taking the words of Jesus seriously

It was 2019. At work, I was newly-appointed to my role and trying to lead a national communications department of a Christian missionary organisation through significant change. At home, I’d needed to move back in with my parents, as rent in my city was too expensive for a single person on minimum wage to afford. I was stressed about work, was finding church and life commitments hard, and was utterly, completely exhausted.

I was – and still am – inspired by the idea of building God’s kingdom and working for him. However, I always found work at the missionary organisation hard, even though I loved the people I worked with and believed in what we were doing. But towards the end of my time there, the responsibilities of my role got exceptionally tough. I couldn’t manage the day-to-day tasks, let alone the long-term ones, and it was having a hugely negative effect on my health. I rationalised it to myself, telling myself that God had called me to the organisation, and that the pain and difficulty I was feeling were part of the necessary sacrifice to follow his call. I needed to ‘take up my cross’; I just needed to push through this next bit of difficulty. Jesus hadn’t promised me an easy life, right?

Burnout is increasingly common in our society, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic. It’s defined by the World Health Organisation as ‘a syndrome […] resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.’ (1)

What would Jesus say about burnout? How does the reality of burnout sit with the Bible’s call to be ‘living sacrifices’, and the reality of Jesus coming so that we could ‘have life, and have it to the full’?

I think there are three aspects to this:

  1. our worldview: the narratives we tell ourselves about who we are and why we’re here
  2. Our praxis, in other words, how we put into practice what we believe 
  3. The community that we do that with

1. Worldview

I spoke to Jan de Villiers – the founder of youth charity e:merge and the social enterprise Futurekraft, which has helped incubate and develop more than 150 justice projects – about this. He is no stranger to burnout:

‘As a young man, I was quite a zealot to “go and proclaim the gospel in all the world”. For me, there was a real physical element to sacrifice: I gave up all that I had, jacked in my job, went into missions. I trusted God like in the scripture where Jesus sends out his disciples without a purse, just with the clothes on their back. That was the kind of sacrifice that meant something to me.’

‘Right now though, my view of sacrifice is this: I think all of us have been called, and all of us have purpose. I’m called to work in inner-city deprived areas for example.  We are learning about our purpose along this journey in life. God does the inner work in us. We each fill a space that is unique to us. Sacrifice in that context is knowing your calling, your purpose, and being true to that.’

Jan highlights the importance of understanding our specific calling – the difference between the view that we must do the maximum to ‘bring God’s Kingdom’, and the view that we should be faithful to the specific role that God has given us. This makes a big difference. It seems obvious, but sometimes we forget that we can never meet all the need we see around us. Instead, our role is to be faithful to the calling God has given us: to become the person He has made us to be.

This realisation entails a recognition that, in Jan’s words ‘it’s not all about the stuff that we do, it’s about being: being in this world, being transformed on a daily basis. That’s the calling. That’s how we become light to the world.’ When we are on this journey of becoming, we are able to challenge injustice both through what we do and who we are, and we are also more resilient to burnout. We need to be open to this growth and change, to find the freedom in being who God made us to be.  

To what extent do you think who you become is more important than what you do?  These beliefs have tangible impacts on how we live. They also affect how we handle struggle and difficulty. It’s unusual to be an activist, or indeed a human being, without experiencing failure to some degree! And if we think that what we do is by far the most important thing, then failure has few redeeming qualities. However, if we are focused on becoming, failure can be part of our journey of becoming – the uncomfortable furnace in which godly character is formed. 

2. Praxis

Often, our lives don’t match up with our beliefs! Paul talks about this in Romans: ‘what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do’.(2) When it comes to outworking our worldview, it’s helpful to have a set of rhythms and practices to follow – like a trellis or set of garden canes that guide and support us as we grow into the person God has made us to be. These practices will look different for each of us, because we’re all different! However, there may be a few things we have in common. 

Perhaps the most important practice of all is setting good boundaries. The research professor, social worker and author Brene Brown said that one of the most shocking findings from her research was that ‘the most compassionate people… were also the most boundaried’. (3) Setting good boundaries – saying no to things, prioritising space to connect with God, yourself, those close to you; making time for life-giving activities; deciding what is ‘too much’, all these things are deeply connected with maintaining our ability to be compassionate. 

Boundaries are the natural outworking of the recognition that, as Jan says ‘ultimately it is more about becoming our true selves than about what we do’. 

3. Community

It took months of me getting steadily more fragile before some good friends said over a pub lunch, “Rach, I don’t think it’s meant to be this painful and hard to just go to work. We don’t think this is what God has for you.” Somehow, though others had been concerned, it was their words that hit home.

Sometimes those closest to us see what is going on with us clearer than we can ourselves. Community can keep us accountable. And, living and working in community gives us extra resources and wisdom to draw on when things get hard. When I asked Shane Claiborne about this, he illustrated it this way: ‘The way that you put out a fire, a campfire, is you scatter the coals. And the way that you keep a fire alive is by stoking those coals. That’s why community and movement are so essential. If you’re just a little candle, you can be blown out by the wind, but a fire is actually fueled by the wind. When the winds come, it only makes the fire stronger.’

Who is your community? Do you have trusted friends that can challenge and keep you accountable? In my case, following this challenge from my friends, I took a step back and spent a while asking God if he was really wanting me to make this type of sacrifice to build his kingdom. Turns out, he wasn’t – and I handed in my notice shortly after that, stepping into the unknown to find out what he did want me to do.

Even today I am still figuring this out but using this ‘transformation triangle’ (worldview/praxis/community) is helping me work through how changes in my worldview are supported by a trellis of rhythms and practices, and by a community, so that they lead to wider change in my life.

(1) https://icd.who.int/browse/2024-01/mms/en#129180281
(2) Romans 7:15.
(3) Brené Brown, ‘Boundaries, Empathy, and Compassion’, https://youtu.be/xATF5uYVRkM 

Rachel Walker is a co-author, together with Rich Gower, of The Hopeful Activist: Discovering the vital change you were made to bring, published in May 2024 by SPCK. She is also part of the team behind the Hopeful Activists’ Podcast, alongside Abi Thomas, Rich Gower and Beth Saunders.

About The Author


Rachel Walker is a co-author, together with Rich Gower, of The Hopeful Activist: Discovering the vital change you were made to bring, published in May by SPCK. She is also part of the team behind the Hopeful Activists’ Podcast, alongside Abi Thomas, Rich Gower and Beth Saunders.

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