The Elijah-Decision: When Stress Drains your Will to Go On.
“Enough Lord, let me die” was Elijah’s cry.
As we read the story of Elijah, “a man just like us” (James 5), he had put himself on the line after being in hiding for three years of drought (1 Kings 18. After the Mt. Carmel confrontation he had reached the end as the continuous stresses he faced consumed the last of his energy, his ability to go on. Then came the Elijah-decision. “I have had enough; I would rather die than go on facing this day in and day out”.
Stress is all around us, perhaps not as extreme as for Elijah, but it doesn’t have to be. It only needs to be there, never departing and always just around the corner, always consuming spiritual, emotional and physical energy. It can be forced on us by circumstances or induced by the choices we make. Like a forest fire it only burns out when everything is consumed, it leaves only charred remains.
The Elijah-decision represents the depths of burnout. It is the culmination of the following major consequences of burnout:
Loss of purpose in life
Having one’s self-image destroyed
Feeling alone in the world
Being filled with resentment and bitterness
Feeling that all is hopeless
But How Does Burnout Happen?
It is a big risk factor for people, like Christian leaders, who have a calling to care for others. It’s something that happens all too frequently as a result of the never-ending ministry stress discussed in the previous article, and the need to continually give out at one’s own spiritual, emotional and physical expense. Its consequences can be devastating for minister, family and church alike.
Stress does not have to lead to burnout if one is aware and takes steps to set sensible boundaries.
What Does Burnout Look Like?
How can we recognise Burnout when we see it? Let’s briefly look at seven common symptoms. There are many more and you can check them out in the unabridged version of this article.
Seven common effects of burnout
A person suffering from burnout may begin to withdraw emotionally. The life of a church leader involves a high level of contact with other people. Often when the church leader is suffering high stress or burnout he or she will withdraw from relationships and fear public appearances.
Burnout is not simply switched on overnight; it builds like a small flame, eventually turning into a forest fire. Pastors and ministry leaders may avoid aspects of their work, and this process may begin almost imperceptibly. They may join more committees, read more books and attend more conferences. They are finding a semi-legitimate means of escaping the role that causes their pain and stress.
3. Becoming less approachable
The role of the pastor is largely person-centred. Not only may pastors withdraw, but their manner may also be such that they become less approachable and perhaps irritable as a result of stress induced anger welling up inside.
4. Family problems
A person suffering from burnout may develop serious family problems. Sufferers lose the ability to monitor or control their emotional changes. They are less sensitive to and less aware of others and may become the centre of their own universe, feeling so bad that they cannot escape their own needs in favour of others. This may make them difficult to live with.
5. Openness to sin
One of the most destructive effects of burnout is the increased susceptibility to sin. Temptations long held at bay seem to take on new strength and the sufferer may have much less resistance to them. Old sinful patterns may return and new ones may develop.
6. Loss of productivity
A person suffering from burnout will begin to be less productive. Christian leaders will almost certainly become ineffective in what they do.
7. Wanting to give up
A person suffering from burnout may want to give up their ministry. Our research has shown that over 25% of all Protestant ministers in the UK are considering giving up the ministry at any point in time. This is far more serious than simply ‘feeling low’ about your role.
Reflection on ministry burnout
Burnout comes from ignoring the warning signs for a long time. It is like a railway journey, with the ultimate destination a complete physical and emotional breakdown. Fortunately the train stops at every station and we can disembark before the journey’s end.
Take a moment and take an honest look at yourself. Are you able to identify any of the symptoms of burnout in your own life?
If you are around a pastor or other church leader, do you see any warning signs?
Next . . .
If the circumstances already described begin to ring bells then take a look at the unabridged article which outlines other physical, spiritual and emotional symptoms of burnout. The rest of the free, unabridged Mastering Ministry Stress mini course will help you learn how to deal with burnout or avoid it all together.