Shepherd’s Care: Beating Burnout

As we move farther into “the downward spiral,” we must deal more deliberately and decisively with the conditions we’re facing.  This week we take a look at burnout.

In classical Christian spirituality burnout is most-closely associated with the word “acedia.”  It is a kind of spiritual “boredom” or “malaise” that overtakes the spirit.  Rather than go into detail here, let me simply recommend that you read Kathleen Norris’ book Acedia.

In this blog post, I will relate it to the idea of “spiritual dryness” and suggest some actions to take relative to it.

First, recognize that it’s normal.  The illusion is that we can maintain a never-ending “spiritual high” about our lives and our ministries.  The fact is, we live in a world of fluctuations. Years ago, an article in Texas Monthly Magazine helped me see this, and I have been talking about it ever since.  It is natural for us to go through cylcles and phases about nearly everything.  Once in a while, the phase will be the experience of burnout.  So, rather than treat it as an aberration, we should view it as normal.  Interestingly, Harvard Medical School is now calling burnout “entrepreneurial stress.”

One of Satan’s tricks when we are in burnout is to come to us with a sneer and a voice dripping with sarcasm, “And you call yourself a Christian!?”  If we recognize that burnout is normal, we can respond without blinking an eye, “You bet I do! Leave me alone.”

Second, seek to know the cause.  Remember, burnout is the edge of depression.  Something is usually making us feel the way we do.  Here are some possibilities:  physical issue (sleep deprivation, chemical imbalance in the brain, insufficient exercise), idealism (unrealistic expectations that we hold or that others lay on us), workaholic patterns (moving from simply having ‘busy days’ to living a ‘busy life’), competition (trying to be like another pastor or another church), egotism (unrelenting ‘image’ maintenance), diminishing use of the means of grace, and absence of sabbath.  These are only examples.  The point is that if we can identify a cause, we can concentrate the energy we have on it.

Third, remember when you were “on fire.”  Review the good times.  What made them so?  What were you doing that you may not be doing now?  Or….what are you still trying to do now that you should have stopped doing earlier?  Sometimes it is in the light of our blessed days that we can better see what’s causing our bothersome one.  Memory can be a route to renewal.

Fourth, stay in fellowship and continue the means of grace.  But we say, “I’m not getting anything out of them!”  True, but burnout usually subsides through life together or through one of the spiritual disciplines.  If we isolate ourselves and abandon spiritual practices, we severely limit the avenues through which God can work to renew us.

Fifth, cut yourself some slack.  Slow down.  Spend time on a hobby instead of “working” all the time.  Take more naps.  Be good to yourself.  Burnout is depletion.  Your body, soul, and spirit is trying to say, “I’ve had it!”  So, give yourself a break.

Finally, remember that burnout is not a terminal illness.  Emilie Griffin has put it this way, “The rivers of living water will flow again.”  That’s the story.  Cooperate with it.  Shift from walking by sight to walking by faith.  God is with you.

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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1 Response to Shepherd’s Care: Beating Burnout

  1. Tom Pope says:

    Thanks for this article, Steve, it really helped me.

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