Podcast: The Danger of Burnout and How to Avoid It (David Murray)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
An Important Topic
In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, we sit down with David Murray to discuss a difficult yet increasingly important topic: burnout.
David shares from his own experience of burnout, which ultimately led to serious medical issues and a stint in the hospital. However, through it all, God was faithful and used this painful experience to reveal some unhealthy patterns of life that were simply unsustainable. David then reflects on the things God taught him about the causes, warning signs, and negative effects of burnout, offering practical advice for those eager to avoid burnout in their own lives and hope for those who think they might already be getting close.
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Although burnout is growing increasingly common among men in ministry, it doesn’t have to be inevitable. Pastor and counselor David Murray offers men gospel-centered hope for avoiding and recovering from burnout, setting a more sustainable pace.
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David Murray, thank you so much for joining us on The Crossway Podcast.
Matt, it’s great to be with you. Looking forward to chatting about this subject again.
David’s Story of Burnout
Numerous studies over the last few years have shown that Americans generally—and I think Christians as well—are struggling to maintain a healthy pace of life. Levels of stress and anxiety and depression are on the rise virtually across the board.
In your book, you actually note a study that showed that something like 225 million workdays each year are lost due to prevalent stress across the country. And I think this problem is particularly relevant for pastors as well. We’re seeing higher levels of depression and anxiety and stress contributing to broken marriages and division in the church and personal burnout in general. As you think about your own life, have you ever struggled with a season of burnout like this?
Yes, I have to confess, Matt, I’m speaking from a position of painful personal experience. I suppose I’ve always been busy. I’ve always loved to work. I get much satisfaction from ministry. It’s always been a joy, and so it can become too much of a good thing. And that happened to me when I moved to the US in 2007. With a new job teaching at the seminary, ministry opportunities began to multiply over the next four or five years. Not rapidly, but over a period of time it just became more and more. And it’s all good stuff, it’s all helpful; but eventually I would have to say I was getting some signals from my body and from providence that I was going too fast. Eventually God actually just stopped me and my body caved in, you might say. The Lord allowed a deep vein thrombosis in my leg which became pulmonary embolic blood clots in my lungs and these are often fatal. Thankfully my wife was wiser than I was and helped me get to the hospital and get good treatment. And I knew immediately it was the Lord speaking to me and saying, David, all this is good. It’s good to write. It’s good to speak. It’s good to preach. All this is good, but give me your heart. I just want to be with you.
In the busyness of ministry—even though I was still doing personal devotions and all that—my heart had probably gotten cold and distant, maybe formulaic and habitual with God. And so this was a big wake up call to me and I adjusted a lot over the next year or so, but I have to confess that I allowed it to creep up again on me. About three years after the first episode, despite all the lessons I thought I learned, the exact same thing happened again and I ended up back in the hospital. And this time I kind of took it as, Okay, David, three strikes and you’re out. So you better learn this time.
So I get how busy people are. I get how it’s often really good things that are making us busy, but often at the expense of the best thing: is communion and fellowship with our Savior.
Impact on Family
You mentioned the physical consequences of this burnout, these periods of burnout in your own life. You’re married, you have five kids I believe. What impact did that season—and not just the time in the hospital but even leading up to that—what impact did that pace of life have on your relationships with your family?
I always really prioritized my marriage and my kids, but again I would have to say although I was spending time—I was taking a day off most weeks and spending at least parts of most evenings with my kids and my wife—it was rushed. It wasn’t high quality. It was stressed. I would say things like this to myself, I’ve got better things to do.
So even the things that should refresh and renew, like spending time with my wife and kids, were kind of becoming stressful themselves. My wife has been through her own experiences of depression. She warned me, she challenged me; but I always thought I would be the exception. And I wasn’t. No one is. And eventually it catches up and with me it was physical. With other people it can be emotional. With other people it can be moral. People can end up in terrible sin and immorality. But God uses different signals, different warnings, to draw us back to himself. So I try to put my relationships with God and my family above everything else now.
The Challenge of Transparency
As you think about that season, did you find it hard to talk about your struggles with other Christians, whether before or maybe even after your stints in the hospital?
Before, for sure, Matt. I come from Scotland, as you might have gathered—we don’t do the whole emotional thing, we don't put things out on the table, let it all hang out. No, we shut up. We turn in on ourselves. So even when I was sensing things were not right, I didn’t reach out for help. But immediately after the first episode I thought, I believe God has given me this, not just for my own benefit, but for the benefit of others. So I immediately started blogging and doing interviews and writing and really that’s what led to the book Reset with Crossway, and I don’t regret that at all. And from what I’ve seen and heard, the fact that I’ve been very open and honest and tried to be as transparent as I could about all this, it has helped others to do the same. It’s helped others to speak and maybe seek help before the crisis comes into their lives.
A Surprising Response
As you started speaking about this both in your own community, your own church, but also via your blog and your website and interviews, were you surprised by the response that you received?
Yeah. I knew it was bad because I mix a lot with pastors, especially men, but I didn’t think it was as bad as it is. And actually, I think it’s gotten worse even since 2011-2012, when I had my first episode of blood clots in my lungs. I think there are more people addressing it and working through it, but I think those who are not, their situations are getting worse and worse. The demands of modern life, modern communications, ministry expectations, is only increasing unfortunately.
More Prevalent than We Think
Why do you think it is that you were maybe less aware of how prevalent the problem is? I think of a lot of us: we’re in the middle of our lives and we’re kind of struggling to hold on, trying to push through and do everything that we need to do. And it’s easy to not really feel like other people are dealing with the same things. It seems like maybe they have things under control a little bit more. Why do you think that might be?
I think number one, we’re men. We don’t talk so easily about weakness, frailty, and vulnerability. So I think, Matt, that works against us. I think also we tend to think that we are the exception. So we see other people heaving and collapsing and burning out, but we’re going to be the different one. I think the third thing—and this is very much in my own experience—we’re always promising ourselves that we’ll get to this down the road. In fact, I remember the first experience with blood clots I had I was sitting in my chair in my living room and just felt this terrible pain across my chest. I just finished an incredibly busy season and I promised myself all through these months, That Tuesday night, that’s like the beginning of the new David and I’m really going to put things right and everything’s going to be different. And the Lord said, No, actually, I’m going to put things right. I’m going to make things different.
So I think that’s often the case with us. We always think, Okay, if I can just go over this, or just achieve this, or just get this done, then. . . . The nature of work, and business, and ministry, it’s never done. We never actually reach that point. There’s always more to be done. And so I think it’s to realize now’s the time. We are not the exception. Listen to God’s voice and start talking. Because what you notice when you do start talking is lots of other people start talking too and you begin to realize, Okay, it’s not just me. This is a common problem. You feel less weird, as it were.
The Unique Challenge of Christian Community
You talk to people and it seems like, in addition to the common reasons that men might struggle to be honest about some of these things they’re feeling, even in the church it seems that sometimes it’s even harder to be transparent about feelings of stress or anxiety or depression or just exhaustion. What do you think might contribute to that unique challenge in the context of Christian community?
I think there’s two things. One is ministry is all good, so you might see somebody working eighteen-hour days, six or seven days a week in a business and it’s really obvious he shouldn’t be doing that. But when it’s a minister, pastor, or counselor, it’s all good stuff. It’s all stuff even directly for the Lord and therefore it’s much harder to say, Enough. It’s all so good, it’s all for the Lord, therefore, how can I say, No?
I think the second factor is we have a wrong anthropology in the sense that we do not accept human limitations. We somehow think that if we’re in ministry, the spirit’s willingness will always make up for the flesh’s weakness. And we don’t take into account the fact that we have physical needs and physical limitations, that we’re finite creatures, and that we must care for our bodies—and our minds especially—if we’re to flourish spiritually.
So the idea I think is very common that if I’m doing ministry stuff and I’m really focused on the spiritual, then the physical will all be fine. That is false. That is not how God has made us. He’s connected our bodies and our souls and our minds and intertwined them so much that you just cannot neglect the physical and expect the spiritual not to suffer alongside. So I think we need to address these two areas.
The Apostle Paul’s Example
Related to that second point that you noted: it makes me think of a passage—2 Corinthians 11—where Paul lists out some of the difficulties that he’s faced in his life. He mentions “labors, and imprisonments, with countless beatings and often near death.” He notes that he “subjected himself to danger, toil, and hardship through many a sleepless night, and hunger and thirst, often without food.” And he goes on to even note the daily pressure that was on him and his anxiety for his churches that he was ministering to. Paul doesn’t seem like someone who was very concerned about pacing himself. What should we think about his example, and others like that in Scripture?
I think it’s easy to look at a section like that and impose twenty-first century life on it and say, See! Paul never rested and therefore, we should never rest. I think there are other passages from Paul—for example 1 Corinthians 6—where he teaches the importance of stewarding the body, caring for the temple of the Holy Spirit, and using the body in careful ways that maintain it, renew it, and refresh it.
And I think another thing is to remember the example of the Lord Jesus. He, yes, was very much engaged in ministry, but he took time out. He rested. He encouraged his disciples to do the same. So there’s no question that there were times in Paul’s life where it was the most stressful times of his life. But I think that would be a mistake to say that that was the case all the time. Because those who have tried to do this all the time eventually collapse.
I work at Puritan Reformed Seminary and oftentimes Puritan Reformer examples are held up. Calvin worked twenty-five hours a day and eight days a week, therefore so should we. Yeah, well, Calvin was very limited for large parts of his life due to ill health. Other people who tried to live like that—amongst Puritan Reformers—they died young. Charles Spurgeon spent the last third of his life—much of it—in the south of France recovering from depression and other physical ailments. We’re not told the other side of the story. And that’s not to say that there aren’t exceptional times in our lives. And there is the odd person in church history who is the exception to the rule. But we shouldn’t make exceptional times the general rule. And we shouldn’t make the very rare exceptional person the rule for ourselves. I think the examples all around us are far more common of people who exceeded normal human limitations for too long, they eventually suffer ill health or die young and therefore, they ultimately lose ministry opportunities, usefulness, and productivity.
Hagiography and Our Heroes
It seems almost universal human tendency to—as we think about our heroes, whether they’re theological, pastoral, or not—it’s easy to be drawn to people who do seemingly extraordinary things and give themselves in an extraordinary manner and we’re drawn towards that. Why do you think it is that we can be so fascinated by that, and yet not pay as much attention to the tolls that those things took on them, or the impact it had on their families, or the other parts of their lives?
I think part of the time we’re not told the other side of the story. There are a lot of biographies that have been very hagiographical and they're very much focused on the positives but ignored\ the negatives.
You think even of somebody like David Livingstone, whose example is held up for us as a remarkable missionary and in many, many, many ways he was. But there’s another side to David Livingstone’s story. He left his wife for two years virtually unprovided for. She ended up in a sanatorium and she took to alcohol. And I could multiply stories like that about other people who are still heroes in our own culture. I think it’s unfair of biographers—and for a mass of ministers—to only hold out to only hold out the incredible service but not actually tell the whole truth. And from what my own research is, every time I’ve looked into it either marriage has suffered—you think of the Wesleys—or children were neglected. And there’s so many you can look at where the children of the godly man eventually ended up in total unbelief and terrible depravity. So I think we need to realize that there’s another side of the story.
In your own experience counseling Christians struggling with burnout, do you often find that there are other theological problems, misunderstandings, or imbalances that impact their too-fast-paced lives?
I mentioned anthropology, but at the core is this theology or doctrine of God. Uniformly, the men whose lives I’ve been involved with—often very godly, devoted men, really wonderful pastors, totally dedicated to the people of God—oftentimes their view of God is rather skewed. We actually start digging in and it’s like God is a taskmaster. God is a slavemaster. God is never satisfied. God is always demanding more. And the idea of a God who loves them and accepts them, who delights in them, who enjoys them, who loves to provide for them, who takes great pleasure in their company, their fellowship—that view of God is very distant.
Again, it’s worth exploring that in our own lives when we get overwrought and overstressed and burned out. What’s our view of God in all of this? Again, I think a lot of times God is not in it if we’re honest. I will always want to challenge people: really, who are you serving here? Is it yourself? Is it your own reputation? It’s very easy to dress up spiritual ambition in a very godly way, but at the core of it, it’s selfish ambition. It’s about me and my name and my reputation. And so I think we want to really search our own hearts as to our view of God, and our view of our role, our service, and the big Why? The big motivation, Why am I doing this?
One of the things touched on in the book is the whole question of identity and who we are before God. I say that is the second most important question in the world. The first one being, Who is God? But the second one is, Who am I? I’ve noticed increasingly in counseling—whether it’s depression, anxiety, burnout, stress, even marriage problems—a lot of it comes down to false identities. Wrong answers to the question, Who am I? I think when we begin to get that one right from a biblical perspective, and it’s a question Paul addresses repeatedly in his Epistles, then you can really begin to get some deep work done that will have some lasting fruit.
Physical vs. Spiritual
It seems that Christians can sometimes fall into two camps when it comes to thinking about the causes of burnout and then perhaps the remedies as well. On the one hand there are some who might think that the real underlying problem is ultimately purely spiritual in nature. There must be something wrong or unhealthy about your spiritual life that is causing this stress or anxiety or discouragement. On the other hand, some people might tend to think that the answer is typically more self-care related. Whether that is more me time, or vacation, or learning to say “no” to people. What do you think about that dichotomy and how we often think about this and where people often fall?
We need to address both with people and usually it’s a mix of the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, the relational, and I don’t want to rule any of it out. You need to talk to people. You need to hear them talk. You need to hear what their assessment is. You need to look at the evidence. You maybe talk to their loved ones. Build a big picture of their lives, not dive in with our answers before we’ve asked questions. They often go together. What’s chicken and what’s egg is sometimes really hard to figure out because it gets so mixed up. So I just tend to address all of these areas and look in all of these doors of people’s lives—and my own life too, of course—and try and examine and find answers. And it’s usually not a simple answer. It’s usually complex. Try to do things in a holistic way. Even if it is a self-care thing—people need more rest—it’s always with a view to renewed service. So refueling—topping up, filling up—is never selfish. Self-care can be selfish. And again, we want to get to that question, Why? Why do I take a day off a week? Why do I discipline myself? Why do I take a vacation? The answer is, Because I need to refuel to serve again. Not to refuel just to have a comfortable life. I don’t like the dichotomy that’s often drawn between self-care on the one hand and spiritual service on the other.
The Toll of Technology
Do you see modern technology playing a unique role in pushing us to do more than we should?
I think it’s probably a factor in every burnout and maybe the main factor in many burnouts. What modern technology has done—and I love it, I’m a technophile myself, I have to watch this all the time—is it’s increased our accessibility and it’s increased our possibilities. So we receive many, many, many times more communications than we ever did before the iPhone. It’s objectively measurable: for every letter or phone call or communication you received in the past, we have approximately forty or fifty today. So that’s massive.
But it’s also opened up so many possibilities for ministry and information. I used to buy a daily newspaper. That was my daily information intake. I usually got home too late to watch television news or whatever—that’s when I was working in finance—but now it’s nonstop and it’s multiple sources. And the emotional temperature is much higher. You think back to mainline newspapers, there was a sobriety, there was a calmness. Yeah, there were opinions expressed, but nothing like at the rate and intensity and temperature of modern media, whether it’s TV or internet. And then you add to that the fact that we’re all not just media consumers, but media creators. We are all media people in a sense that we never were before. So now we have online ministries, online personas, that we’re managing daily. And again, that has just massively increased the pressure to maintain and keep communication going.
I think all of us are still at the front edge of this digital revolution. We’re not quite sure yet the impact of it all, but I think generations will look back on our generation and just as we do people who lived through the industrial revolution—which took about fifty years and this has taken about ten—and wonder, What were they doing?
I think it’s happening already even in secular thinking. There’s a lot more awareness that we need some decisive, radical action. You look at the rates of depression and anxiety in our teens, and it’s just unbelievable the increase over the last ten years. This is reaping what we have sown.
Common Warning Signs
Maybe someone is listening right now and they’re wondering—maybe even suspecting that—they might be headed toward burnout of some kind. What are some of the most common warning signs that person could start looking for?
In Reset, I spent a chapter on this, looking for these warning signs. We look at the physical warning signs, emotional, mental, spiritual, relational. And it varies for different people. I think God puts warning lights in our lives depending on who we are. For me it was physical. For my wife—during her time of loss and suffering—it was more emotional. For others it’s moral. So to maybe pick some sample ones, maybe some of the most common for men is sleeplessness, cutting back in sleep. If you’re down to six hours or less than that, that is objectively sleep deprivation. There’s something wrong there and you’ll eventually suffer for that.
If you are missing personal devotions, cutting down on them, or they’ve just become very formulaic. Again, that’s a warning sign—if you’re rushing through this to get to what seems like more important matters.
A lack of discipline in digital technology is common, Why am I pulling this phone out at every traffic stop? Every time I’m standing in line? I don’t allow any moments of boredom, even in the bathroom. There’s something wrong here. This is a flashing light.
If we’re pushing moral boundaries, curiosities leading us to certain websites—that’s indicating we’re wandering, our spiritual temperature is low, we lack closeness to God.
For women, emotion are often weeping, sadness. For men, it’s anger. Men who are always in conflict with other people, everything seems to be aggressive—that’s a big warning sign. For women, maybe more crying without a pattern of reason.
Where is your marriage at? Has it become very functional—just existing? What’s gone wrong there? We married this person because we wanted to spend time with them and enjoy them. We couldn’t wait to be with them and now, maybe we're finding reasons to avoid or minimize time with them. We’re not having close connection and fellowship.
How are we using the one day in the week the Lord gives us for rest and renewal? Are we eating into that with work and other activities that are draining us rather than renewing us? Jesus said, “I made this day for you. For humanity. For your good.” Is it being used for our good, or are we just following our own agenda again and it’s really no different than any other day of the week, apart from being out at church?
If you’re not taking vacations anymore, or if you’re mixing vacations and work. All of these things are flashing lights and maybe not one of these would be a bad thing. But it’s when they come in twos and threes and fours—when there are various lights flashing—then we have to hit the brakes and say, Okay. I’m going over the cliff soon and I’m going to crash unless I do something fast.
Advice for Someone Experiencing Burnout Right Now
What encouragement would you offer to the person who, hearing you talk today, is pretty certain they are in a season of burnout. They are pretty certain that they are experiencing some things in their life that are a direct result of running too hard, trying to do too much, neglecting the more important things in their life. What encouragement or advice would you offer that person?
I think the first thing is to give hope that there’s a better life. I think when we’re in that, although there’s satisfaction in it—accomplishment, achievement, productivity—on the whole we’re miserable. We’re nowhere near the kind of level of joy and satisfaction that we could be at and we’ve often forgotten what that’s like. And we’re trundling along. Maybe it’s been a very attritional, long term thing where we’ve really forgotten what it’s like to live happily and joyfully and in relationship with God and others. So I often say to people, “Look, I know this looks bad at the moment and you're thinking of all the things you’re going to lose. You’ve got to decide to chop this off or stop doing that, and you're thinking of all the losses. But on the other side of this is great gain and great life and joy again—with God, with your family, with your wife, and a far better, healthier relationship to work and ministry included.”
The men I’ve carried through this, helped through this, I’m speaking for myself too, there’s just a much better way to live on the other side of this that is actually even more productive because I think what a lot of us are trying to do is do the sowing and the watering and the reaping. And God says it’s him that does the watering and especially gives the increase. And that’s a wonderful thing to see when you actually stop striving, God starts blessing. When we come with our loaves and fishes and say, Lord, this is it. This is what I’ve got. This is my limitation. And then see him do the multiplying? That’s a wonderful experience to live through. And you look back and say, What was I doing thinking I was God? That I was the multiplier? That I was the increaser?
So there’s a great life ahead. Not loss, but gain. Using the means God has provided—and he’s provided lots of means—it can be attained and enjoyed.
Thank you, Dr. Murray. We appreciate you taking the time to share a little bit about your own story and your own journey through a season of burnout and the things that God has taught you coming out of that.
Thank you, Matt, for the opportunity to tell my story and share from my own painful lessons and hopefully prevent others from following me down that track.
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