Burnout

On two occasions, I have come close to burnout, even after running seminars for Christian leadership on this subject. The condition of burnout may build up slowly, to the extent that initially, we are unaware of it. Burnout caught public attention in 1980 after the book ‘Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement’.

A counsellor/friend I visited on one of these occasions defines burnout as ‘the inevitable outcome of unattended cumulative stress’ (Brian Massey). A fuller explanation is ‘Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, social and spiritual exhaustion.’ People involved in practical ministry are highly vulnerable to burnout. The casualty rate is so high that many drop out of ministry for good. You are not superhuman, so you need to plan for the long haul rather than simply committing yourself to the immediate opportunities and pressures facing you! On a scale of 1 – 10, where 1 equals no sign of burnout and 10 indicates you have a severe burnout problem, what number would you choose?

‘Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have; it merely reveals the nothingness from which I am trying to give in the first place,’ (Parker Palmer).

Biblical Perspective:

Scripture is full of people approaching burnout. For example, Moses nearing emotional exhaustion received counsel from his father-in-law Jethro just in time. He gave the advice to delegate much of his work to others as soon as possible, which he did (Ex 18: 17-27). Then, after a significant victory in killing the prophets of Baal, Elijah found himself in a desert place hiding from Jezebel. His heart cry was that he might die (1 Kings 19:4). And so, the list could go on and on!

People functioning in burnout may cause much damage to themselves and others and discredit God’s work.

Observations:

Reasons for burnout:

  1. Our cultural upbringing. I grew up in a home where my mother often talked about getting up very early in the morning and milk the cows before going to school. I, too, was expected to work very hard. It was the norm in my environment. Breaking that expectation can be exceedingly challenging. I found myself approaching burnout even in retirement. Eventually, I forced myself to only work in the mornings and take every afternoon off for a while and only do things that refreshed me until my health became restored.
  2. An addiction to work, which is different to the above. In many ways, many people enjoy a hard day’s work. It gives a sense of satisfaction, and we love to see others released and drawn to Jesus, although these tasks and projects we take on can overdrive us if we are not careful and deplete us of all energy.
  3. Issues of poor self-esteem: We want to feel good about ourselves by excelling in our giftings, putting us under extreme pressure.
  4. We live for the praise of others and try to avoid criticism. To ‘know yourself’ is essential in tackling this problem.
  5. Bowing to the expectations of others. People can be so demanding, and sooner or later, we may have to confront this tactfully.
  6. Not taking a weekly Sabbath rest. I recently read this interesting story. ‘Someone applying for an associate pastors job had an interview. “Rich, there’s only one way to get fired at this church.” I sat up straight, waiting for him to give an example of some moral failure. He said, “If you don’t keep (the) Sabbath you will get fired, because you won’t have the kind of life that will sustain you for the kind of work pastoring entails.” (Rich Villodas, Christianity Today) Do you want to work for the ‘short haul’ or the ‘long haul’? Too many of us think that we are superhuman until we slide into burnout, and then it’s too late! You must learn to pace yourself before you lose your health and spiritual vitality.’
  7. Eugene Peterson defined Sabbath as ‘Uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing.’
  8. “Vicarious trauma”, where we are stressed/traumatised as we hear of others pain and suffering.

Ways to overcome burnout:

  1. If Jesus was to take over your ministry, would He work at your pace? If not, what are you going to do about it? No excuses, please, especially by thinking that you will rest up once this latest task is out of the way! Needs do not always constitute a call. Jesus often withdrew to a quiet place to restore His strength. ‘Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed’ Mark 1:35. Prayer is listening and speaking to God. Remember both. Meditation exercises help.
  2. Reading books about burnout is good, but reading relevant articles is more time effective. It is also good to attend appropriate seminars on this subject occasionally, to take stock of yourself.
  3. Regular physical exercise is essential. One specialist mentions that 95% of all the burnout cases he has treated did not regularly exercise.
  4. I endeavour to spend a monthly time with a wise, godly person to celebrate my joys and confess my sins and failures in a confidential atmosphere. ‘Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective’, (James 5:16). John Wesley was a strong advocate for this confession time, where he encouraged his followers to share in small group settings every week. Don’t let shame override the importance of getting help. ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’, Galatians 6:2.
  5. As mentioned, do take a weekly sabbath rest and do things that replenish your energy level. What sort of things does that mean for you?
  6. Work on maintaining quality relationships, especially with your spouse and children if married. Spend less time with negative people if you find them draining.
  7. Take charge of your life and don’t be controlled by others. Leave some time for recovery between interviews and be prepared to rearrange appointment times for a later date if you are not up to seeing them at the present time.
  8. Recognise your limits and do not try and impress people.
  9. Failure is not necessarily final. I love Churchill’s quote, ‘Success is going from one failure to another, without losing enthusiasm’. Scripture certainly backs that up. For example, coming back to Moses and Elijah, with God’s help, they worked through issues of burnout and continued in fruitful ministry.

‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest,’ Matthew 11:28 (Message).

Resources:
Honourably Wounded, by Marjory F. Foyle
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero
Gotquestions.org https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-burnout.html

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