Stages of Burnout
In July, 2004, after 30 years in fulltime pulpit ministry, I hit the wall. I had a physical, spiritual, emotional and mental experience that scared me and made me curl up into a fetal position. I burned out and it has taken years to fully recover. I share the following in hopes that no other church workers have that experience. Burn out is real and it can be prevented.
What is burn out? Burn out is a result of exposure to overwhelming stress over a long period of time. It is dealing with more stress than a human can possibly handle. Prospects for burn out are those who are in helping occupations and ministries. It is sometimes called “compassion fatigue” as a result of empathy. It occurs when a person empties him/herself in order to help others. Those experiencing burn out have neglected themselves and in many cases they have also neglected those they love like spouses and children.
Please consider the stages of burn out (my personal experience); the first one is…
Yes, this is the first stage to burnout. When someone enters a new ministry or a new venture in life, there is expectation, anticipation, hope, enthusiasm and excitement. It is exhilarating. It is a time when one’s emotions and faith are high. It is also a time when folks around us may not understand us or comprehend why we are so excited. It can also be a time when we are not open to listen to others because of our euphoria . This stage of burnout is important because our excitement, if not handled wisely, can open us up to disappointments that create the next stage
DOUBT OR CONFUSION
In this stage we begin to doubt (for some reason) our original intentions or the intentions of others. This is the stage wherein a person has great (or unrealistic) expectations of him/herself, church leaders and members.
FATIQUE AND DISGUST
When hope grows weak and doubt takes over, you will begin to feel fatigue with your ministry and at times even be disgusted with it. You may even experience a feeling of being trapped.
Over commitment and a personal determination to do things your way do not help this stage; they exasperate it. In this stage I felt that I needed to do more; I felt this would resolve my fatigue.
The next stage is anger. When we experience adulation that is followed by doubt, fatigue and disgust, anger will follow.
Such anger can lead to bitterness and resentment; these can linger for months and years after the burnout occurs.
In order to get over any resentment, bitterness and anger, we must think through the whole process of what really occurred and be brutally honest with ourselves. I have since learned that the problem was me not someone(s) else.
When there is no resolution, apathy is the next stage. Unclear thinking and reasoning allow a person (in this downward spiral) to continue downward to apathy.
Apathy will kill any relationship or any leader. It happens in many marriages. It happens at work. It happens in the church. It is focusing on the wrong things and the wrong people.
All these stages are usually the result of an improper focus upon self and not on the Lord who is the one who ultimately empowers us and assists us in thinking clearly. With that said, however, there are legitimate times when we should step down from various ministries. We cannot be objective and clear-thinking unless we step down.
It took me four years to get mentally and emotionally healthy again. I left full-time ministry in early 2004 and returned to it in late 2008. My relationship with the Lord returned and my enthusiasm returned (notice the co-relation). My renewal period is still on-going, and my struggle with anger, resentment and bitterness is minute. When I finally turned the whole thing over to the Lord and stopped living in the past, my healing began.
HOW DO WE PREVENT BURNOUT?
How do we prevent it? It is not enough to be involved in ministry where you are properly fitted. Your spiritual gifts, your life experiences and your passions are not enough to prevent you from burning out.
Let me suggest the following to prevent burnout:
1. Have a strong relationship with the Lord. Our enthusiasm should not come from people or even ministries; it should come from the Lord. In fact, the word enthusiasm comes from the Greek words “God in you.” If your enthusiasm is not from the Lord, you are more susceptible to the stages of burnout. Your goal should always be to please the Lord, not the brethren (see I Corinthians 4:1-4). If you try to please the brethren (which is an impossibility) you will fry. Your main relationship should be with the One who called you into ministry. He will bless your efforts. I cannot over-emphasize this point. The Lord refreshes and renews us daily if we allow Him. He should be our focus. He is the one we should seek to please. He is ultimately the One we serve.
2. When you feel like you are not receiving the support you need, verbalize it to those you feel aren’t supporting you—in a non-accusatory manner.
Don’t expect to always be appreciated and to have the full support of leadership or membership. People are people. However, there is no excuse, especially among leaders, to withhold encouragement and appreciation. You may have to be the one who teaches them this. Don’t be afraid to do so; the Lord will be with you.
3. When you experience burnout, learn from the experience and don’t repeat the same mistakes again. You will learn that God can use you in greater ways after this experience. You will be humbled and you will become more dependent upon Him. If you haven’t experienced burnout you can learn from my experience.
4. Resign from a ministry before you get to the apathy stage. In fact, when your enthusiasm begins to wane, you need to do some self-examination (especially as it relates to your relationship with the Lord). Seek renewal then not months or years later. Take a break. Recreate yourself. Even Jesus got away from the demanding crowds from time to time. Get help before you get too far along in the burn out stages.
5. Pay attention to any warning signs. Know these stages; knowing them will help you. Other warning signs are constant fatigue, forgetfulness, cynicism/negativism or being critical of everyone and everything. Add to that list anxiety, dread, hopelessness and defeatism.
6. If you have a supportive spouse, listen to him or her! My wife attempted to talk to me; I brushed her aside (to my destruction and almost to the destruction of our relationship). I had 3 men (notice the gender here) tell me the same thing. Duh! Don’t be foolish as I was; listen to your spouse first. When others say the same thing, you can bet your spouse was right all along. Most spouses are very supportive and they hurt when they see us on a collision course.
7. Have realistic expectations. As ministers and church leaders we cannot expect people to be as “dedicated” or “committed” as we are. We cannot expect perfection and untiring devotion. This does not mean you compromise anything; it simply means you face up to reality and let the Lord do things His way in His time.
8. Beware of the Messiah complex. Some folks have a Messiah complex; they feel like they have to fix everybody and everything. Carmen Renee Berry does a wonderful job of explaining this principle. Her burn out cycle is based upon false concepts of one’s self and helping others. Her book is When Helping You is Hurting Me. This is an excellent read. I find many of the things she’s says in her book would apply to me and she has challenged my thinking and has caused me to grow.
In closing, I think it is important for you to know that it took 22 years working with one congregation to get me to the point of burnout (30 years total of full time ministry). It may only take you a month or a year for you; everyone is different. However, if your thinking is faulty or you are co-dependent you are more likely to struggle with burnout in your future. Draw close to the Lord, seek wisdom, step down when you need to, humble yourself and seek wise counsel.
Suggested reading: Boundaries by Drs. Cloud and Townsend.
It’s Not My Fault by Drs. Cloud and Townsend.