Shepherd’s Care: The Downward Spiral (4)

If we do not deal with fatigue we spiral downward into burnout.

I misunderstood burnout for a while.  I thought of it as a loss of ability, but that’s not what it is.  It is a loss of interest.  We move downward from “I can handle it”….to “I cannot handle it”….to “I don’t want to handle it.”

I experienced this in the mid-1980’s.  I was living the dream of teaching at my alma mater—teaching spiritual formation.  But I was exceeding the speed limit and letting egotism keep me from admitting it.  I moved from stress into fatigue.

And then….I had feelings I thought I would never have.  I wanted to “get away” from the dream.  I came to the place where “I didn’t want to do it anymore.”  I would have sold it to the lowest bidder.

Oh….I kept going.  In fact, I put the pedal to the metal, thinking I could outrun the burnout.  If I could stay ahead of it (I falsely reasoned), I would be okay—forgetting that burnout is not about what’s past, but about what’s immediate.

In fatigue we lose energy.  In burnout we lose meaning.  Our highest joys become our lowest moments.  The very things we dreamed of doing now seem to be “empty” of the meaning they once had.  We can continue ministry—we just don’t really want to.  People may still be helped and blessed, but inside we are saying, “Why isn’t my own ministry ministering to me?”

In burnout we do not become careless.  Again, our ego (pride form) will not permit this.  We appear as “together” as ever.  Oh, no!  We are not careless, but we “care less.”  We are numb to the very things which once gave us great satisfaction.

Hart not only describes this as a stage all its own, but also as a new place of vulnerability—the danger of falling into what he calls an “adultery bond.”  It may be an actual affair, or it may be an addiction to something else.  It’s compensatory behavior—an attempt to “fill up the hole” that burnout has created in the soul—the false attempt to restore meaning to life.

We must watch out for burnout.  It is not only a serious issue in and of itself, but it can lead us to places we never imagined we would go.  It’s dangerous to pray “thy will be done,” when we ourselves don’t really want to do that will anymore.

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: The Downward Spiral (4)

  1. Hillary says:

    Thanks for the deep well for a weary soul. Sometimes in the midst of doing ministry I don’t see how ministry is doing me in. Bringing it to my attention is the first step in healing.

  2. Tom Pope says:

    Steve, this series on burnout has been exactly what I have needed. It is difficult to admit that I am well down the spiral.

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