Her weariness did not begin as weariness but as an anxious pressure. The need must be met by her. If she didn’t no one would, or so she thought. Service to the Kingdom is an enormous blessing and one we are called to, but if done with the improper orientation can leave us frustrated and anxious. This pressure can be internal or external. Perhaps you have been told only you have the skills required, the children love and need you, if you don’t I fear we won’t have a XYZ Ministry. Resist this undue burden placed on you.

Second, the one thing that is necessary is a heart and mind set on the savior. My friend neglected the hearing of The Word preached, a time God has promised to present himself in a unique way to His people. Use your gifts for God but do not “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some” (Hebrews 10:25).

Third, this heart orientation is the good portion that can not be taken from us. To sit at our savior's feet in worship, in the administration of the sacraments, or in hearing his word preached is a gift and one that will last for eternity. More than being taken from us, these gifts reach their natural fulfillment in heaven, where we will worship what for now we cannot see, receive not just the bread and wine but a feast prepared by our Savior, and hear The Word speak Himself.

Our service here on earth for the Church can lead to burnout if we do not remember the example of Mary who saw past a momentary task to the gift that sat in front of her. All she could do, all she wanted to do, was sit at his feet and listen.

I pushed back once more against my friend, “By continuing to take that volunteer position week after week the need is never felt, nor can anyone else see, meet, and be blessed because of it”. She was hesitant but a few months later I stopped in to see the children’s ministry while visiting the church. I saw lots of people volunteering, some wiping up messes, some coloring Bible-based worksheets, some coordinating music; my friend was not there. I smiled, knowing she was in the service, being fed by the preached word, being equipped and renewed for years of faithful service to come.

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