Are you Burning Out?
Are you burning out? I was and I didn’t even realize it.
I don’t rest or slow down well. I like to be busy. I’m happy to have my days filled with stuff to do most of the time. I actually find it difficult to get away and schedule vacation time - partly because there’s a lot to do and partly because I love what I do, so doing my job doesn’t often feel like “work”. I know it’s true for many of us in ministry. We deeply love what we do. Also common to ministry life is the feeling that the work is never complete. There’s no leaving the office at 5pm and calling it a day; there are always more people you could reach out to, more message or event prep that can be done, more admin to catch up on, and so on and so on. Love for the work and the seemingly endlessness of that work can combine to create a dangerous scenario where burnout can sneak up on you. It was sneaking up on me this past fall.
It was in October when my friend and co-worker sat down in my office and asked how I was doing. I said I was fine… I always say that, regardless of how I’m feeling, but still. I thought I was good. A couple weeks later he came in again, this time he was more direct.
“You don’t look good. You seem tired and stressed. When was the last time you took time off?”
I had to think about it for a little while. I honestly couldn’t remember. Turns out it had been over a year since I had taken any actual vacation time. Several things had combined to let that happen - it was a missions trip year for our Sr High group the previous year, which always creates extra work, I helped launch a rugby team at a local high school, I was a little shorthanded on youth leaders, and then a couple of plans I did have to go away didn’t work out, so I ended up just working instead. Obviously, I was looking a little worse for the wear.
It was mid November when my Sr pastor came in, asking the same questions. At the end of the meeting he had essentially told me to finish up what needed to be done and then take the remainder of the year off. I ended up being off for 5 weeks. I think it may have saved my ministry.
I had no idea how tired and, well, burned out I was feeling. But, once I stopped working for a bit it began to sink in. It was a solid three weeks before I felt like I had any energy at all. I’d get up take my son to school, then come back home and sit on the couch all day.
I hesitate to use that term ‘burned out”. There’s a stigma attached to that and honestly I don’t think I was completely burned out. But, I was certainly heading that way.
I’m so thankful that the people I work with saw it in mean and helped me correct it. In other environments, nobody may have noticed and I might have run myself, my family, and my ministry into the ground. So, I hope that maybe by putting this out there that you’ll hit pause for minute and see if you’re heading down a path toward burnout.
Here’s some of the warning signs that I ignored in myself that, if you’re experiencing, please pay attention to.
1) Working harder and getting less and less done. I was putting in more hours that I ever have and was accomplishing less than I ever had. It was a vicious cycle - not being productive made me feeling like I needed to stay at work longer or try to do more work at home. None of this pressure came from the outside. It was all from me.
2) Emotional Numbness. I’m not the most emotive guy at the best of times, but I had begun to stop caring. I had stopped praying for people. I had stopped asking students how they were doing. I just didn’t feel much like dealing with anyone else’s “stuff”, ya know?
3) Distance at Home.
At home, I was basically useless. I was spending way too much time at the office and when I was at home I was either still working or just too tired to contribute. I wasn’t doing my share of the work with the kids, and I definitely wasn’t communicating well. When I finally talked to my wife and told her I was taking time off she gave me that “ya, I’ve been telling you that for months” look that only a spouse can give.
4) Dreading things I used to love.
I found myself dreading going to youth group, that never happened before (well, except for all nighters..). I had no energy to prepare messages, which is something I usually love to do. At one point I actually felt like I couldn’t get myself out the door to go to an event. It was strange for me. I’m a fairly extroverted person. Being with people - particularly with my youth - usually energizes me, but something had changed.
5) Neglecting Physical Health.
Perfectly honest - this is still an area I need to work on. The days of my 20’s where I could eat and drink whatever I wanted, skip exercise, and run on little sleep without it affecting my ability to function are long over and I need to pay attention to my physical health if I hope to keep doing life and ministry well.
If you’re seeing these symptoms in yourself it’s time for some good self evaluation. It’s time to re-evaluate where you’re at. And it’s time to rest.
Take care of yourself, friends.
And with that, I’m heading off for two weeks of vacation.