Relational Saturation: When Our Love for People Turns to Burnout - Part 1

Authors: Jeff & Sara Simons April 2015

It’s amazing how many leaders we sit with from whom we hear this sentiment: “I still love God, and I still feel “called”… but man, I just really can’t stand people right now. I just want to get away from them!” It may sound extreme but it’s a very real aspect of full-time relational ministry.

Even as an extrovert in the ministry world, I’ve been there too! Too many times. I’ve felt the same sentiment for example when support-raising to “get to the field”. As we would hit the road for yet another support-raising roadtrip. Pulling up to an appointment I would feel myself just wanting to be somewhere alone; away from ministry, family, and the energy output. I even remember pulling up to a close friend’s house one time and asking my wife what this friend’s kid’s names were again… it’s like the relational saturation was even flooding my ability to remember normal details—a helpful saturation “threshold sign” I’ve come to identify in time…

 Consider your relational “web” for a moment:

·       How many people are on your ministry newsletter list? 

·       How many are in your local gathering of followers and seekers in your context (whatever form that takes)?

·       How many “friends” are you connected to on Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and other frequently used social media sights?

·       How many individuals, churches or groups are currently supporting your ministry in tangible ways that you keep up communication with?

 Despite how structured, organic, tangible or fluid our ministry work and lives are, the bottom line of the “business” we deal and interface in is the currency of relational equity.

Where We Don’t Lean in Enough…

Often-referenced leadership author and teacher Bobby Clinton made some pretty significant discoveries around the area of relational connection, saturation and management in a lesser-know study that he called the core Social Bases of leadership endurance for long-term service.

In the process of researching the leadership timelines and patterns of hundreds of leaders, some significant patterns pertaining to leadership endurance began to emerge. Interestingly, there was not a marked difference between leaders who finished well and left a growing legacy, and those that “finished” but collapsed over the line, and those who burned out or fell away from ministry prematurely. At least not a marked difference in the usual support systems we think of: financial-support and prayer-support

However, some very interesting patterns emerged in other significant areas; one of which Clinton defined as Emotional Support. This could include regular, life-giving relational connections for you that support the various needs for your social and relational needs—e.g. intercession teams, Spiritual direction, accountability groups, Counseling, time for free-flowing fun with friends, hobby-based groups, local gathering of believers, and frequency of life-giving connection with family and friends local and “back home”.

Intentionally engaging these areas regularly in a leader’s life proved to truly be a key aspect of empowerment that influenced a marked a difference between the few leaders who finished well, and those who left the journey of calling pre-maturely.

This remains a key attrition area to help leaders intentionally lean into, develop, and manage for relational health in our support structures. Often this is malnourished in place of our impassioned tunnel-vision attention to our growing “donor-base back home” and our growing “ministry community in context”. Often there is overlap between these and the areas of Emotional support described above, but how the time is focused and intentionally spentmakes the main difference. 

Our hope is that new perspectives for connecting more authentically and sustainably with family, team, community, supporters, those you’re ministering to, and with God, will help move you toward better resiliency on the field.

See Relational Saturation - Part 2 for a construct to discuss healthy balance and sustainability

·       Q: What implications could this have for doing furloughs and support-raising trips more effectively, sustainably, and fostering authentic connection?

·       Q: What implications can this have on how we communicate to particular audiences in our newsletters and ministry reports?

·       Q: What implications does this have for mixed ministry teams: families, singles, lifestage differences, age differences, cultural or sub-cultural differences? 

·       Q: What implications does this have for questions of “team” and “community” structure and how much they should overlap?

·       Q: What implications does this have regarding the ways we are connecting, or pressuring ourselves to connect, and also projecting or pressuring our kids to connect in the context? 

·       Q: How do we expose our MKs to a variety of environments and help them process authentic and appropriate interaction in each? 

·       Q: What implications does this have for the way you do ministry and where and how you connect?

·       Q: What similar and different implications does this have for doing ministry to moderns and postmoderns?            

Relational Saturation: When our Love for People Turns to Burnout - Part 2

Authors Jeff and Sara Simons April 2015

Part 1 - Relational Saturation: When our Love for People Turns to Burnout

Are you able to “un-plug” and put down work and relational dynamics on a regular basis? 

Do you have places to process and connect outside of your direct ministry context and donor base? That’s what matters for resiliency…

Areas We’re Drowning Ourselves…

How do we think creatively about this with the ever-increasing pressure to grow the connections in our context, with those back home, and with those available to us virtually?

Joseph Myers, in his work, Search to Belong, provides a helpful construct for us to process this for our personal areas of relational saturation and management. He labels the 4 relational spheres in which we develop our personalities, culture and communication and through which we move towards creating a sense of belonging: 


·       Intimate sphere (often only 1-3 people in your life actually are intimate connections); e.g. married couple, very close friendships, close siblings: “Intimate Belonging occurs when we share “naked” information and are not ashamed” (Myers 67).

·       Personal sphere (3-9 people connecting); e.g. closer person or group of friends, often share with deeper passion/knowledge: “Personal belonging occurs when we share private (but not ‘naked’) experiences, feelings, and thoughts” (67).

·       Social sphere (usually between 8-25 people connecting); e.g. new small groups, work teams or groups : “Social belonging occurs when we share ‘snapshots’ of who we are” (65).

·       Public sphere (25 or more connecting) “Public belonging occurs when people connect through an outside influence [such as a team or a church]” (64).

Now, obviously there is overlap between these spheres of connection for us in our day-to-day. However, one thing that may surprise us, especially in the ministry world, is that in all 4 spheres we have potential to connect, to be committed and participate, and to find the connection significant

Contrary to ideas and fads, belonging is not demonstratively achieved through more time, more commitment, more purpose, more personality, more proximity, or more small groups. These can be helpful environments, but don’t show a promising track record for yielding increased “belonging” in people. Belonging happens spontaneously when the environment is conducive. Therefore attention to the environment for others and ourselves, and realistic expectations for the level of appropriate connection that can take place in that setting becomes very important. People must move from the public sphere first and must do so willingly. Contrary to many relationally-minded people, not ALL people want to move or even should move from the public to the intimate sphere. Ultimate health and balance in one’s relational health is determined by the balance in all four.

Community—the goal humankind has sought since the beginning of time—is achieved when we hold harmonious connections within all four spaces. Harmony means more public belongings than social. More social belongings than personal. And very few intimate. True community accomplished through the significant relationships we embrace in all four. This study provides insight into the environments we spend our time in, and sheds a light on the appropriateness of our expectations for connection in those environments. 

How many times have you participated in a small group (or the like) that formed out of a larger community or gathering? The first few meetings often involve telling our life stories in an attempt to quickly form “intimacy” and commitment. Within the walls of the church the focus is most often on two spheres: the public and the intimate to the neglect of the other two spheres. The balance is what is needed for healthy community and more importantly like Clinton would say, support structures. We ourselves fall into the same trap, and then feel the inauthenticity and guilt that relates.

The principal power behind all of this is that we are given a construct with helpful guides/boundaries to be able to evaluate our significant connections in our social life, to determine if there are areas that are missing, or would be good to lean into; and if there are areas that we are over-saturated for whatever reason, and need to healthily take a step back and give ourselves grace and boundaries. Seasons of transition and grieving are especially unique seasons of grace extension. The ultimate goal is for healthy balance and authentic, reciprocated relationships. It is here that we can find healthy balance and avoid unnecessary emotion burnout and fatigue, or unnecessary loneliness and isolation. That we would be able to effectively and authentically engage and know when we are able to give and when we are not.


Some key questions that could emerge from these principles:

  • Which sphere is most challenging, or confused for you currently?

  • Which sphere is most life-giving and healthy for you?

  • Is there a relationship and connection that you feel you need to either consider more realistic boundaries, give yourself more grace, or that the Spirit may be nudging you to be more open?

  • In what ways, if any, do these perspectives change the way you are doing, or will do ministry in the future?

  • In what ways do you need to give yourself grace in the pressure you feel for connection levels in your context?

  • In what ways do you need to credit others with more trust and grace, allowing them to belong to the space they choose in this season?