Friends: Your secret weapon in avoiding burnout

More and more, Christians are burning out. Depending on the circles you run in, this phenomenon can start to feel almost as self-evident as our most basic beliefs about God. Some of our brothers and sisters who are serving the most are feeling like they have the least left to give.

Perhaps this increase stems from changing expectations around work-life, or the effect of technology and social media, or something else. Or perhaps all of the above? Whatever the catalyst, we are seeing striking numbers of ministry workers and church members alike operating under the shadow of looming burnout.

Just as there is a host of factors causing burnout amongst Christians, there is a host of wisdom on preventing or overcoming it.* In reading up on some of the insights into addressing burnout, I was particularly struck by the impact that meaningful friendships with other Christians have in this domain.

We would all say that energy put into cultivating friendships, and ones of meaning and substance at that, is energy well spent. But there’s this unfortunate paradox to the whole thing, isn’t there? Because, when verging on burnout, who has time for friends? In a life filled with responsibility and expectations, the kind of leisure time we might spend with a friend falls fast off the priority list.

All through salvation history, our God has shown himself to be deeply relational. As his image-bearers, we have been modelled after this same trait. God has given us a great gift in wiring us to desire relationship with others. It’s a gift in itself, but also in its potential as a shield against burnout. And given burnout deprives us of our relational capacity, the time to devote energy to cultivating closeness and substance in our Christian friendships is now, well before burnout can take hold.

A nurtured friendship with a Christian brother or sister can open the door to both words of grace and words of warning. One of the big burdens for people feeling burnt out is a feeling of inadequacy, as though there is something insufficient about them due to their finite capacity for gospel ministry and other responsibilities in their life. God’s word holds so much that should be a salve to anxieties like these. Salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus is not withheld from the inadequate, unlovely and sinful, but freely given (e.g. 1 Cor 1:26-31, Rom 5:6-8). God works not only in spite of, but through our weakness and finiteness. Paul’s life is testament to this, with gospel growth and spiritual transformation continuing even when he was afflicted and imprisoned. His own words encourage us that our weakness is not just accommodated but actually intended by God, for ‘we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not us’ (2 Cor 4:7).

Yet in the face of burnout, it’s not easy taking God’s word on board here. Perhaps being vulnerable with others comes more naturally to you than it does to me, but I rarely find myself voicing feelings of my own inadequacy to acquaintances. It takes a pre-existing closeness for someone to speak words of grace into our lives. A close friend can hear our anxieties and respond with the gospel of grace, in ways no acquaintance will.

Spotting when someone is burning the candle at both ends is not always easy either. So on a more functional level, meaningful friendship opens the way for noticing and warning against unhelpful patterns. If we never let anyone become close enough to know the components that make up our lives, along with the pressures attached to them, an unsustainable pattern of life can go unnoticed. But when we’re living life in the company of close friends, the state of our calendar and our heart becomes more visible. Friends can warn against unhealthy patterns or unbiblical perceptions of where our worth lies, well before the wheels fall off.

Investing early and intentionally in cultivating meaningful friendships is no silver bullet in shielding against burnout. But it’s one small way to set ourselves up to hear the words of grace or even warning that we might so desperately need one day.

*If you want or need to think through this issue more broadly, there are two books I cannot recommend highly enough, Serving Without Sinking by John Hindley and Zeal Without Burnout by Christopher Ash.