Burnout and a Loss of Meaning
Burnout is the disease of our age. Time magazine had an editorial way back in the 1980s about “the burnout of just about everybody.” I concluded that the metaphor of burnout was not quite right, particularly when applied to those of us in the church. Burnout is a term that is borrowed from rocketry, when a rocket rising from the earth runs out of fuel, “burns out,” and falls to the earth.
Burnout implies that our problem is a lack of energy. I have concluded that many people who think they are “burning out” do so, not from the lack of energy, but from a lack of meaning. We are tired and despondent. The French call it ennui; the Bible speaks of the “noonday demon,” depression.
Burnout in Clergy
What is happening to us, we who are the ministers of Jesus Christ? Many of us are professionally, spiritually and financially depressed. The figures produced by studies only serve to quantify what we have we have bitterly experienced for ourselves. Something is very wrong, and the costs—personal, spiritual, familial and financial, as well as congregational—are terrifying.
For example, one respected study concluded that around 40 percent of Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod clergy suffer from mild to severe burnout.
From my experience teaching doctor of ministry students for a quarter of a century, I believe the same experience is common across all denominations. Our stress levels are at a medically significant level. Denominational health insurance agencies report that medical costs for clergy are higher than for any other professional group!
Doing Rather Than Being
Sabbath is that ancient idea and practice of intentional rest that has long been discarded by much of the church and our world. Sabbath is not new. Sabbath is just new to us. Historically, Christians have kept some form or another of the Sabbath for some two thousand years.
But it has largely been forgotten by the church, which has uncritically mimicked the rhythms of the industrial and success-obsessed West. The result? Our road – weary, exhausted churches have largely failed to integrate Sabbath into their lives as vital elements of Christian discipleship. It is not as though we do not love God — we love God deeply. We just do not know how to sit with God anymore.
We have come to know Jesus only as the Lord of the harvest, forgetting he is the Lord of the Sabbath as well.
Sabbath forgetfulness is driven, so often, in the name of doing stuff for God rather than being with God. We are too busy working for him. This is only made more difficult by the fact that the Western church is increasingly experiencing displacement and marginalization in a post-Christian, secular society. In that, we have all the more bought into the notion that ministering on overdrive will resolve the crisis.
Sabbath is assumed to be the culprit of a shrinking church. So, time poverty and burnout have become the signs that the minority church remains serious about God in a world that has rejected him. Because we pastor rarely practice Sabbath, we rarely preach the Sabbath. And because we do not preach the Sabbath, our congregations are not challenged to take it seriously themselves.
The result of our Sabbath amnesia is that we have become perhaps the most emotionally exhausted, psychologically overworked, spiritually malnourished people in history. Similarly challenging are the cultural realities we face.
Stress, Burnout, and a Ten-Foot Sapling
If you walk into a woods and select a ten-foot sapling, you can bend that sapling over, let it go, and it will return to its normal height and straightness. However, if you bend it again, this time a bit further, then further, then further yet . . . eventually you will hear a snap. Let it go now, and the sapling stays down. It’s broken. This is an effective illustration of what happens from the spectrum of stress to burnout. With stress, first you bend, then you recover. With burnout, first you bend, then you break. And you stay broken.
Burnout is a real phenomenon, not a figment of your imagination or a sensationalized diagnosis by overly dramatic psychologists. It’s not only real; it’s common. And it is dangerous.
The co-morbidity is very high: exhaustion, irritability, anger, paranoia, headaches, ulcers, immune dysfunction, depression, and even suicide. Burnout is that point where something within you breaks. It is that point where you quit trying, when you finally throw up your hands and say, “I don’t care anymore.
I don’t care who sees me. I don’t care who hears me. I don’t care about anything. I just want out.”
There is indeed life after burnout. It is possible to recover and once again experience passion, enthusiasm, productivity, and excellence.
But recovery requires an extended period, and the healing is mostly by scar formation. Burnout is common among the spiritually minded. They are often very sensitive and tormentingly conscientious. They see the pain, and then they internalize it. They want to help the wounded and rescue the world. But they don’t always realize that they were not designed to carry the entire global burden on their individual backs.
Should You Have A Best Friend?
In this excerpt from Dr. John Townsend, the renowned psychologist and author, shares a story from his time in seminary, where one of his professors and mentor changes his mind regarding the importance of friendship and ministry:
I was in chapel one morning, and Dr. Hendricks was speaking. During his talk, he made the point, “When you graduate from here and go into your ministry or career, it’s a good idea that you not have a best friend.” I was a bit confused by that statement, as I had several close friends and I thought they made my life better. Dr. Hendricks said that we should put all our trust in God and that best friends could lead us astray and even get in the way of living a life of faith.
I remember thinking, Well, if Moses said it, it’s just true. I really did look up to him! A couple of years later, after I graduated, a seminary friend and I were talking and he said, “Did you hear about Dr. Hendricks’ chapel message a few weeks ago?” I said no, and he said, “It was really interesting. He said, ‘You may have heard me speak here a couple of years ago and say that it wasn’t a good idea to have a best friend. I was wrong.
You’d better have a best friend.’” Now I was really confused. It’s not often that one of your personal rock stars does a one-eighty in his teaching. As it happened, though, by this time I was in the habit of having coffee with Dr. Hendricks when I was in Dallas visiting friends.
So at our next meeting, I asked him, “Tell me about your recanting what you said in chapel about best friends.” And he told me the story. The seminary had a policy of helping graduates who had a major struggle after they left the school. This could involve burnout, a church split, a moral failure, or a serious depression. Pastors are under enormous pressure, 24/7.
And the way the seminary helped them was to have Dr. Hendricks meet with them to understand their situations and help them heal and rebuild their lives. He found out that during these times, the great majority of the struggling graduates had one thing in common: they had no close friends. They were without deep, safe confidants with whom they could say anything and receive support and acceptance.
So Dr. Hendricks went back to his Bible and researched the issue. And that was how he concluded that God designed us for deep and trusting relationships. Dr. Hendricks saw that best friends were necessary for a healthy life. Being the person of character that he was, he had no trouble saying, “I was wrong” in public. He was interested only in what was true and real.
The Three Stages that Lead to Burnout
Burnout is a state of mental or physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. The key word here is stress. There are several identifiable stages of burnout. (See if you have at least two of the symptoms from any of the following lists.)
Stage one: stress arousal
- Persistent irritability
- Persistent anxiety
- Periods of high blood pressure
- Heart palpitations
- Inability to concentrate
- Frequent headaches
Stage two: energy conservation
- Lateness for work
- Needed three day weekends
- Decreased sexual desire
- Persistent tiredness in the mornings
- Social withdrawing from family and friends
- Cynical attitudes
- Change in eating and drinking habits
Stage three: exhaustion
- Chronic sadness or depression
- Chronic stomach/bowel issues
- Chronic physical fatigue
- The desire to drop out of work and society
- The desire to move away from friends and family
- Suicidal thoughts
The answer to burnout is not simply rest. We must look more deeply at issues that are causing the stress that leads to a constant state of fatigue. Often these are embedded in our stories. We find that when we are close to burnout, a weekend away seems like more work and effort, so we’d just rather not go.
The truth is there are issues in our past—patterns, modeling and beliefs—that must be unpacked and examined to understand why we are living in such a way. Why is it so hard to simply be kind to ourselves?
It’s wise for us to examine our drive to perform as well as our need to be significant and successful. As we do we note patterns and seasons where issues tend to rise and surface and then wane. It is especially wise to track sadness and grief. Another very real component of burnout is its physical toll on our bodies. The prolonged wear and tear on our bodies must be addressed with a physician, athletic trainer, life coach or spiritual director.