Responding to ministry burnout. If I just keep working it will all go away
If I Just Keep Working it Will All Go Away: Responding to Burnout
“If we apply the dictionary definition of burnout to human beings, we must imagine a man or woman who has been devoured from within by fiery energy until, like a gutted house, nothing is left.”
J. A. Sanford.
In this abridged article we look at some of the things that can be done to support the Christian leader once ablaze with that “fiery energy”, now the ruin of the “gutted house”.
Burnout sufferers have been denying their need until it has become a practised art. Having reached the position of debilitating stress they can no longer keep going, but many force themselves back to work believing that they can shrug off their condition in the same way that they have before. “If I just keep working then I will be OK.”
The qualified and professional support of a counsellor is essential to enable sufferers of burnout to admit that they need help and that they are not failing because of this. It is also common for burnout sufferers to experience a range of health problems. For these they need medical support
The First Aid Response
Like the victim of a terrible fire, the sufferer must be removed immediately from the fire. They must stop working and recognise the severity of their condition. Some employers (including churches) have difficulty with this and are reluctant to allow the necessary sick leave. It is important, therefore that sufferers see their doctor and have their condition confirmed.
Stopping work may seem like entering a vacuum. Therefore, ‘stopping’ must have some structure. The sufferer will also need to rest and relax at this time. This is not easy as many who suffer from burnout have lost the art of rest.
Confronting the Causes
In order for health to return the processes that caused the burnout need to be examined, understood and defused in a person’s life.
Those who suffer from burnout often have low self-worth. Unable to see their usual results they feel like failures. They may have been driven by a deep-rooted need to gain approval resulting in unhealthy patterns of work. These drives need to be re-evaluated with the help of a trained counsellor.
Burnout sufferers have also normally forgotten the grace of God. Their encouragement comes from achievement and not from God’s unconditional love. They need to be reminded gently of the grace of God and that their worth is found in God and not in results.
They may have gone for long periods with little feedback and need to be affirmed and encouraged. Love for them is often best shown through tokens, acts of kindness.
They may be troubled by memories of past failures or misunderstandings. These ghosts have a wearing effect and they need to be banished. These may include unresolved tensions with their parents; it can be helpful to get sufferers to meet with them to discuss their feelings.
Sufferers may also recall unhappy situations. Meeting with people who were involved and have a much more positive view of the situation can be helpful. They may have haunting, stressful memories that can be laid to rest by gentle and skilful reappraisal.
Sufferers from burnout have often developed a ‘success’ based value system. Seeking importance based on action, achievement and status is an unhealthy value system that drives individuals and is liable to cause burnout.
Personal ambition: A fine line exists between being successful for God and being successful for self. Many are working with the latter while believing it is the former. It causes individuals to work too hard for their cause.
Many pastors secretly desire to lead larger, more prestigious churches. This is a terrible trap for pastors: their own success is then based on how many people attend the services.
A healthy value system is based on self-awareness (realising that one is a child of God, part of the household of God) and God-awareness (realising that this is because of the work of Jesus on the cross and not the product of one’s labours). From this basis of security in God, we are more able to adopt a healthy working pattern.
What feelings does this statement produce in you: “A fine line exists between being successful for God and being successful for self. Many are working with the latter while believing it is the former”?
Next . . .
Whereas this abridged article offers some insights into addressing burnout (you can learn more from the unabridged Mastering Ministry Stress mini course), it is plainly better to avoid it altogether. It has identified a number of perspectives that might make one susceptible to burnout. The final article will consider how to reduce the risks and avoid burnout in the first place.