On burnout

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This article is based on some reading and reflection I have done a few months ago on the topic of burnout. Often I feel being very close to this mental and physical stage of burnout. Reading the story of Elijah running from Jezabel (1Kings 19:1-14) I was struck by his words “I have had enough”. This is exactly how I often feel “God I have had enough”. I have had enough of anxiety, when I can’t stop thinking about the stuff that needs to be done. I have had enough of seeing how my life is running away with me. I have had enough when I feel like I don’t feel much anymore. I need to find some balance, because burnout is exactly this chronic lack of balance that leads me to progressive physical and mental depletion. It is interesting to see what God’s response to Elijah’s words was. First God met Elijah’s physical needs – rest and nourishment. Second God allowed Elijah to see that He still remained in control of circumstances and was still active in the prophet’s life. Third, during the communication with the prophet God prompted him to ventilate his negative feelings. Fourth, only after Elijah had exposed his feelings did God give him a new but lighter task… and finally God provided for Elijah something needs to recover: a genuine friend – Elisha. God comes to Elijah in silence. It seems that all people seriously interested in spiritual formation have a growing interest in silence. Maybe only in silence the Word of God can grow in our hearts. Though silence is almost absent in the world around me…

In connection with the heart I came to realize that burnout is rarely caused by the number of hours I serve, but by something about how I engage in service. It is often suggested some sort of disengagement as a remedy for burnout – pull back, get more rest, etc. I believe solution does not lie with disengagement. The deeper issue is the way I engage with our work or serving. When I engaged from the heart, I am more likely to be energized and full in our serving, rather than being drained.

The key to healthy serving is an open heart that welcomes God guidance and correction, a heart that listens to the instruction from God. So often I may have a false sense of what my life should be, and I kill myself trying to make it happen. These desires probably originate in a good place with the best intentions. I have a desire to please God, to build community, to serve others, but I so easily begin to clutch at my own vision. I always have a to do list, and when I am finished, I am happy to know that I have done them. It seems like this kind of attitude moves me into a closed posture that shuts out awareness of the ongoing presence of God in the tasks to be done, and denies God’s ability to guide and shape the tasks as I do them. I set a vision; I move forward, I pet myself on the back for reaching my goals. It is hard to maintain a heart that is open to God; it is much easier to stay in the saddle with the reins in my own hands. Remaining open to God might involve not meeting a goal.

There are many false beliefs I feed that may foster burnout:

–          If I don’t do it, it won’t get done

–          No one can do it as well as I can

–          There will be plenty of time for rest and fun later on

–          If I say no, there will be negative consequences for me

–          I’m personally responsible to see that this gets done

–          I can’t be pleased with myself unless I am exhausted

–          I don’t have a right to be here unless I am exhausted

–          I can’t give up

–          I can’t make major changes now, I’ve just got to keep going

–          I have to be perfect: loving, serving, giving, caring, having an orderly house, changing the world

Aslo I was thinking about the Isaiah 40:28-31. “But those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

First of all I was reminded how eagles fly – effortlessly, soaring. “Waiting for the Lord” I am a bit uncomfortable with this… I like to make decisions rapidly and get things done efficiently. Waiting for the Lord? Burnout comes when I am not waiting and am moving too fast. I am at risk of burnout when my decisions come from my own desires and not from God’s leading.