Shepherd’s Care: Burnout

If we do not deal with our fatigue, it will spiral downward into burnout.  For a long time I equated burnout with milder forms of depression, and there are similarities.  But thanks to something Will Willimon wrote, I came to see it differently.

Will said that burnout is not the inability to move a sheet of paper from one side of your desk to the other; it is the lack of desire to do so.

That made immediate sense to me, and more, it described a condition in my life which has come and gone over the years.  It describes the condition of the pastor who told me, “Steve, I know what to do; I just don’t want to do it anymore.”

While burnout is more often defined psychologically today, it has connections with the ancient concept of acedia.  Kathleen Norris has written a good book on the subject, using the one-word as the title.  It is, in fact, one of the classical “seven deadly sins.”  It is a condition that creates spiritual boredom and passivity, where we find ourselves just going through the motions of life and ministry—almost like robots, rather than human beings.

Acedia is particularly dangerous for clergy, because we can maintain the image that “everything is okay” while suffering from acedia.  That’s why most clergy falls take people by surprise.  The person was maintaining the image, right up to the end—but may have been imploding for a long time.

Burnout must be addressed, because it is like termites eating away at the infrastructure of our souls.  And it can be addressed, because we have not yet lost the ability to confront our situation and make it better.  We must simply understand that it is not going to get better automatically.  This is a time when having a trusted soul friend is of great benefit. It is also a time to cling tightly to the fact that Jesus knows when we feel this way, and he too is willing to walk with us through the malaise.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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2 Responses to Shepherd’s Care: Burnout

  1. Mike Weaver says:

    Thanks so very much for your post! I couldn’t agree with you more that “burnout must be addressed, because it is like termites eating away at the infrastructure of our souls.” What a great illustration and a fitting one as well. My mission through Group Mind is to help pastors deal with pastoral burnout by reawakening their in ministry by renewing their relationships.

    Thanks for posting such an insightful and inspiring blog.

  2. Jay Therrell says:

    Steve, I’ve both enjoyed and deeply needed to read your recent posts on the Sheperd’s Care section of your blog. Are you going to post anything about how we can address burnout? Thanks, friend!

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