In seminary, I often heard and read the statistic thrown around that a high percentage of pastors burn out and leave vocational ministry within the first seven years. I haven’t done any polling or data research, but based on my own observation and relationships (along with my own moments of wanting to throw in the towell), my guess is that a study of worship leaders would yield both a higher percentage and a shorter amount of time. If preaching/teaching pastors are like butane lighters, who eventually run out of fuel in their reservoir, then worship leaders are like old fashioned stick matches—they burn out almost as soon as you light them. I’ve observed many reasons for worship leader burnout, but here are five.
1. Inability to properly deal with criticism.
All artists receive criticism. It’s part of the package. I sometimes feel, though, that the criticism is (sadly) more frequent, severe, and cutting in the church. Worship leaders have a huge target on their back, and sometimes congregations feel it is their moral and spiritual duty before God to help us maintain our “doxological purity.” I know some pretty remarkable, A-game worship leaders whose leadership I would personally die to sit under on a regular basis…they ALL receive criticism. Regularly. Relentlessly. It doesn’t let up, no matter how good a job they’re doing. Criticism is a given for the call. And I’ve seen many worship leaders burn out quickly because it becomes too hot to handle.
2. The performance treadmill.
Many worship leaders feel the intense pressure to live up to the expectations of their people. The expectations can be spiritual, such as to behave at all times in a godly manner, to live “above reproach,” to be self-controlled, or to be discrete in their social behavior. The expectations can be cultural, such as to look and sing like the final contestants on The Voice or to have a pristine Sunday sound that rivals the latest, greatest worship recording. When a worship leader is anxiously and feverishly chasing after satisfying these expectations, they are running on a treadmill of performance that wears them out and gets them nowhere…no matter how fast they can run or how much endurance they have.
3. Worship messiah complex.
Burnout also occurs when worship leaders slip into the mentality that we must “save” the worship service and its worshipers. We feel an intense burden to redeem God’s people from bad music, bad theology, and bad leadership. We wear our worship leader superhero emblem proudly on our chest or more covertly in our heart. We feel like the world is on our shoulders. (“The senior pastor won’t do it; the rest of my worship team won’t do it; the congregation certainly won’t do it; It’s up to me,” we think.) Or we feel the responsibility of making sure that a worship service is actually inspiring and uplifting to people. And when it’s not—when the people are disengaged and passionless—we take full responsibility. I’ve seen many worship leaders burn out because of this type of pressure to “save” worship.
4. Comparison with other worship leaders.
We all play this game. Our sound isn’t as sexy as Mars Hill, or as swanky as Sojourn, or as quirky as Sufjan. Our instrumentation isn’t creative or original enough. We aren’t as eloquent when we speak. We aren’t blogging every week about profound worship topics. We aren’t making recordings. We aren’t building a worship school. We aren’t adored by our congregations like others are. We don’t dress cool enough or have any tats. We don’t have the tight camaraderie with other pastors and church leaders like they do. We don’t get asked to lead worship in other venues. We aren’t voraciously reading in our field. We don’t seem to have as vibrant a relationship with our spouse. We started getting behind on our daily Bible-reading plan on January 4. We simply don’t measure up to the “output” of the worship leaders we observe, admire, and know.
5. Poor relationship with your supervisor and/or lead pastor.
I’ve witnessed countless worship leaders hang up their hat because of “irreconcilable differences” with their lead pastor. There is a painful disconnect, a clash of vision, or a sense of competition for power and influence. The lead pastor doesn’t offer enough encouragement and then fills that vacuum with “constructive criticism,” week in and week out. They want something, and we just can’t seem to deliver. Or don’t want to. There’s very little trust, and certainly no genuine friendship. It started out strong, but it had long since devolved into one, perpetual simmering pot of tension. The expiration date on this is stamped.
We could go on with more reasons and causes for worship leader burnout, but I am convinced that the remedy is the same for all…and it is entirely effective. The remedy is the Gospel, nothing more and nothing less. The Gospel declares that, when we hear criticism, whether it is true or not, we’re free to receive it because all the approval we need has been met in how God the Father sees us through the finished work of the Son. The Gospel places a gentle hand on our shoulder when we’re feverishly running on the performance treadmill, saying, “Jesus ran, so you don’t have to.” The Gospel prophesies that a Messiah has come and that He is responsible for whether worship goes well…and it has gone well, because He perfected it by His life’s worship. The Gospel puts an end to our self-defeating comparisons with others, because we are in Christ, the only One who measures up. And the Gospel heals broken relationships, because all the guarded walls of defensiveness and “rightness” can come down due to the fact that in Christ we’re free to be wrong, free to be evaluated, free to apologize, and free to submit and trust.You see, in all five of these reasons for worship leader burnout is the common thread of what Martin Luther called “the voice of the Law,” resounding the condemning word of our failure. And this voice is good, right, and true. We do not measure up. But into the abyss of our failure flies the swift-winged Holy Spirit who cries out with such a thunderous voice that the cavern of our sin shakes under its reverberant echoes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”Brothers and sisters, this is the only flame that never burns out.