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Burnout or Breakdown

Burnout or breakdown?

Hopefully neither, right? If you’re in Christian ministry, I’m sure you want to avoid both of these. But are they actually the same thing? Or, in this case, does semantics matter? I think it does. And I believe that once we come to grips with the meaning of these two words, we will find ourselves both challenged and encouraged.

Recently, I’ve been pondering Christopher Ash’s helpful phrase, “sustainable sacrifice.”[1] It’s the kind of phrase that jumps off the page, because it offers hope. It describes an aspiration we all have as we attempt to reconcile two forces that appear to be in opposition:

  • Ministry is costly. Sacrifices must be made.

  • God desires healthy rhythms of life that give us longevity, so we can “finish the race” well.

“Sustainable sacrifice” is the kind of phrase that gives us a glimmer of hope that we can reconcile the two. Might it be possible to make sacrifices and keep serving without burning out? Perhaps some wisdom can be found in considering the meaning of these two words, burnout and breakdown.

My first observation is that we can be a little sloppy in our use of language. For example, Dr. Steve Midgley writes that “Burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis . . . nor is ‘mental breakdown’”. Yet we use these terms interchangeably to describe those who find themselves “tipping over the edge.”[2]

But what do the words mean?

I’ve noticed that in ministry circles, we’re far more likely to talk of burning out than breaking down. I suspect that this panders, perhaps subconsciously, to our works-orientated egos. If I’ve burnt out, then this is due to my hard work. In a perverse sort of way, it’s something to be celebrated. It draws from the kind of thinking attributed to the famous missionary, Amy Carmichael, who wrote, “I would rather burn out than rust out.”

By contrast, breaking down sounds like something unwanted has happened to us. It feels, dare I say it, weaker. And that is really my point. There is a truth here to be grasped. For the very essence of the gospel is that we are broken, weak, and needy. We depend on Jesus for everything. His strength is made perfect in our weakness. Yet instead of confessing to our own need, we reach for the language of burnout. Perhaps because it is less shameful than breaking down? Or maybe because it is less humiliating than telling people that we’re struggling in both body and soul.

So, here are a couple of reasons why we should embrace the language of breakdown.

  1. Burnout sounds final. An ash pile can’t be re-made into wood. Once burnt, one can’t be “unburned.” Breakdown, however, brings a person to a place of humility. It is precisely the starting point from which Jesus loves to work. For this reason, it is a much more hopeful term. I realise it comes with challenges, but it really is worth embracing. Anything that brings us to our knees before our Saviour—seeking his help, entrusting ourselves into his care—is a good thing. I cannot tell you how to avoid breaking down beyond the obvious. But today, I encourage you to avoid putting a spin on your pain, and presenting your hard work as a justification for your troubles. It is humility that the Lord desires, and that doesn’t come from working fourteen-hour days.

  2. “Breaking down” doesn’t sound good. There is a reason for this. It’s not the Lord’s design. He desires neither burnout nor breakdown for his servants. That’s why Christopher Ash includes the adjective, sustainable, next to sacrifice. It’s why God gave us the Sabbath—at least one day in seven when we are called to rest. It’s a pattern that both honours work, and provides a path towards longevity. It we take care of both our bodies and our souls, it is perfectly possible to finish the race well. In giving us a rhythm of life that includes rest, God has created us to be able to serve him sustainably. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul calls on husbands to care for their wives as for their own body. Love entails self-care. It doesn’t lead to burnout and the destruction of the body. It is not noble to tell oneself how many extra hours have been poured into the week. After all, from which well are we drawing? From the desperate urge to please others, or from the pure stream of God’s love and grace, filled to overflowing with his joy? Living Leadership exists to help leaders draw from a well that never runs dry—the joy of the Lord, the experience of his grace. That kind of self-care never runs out.

So, let’s think about the language we use when we talk to each other. There is nothing virtuous in burning out. And “breaking down,” while a better term, is never God’s desire for us. So let us listen to each other well, and encourage each other when life is challenging. If you ever feel like you’re struggling, then don’t wait until it’s too late. Living Leadership can help. Our Associates will offer their time to listen and pray.

And as we serve, may our lives be offered as “sustainable sacrifices.” Sustained, as they are, by the power and strength of our heavenly Father, who loves us, and the Son, who gave himself up for us.


1. Zeal without Burnout. Ash. p117.

2. Some helpful books on the subject: Going the Distance (Peter Brain), Serving without Sinking (John Hindley) and Zeal without Burnout (Christopher Ash) — all of which I would recommend.


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