A lady came to see me all teary eyed, tired, emotional, and exhausted. She spoke of a demanding husband and of ungrateful children experienced over many years; of peer pressure to be something she was not; and the pain of people being jealous of her success as a person. Does this sound like something you can relate to in some way?

We have all had very busy and fulfilling times in our lives. We have been part of teams that has responded to the call of God with passion and energy, with new people and new opportunities. There probably has been the meeting of new demands and expectations as well, those that we place on ourselves and those that are placed on us. We may have run successful programmes, and had a wonderful time, but if this is over a long period of time at this high level of output, there is a price.

I have generally found responding to God’s call on my life and ministry in God’s name utterly fulfilling and incredibly exciting. However, there has been three times in this ministry when I ended up utterly exhausted and during one of them I was close to burnout.

  • The first was when I was running a large congregation for a period when my two senior clergy team members were away, and I pushed myself very hard to keep it all together, but picked up a virus and I was laid low for a week. I knew I was in trouble when I buried the third child who had died from drowning in a short period of time so it was more than just physical exhaustion and it felt as though my whole system closed down.
  • The second was the most radical and the one where I was close to burnout. It was after a lengthy and sustained period of holding a thriving ministry together in a large suburban congregation, and with other responsibilities. A combination of a way of thinking going on inside of my head, like an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, as well as other colleagues around me who had interpersonal problems and had withdrawn from ministry which I then felt I had to pick up, as well as feeling that I had to minister outside of my gifting and minister to yet another precious family who were dealing with the devastating reality that their daughter had taken her own life. In response to this I had no option but I check myself out of work and voluntarily took time out as recommended by my doctor and spiritual director.
  • The third time was when I was leading a large team and guiding a large congregation into what I believed was their future. After a lengthy time of demanding leadership issues, very meaningful ministry and sustained congregational growth, I was then put on compassionate leave by the denominational leadership. It was felt that my ministry relationships needed attention. It was indeed a time to reflect more deeply on my call and focus.

Each time I went to a solitary place where I was fed and given space to sleep and rest, read and replenish. I needed to let my spirit catch up with me. Through these experiences I have grown to know the signs and put in place not only a recovery process but also to make sure this does not keep happening. I do not profess to be an expert on the subject, but I have learned a few things along the way.

What is burnout?

An important starting point is to get our heads around the difference between stress and its extreme development that becomes burnout. The word ‘Burnout’ came with the space age, and actually means that the rocket has run out of fuel!  It means in our context an emotional and spiritual depletion, when one is mentally fatigued, physically under the weather and frustrated. All one’s reserves are finished, and you have lost motivation, direction and power. It’s like trying to water the garden, when the hose pipe is so full of holes, that there is nothing coming out the end! Being stressed is normal, and like a knife is only effective if it is formed under stress, we too serve God well when there is a certain level of stress. Many of the influential Biblical characters had stress in their lives and ministry. The difference is when we are beyond stress and start to lose that call of God on our lives and no longer see and feel things anymore and all starts to seem meaningless.

Have you ever felt that like that, with tendencies towards meaninglessness? Everything that you tried is meaningless? Life seems to have lost its magic and sense. Everything is boring. When we are stressed for over long periods we find our reserves get depleted and we get depressed. This is a sure indication that we are entering into a burnout stage. If you are there you need professional help.

The next helpful thing I found was to gain understanding as to the stages towards burnout. They are:

Stress to BurnoutStage one: Chill out: Low pressure means low level of performance. Great days for recharging batteries.

Stage two: Work out: Increase in pressure means increased performance. We think more rapidly, move faster and make decisions more quickly. Life is sustainable and we can cope.

Stage three: Stretch: Adrenalin is flowing and we are delivering, but depleting our reserves. We can keep this up, be creative and productive for a short burst of time.

Stage four: Strain: We go past the maximum effectiveness era and things start to go wrong, be it a mistake, a failure to communicate, or an illness. We feel unable to cope and that life is getting out of control.

Stage 5: Burnout: People feel angry, helpless, trapped and totally depleted. They lose their sense of purpose, become emotionally exhausted and so they become cynical and negative. This is frequently found in occupations relating to ‘people work’.

Signs of being over stressed:

The third thing that was helpful was to recognize THE SIGNS OF BEING OVER STRESSED AND OF BURNOUT:

The signs of burnout are seen in Solomon who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes, a very misunderstood book. Solomon had tried many things to find meaning in his life:

He had prestige and position: He was king over the thriving nation of Israel. He tried hard work and found that meaningless as well.

He had wealth: He has been regarded as one of the wealthiest people of all of history. He even found this meaningless.

He had a very large family (1Kings 11:3) with 700 wives and 300 concubines! He tried pleasure and found it meaningless.

He is widely read and very wise. He tried human wisdom and found it meaningless. 

He wonders around through Ecclesiastes as he writes, however, his conclusions are sound. He tried everything and ultimately finds them meaningless. This is a sign of burnout. He finds that the only thing that gives meaning is God and that is his salvation.

Jesus said: “What does it profit a persons if they gain the whole world and loose the soul.” This is the summary of Ecclesiastes.

The manifestations  

The manifestation of too much stress that leads to burnout are seen on these areas::

Physical: People tend to either eat too much or eat incorrectly consuming more ‘comfort foods’ and gain weight, or lose interest in food and lose weight. Blood pressure increases, the body is tenses up and the ability to digest deteriorates because blood is channeled elsewhere to cope.

Emotional: Our emotions are expressed often inappropriately, through irritation, anger, depression, impatience and loss of confidence.

Social: Some withdraw into themselves, finding solace in solitude. Others get frenetic, and fill every moment with activity, so avoiding the effort of thinking through the matters.

Intellectual: We find it difficult to concentrate and use clear judgement, making decisions impossibly complicated.

Spiritual: We start doubting God, doubting God’s goodness and we blame God for the things that are happening. We withdraw from fellowship and stop the spiritual habits that sustain us.

Team relationships: We see low motivation, poor decisions being made, loss of creativity and employee goodwill, absenteeism and high staff turnover.

Concluding thoughts:

I realized that stress is like a spring. When it is pulled and released it remains resilient. But when sustained at a high level, it loses all effectiveness and resilience, as in burnout. This is caused by:

  • Change and uncertainty: Change like birth, marriage, moving house, illness, etc. Each of these means we cannot live on automatic pilot, but have to think and act out of intent and out of our comfort zone.
  • Demands and expectations of others: Workloads, deadlines, never ending ‘To do’ lists.
  • Self-expectation: Often the primary factor in stress because it multiplies all the others.
  • Lack of purpose: When we are not clear about our purpose we resent time and energy spent on anything.
  • Attacks: Be they personal, physical or spiritual, or a combination of these, all weigh us down.

Part of stress is how we cope with these things.

How can we move through this to a place of healing? The next article with pick up on this.