Brown Around the Edges

By Dr. Neil Gilliland

My schedule is relentless, and to be honest, I am simply exhausted. There are so many needs, and if I don’t try to meet them, they won’t get met. I am not trying sound like a martyr, but I don’t have time to think about me. I am never without stress. I am dealing with problems far beyond my training. I find myself not wanting to open emails simply to find out about something else, read this, think about that—and then they throw in a deadline and ask me to respond. I don’t have adequate time for my wife and kids. My family and extended family are upset with me because they are not getting enough of my time. I am on the run so much I don’t have quality time with just me and the Lord. My spiritual strength has been depleted to just above the empty mark. I doubt my own effectiveness. Maybe I should just quit!

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar? Have you been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt? Unfortunately, ministry exhaustion has become commonplace. In recent years, we have seen much discussion and research regarding burnout. Burnout is a term used in rocket science to describe the complete exhaustion of the fuel needed to launch a rocket. We have all watched the space launches when the massive fuel cell burns quickly then falls away. It is completely gone. Nothing useful is left. 

This concept has been integrated into the literature of behavioral science to describe the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest—no energy left. Colloquially, we would say they “crash and burn.” Victims of burnout leave and rarely, if ever, come back. The ministry community has not been immune from these realities.

Marjorie Foyle, a British psychiatrist, suggested a more accurate word to use in the ministry/missionary community, might be brownout. I think the same is true for anyone in ministry. Brownout is an electrical term that refers to short- or long-term loss or weakening of the electric power to an area. Most of us have experienced it. The computer is sluggish. The lights dim. The ceiling fans are lethargic. Adequate power is simply not available for them to work properly. From personal observations, many in ministry are caught in a downward spiral of brownout. They are not completely burned up, but their physical, relational, emotional, and spiritual energies have been so depleted their efficacy as ministers has been compromised. Most of us recognize the signs but are not sure exactly what to do about it. Our schedules keep getting filled. Needs still must be met. What is a minister supposed to do?

Before I share a few suggestions, I want to be transparent and say they are easier to write than to put into practice, even for me. I often tell the couples for whom I do premarital counseling that good marriages do not happen by chance; they are intentional. So, if you are feeling a bit “brown around the edges” you might try the following:

Make time with the Father a priority. Take a new and fresh look at the spiritual disciplines. Ask the question, “What do I choose to do today that would glorify God the most?” Most simply put: go in the closet and shut the door.

Get the exercise and sleep you need and eat balanced and healthy meals. I know I sound like your physician, but a direct positive correlation exists between physical health and emotional health. Take a brisk walk every day. Walk rather than drive when you can. Take the steps once in a while rather than the elevator. A good night’s rest is invaluable. Find the right amount of sleep you need to be the most effective during the day. (Just a reminder: too much sleep can leave you as lethargic as too little sleep). I am not a health food fanatic but monitor your eating habits and make corrections as needed.

Get away from your ministry. It’s okay to take a day off. Christian workers are notorious for not resting or observing a day off. Sabbath rest is a biblical command. Sundays are usually not a good day to relax for those in ministry, so pick at least one day during the week to rest. Take a vacation every year. Sometimes, it is financially difficult to do so, but make it a priority and save toward a vacation. It is an investment in your family and ministry.

Relax. When your day’s work is finished, relax. Read a book that is not work related. Develop a hobby or take time for a hobby you already enjoy. Find something that will rest your mind from the rigors of meeting needs in difficult places. Circumstances may require a new hobby. I always have loved to fish, but when we were missionaries in Cote d’Ivoire I was only able to go a handful of times.
I had to develop other hobbies. Some draw or paint. Others like watching birds or hiking. Perhaps it is as simple as reading. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you give your mind and body a break from tension.

Renew your mind (change the way you think). One writer described this as cognitive restructuring. Take a personal audit. Reassess your goals. Like your clothes, they need to be changed sometimes. Improve attitudes. Learn a healthy assertiveness and use the middle two letters of the alphabet—NO—sometimes, without apology). Know your gifts and your limits. Face your fears; don’t avoid them by pretense or bury them in addiction. Above all, avoid states of helplessness. Take time to develop coping strategies for difficult situations. Learn not to make catastrophes out of ordinary events. Increasing paranoia (they are out to get me) is a sign of burnout.

Laugh. I always tell students training for ETEAM to laugh at themselves, because they will be a “doofus” at some point. We all are. And, I don’t buy the notion that people are laughing with us. No, they are laughing at our
“doofus-ness.” Laugh with them.

Have a small group that surrounds you with prayer, support, and accountability. They are what I call kinsmen friends. Allow them the freedom to speak truth into
your life. 

Our days and nights are filled, but if we are going to be effective for the Kingdom, we must take care of ourselves, lest we give the evil one a foothold. We become increasingly vulnerable to his flaming arrows when we fail to care for ourselves and put on the Lord’s armor. I am praying that the Father will give you and me the strength we need to be wise when we start to feel brown around the edges.

About the Writer: Dr. Neil Gilliland is director of member care for IM, Inc. Email Neil:


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