I originally posted this in September 2020. At that point we thought we were experiencing burn-out. We were sick of zoom and desperately missing our friends and family as we isolated in our homes.
But lately I’ve been hearing about a new kind of burn-out. It’s been two years and we haven’t recovered. Churches are having a difficult time filling pastoral positions two years after the pandemic (along with what seems like every other company in our country).
But it’s not just the jobs. Burn-out is real, and you’re probably feeling it.
When the world first started to shut down with Coronavirus concerns in early 2020, most of the world slowed down. People started working from home. They wore pajama pants all day long. And if the internet memes are correct, they adopted diets that consisted primarily of chocolate and wine.
But for some, it wasn’t a time for slowing. For some, it was busier than ever. Grocery store employees, medical professionals, teachers, and emergency service personnel worked frantically to keep up with demands for their essential services.
One group of overlooked essential employees that worked long hours during the shutdowns were church staff. Churches still had services, though suddenly they were primarily online. Can you imagine the stress audio-visual technicians were facing as they learned to stream their worship service? And I assure you pastors were not suddenly expendable when people found themselves at home all day long. Pastors worked overtime to meet the needs of their worried congregations, bringing counsel and comfort to those who needed it.
My husband Steve, the college ministry leader at our church, found this warning from Tim Keller, a pastor in New York City, who experienced the fallout of being a pastor in a world under intense stress. This is what Tim Keller said:
Two days after the attacks on 9/11, I got a phone call from a pastor in Oklahoma City. There was a bombing in Oklahoma City, as many of you know, in 1995—a domestic terrorist bombing that not only killed 168 people, but maimed hundreds more. Oklahoma City is not a massively big city, and it had a huge impact on all the families and caused a great deal of suffering.
What the pastor told me was that, “You have to be very, very careful. At first, you’re going to go into 200% overdrive, and you’re going to be helping everybody and talking to everybody and dealing with everything.” He said, “Right away you’ll just think you’re sort of tired and you just need one good break and it’ll be okay, but no. Two or three years later, suddenly everybody on your church staff will go into depression. They will have burned out. They will have been eating into their emotional and spiritual capital, as it were, and not realizing it. Don’t let it happen to you.”
Now, I wish I could tell you that we avoided that. We didn’t, actually. Over the next five years, the same thing happened to us.1
Pray for your pastors, your church staff, your teachers, your emergency personnel, and your medical professionals. They may be well on their way to burn-out. They may be desperately tired. They may be depressed. They may be empty. And they may not know why.
You may be empty. You may be depressed. Have you been working overtime? Have you been managing the chaos of COVID-19? You may be working overtime to keep peace in your home, to make up for lost income, or to walk your children through this strange new schooling “adventure.” (If we call it an adventure does that make it a more positive experience?)
I give you permission, friends, to feel the burn-out. You are running on empty, and that it isn’t your fault.
Your burn-out response will be unique to you, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
What Is Your Initial Burn-Out Response?
Venting To A Friend
Some people find that they need to bounce their thoughts off another person in order to release their stress. To cry, to yell, to talk with a mature and loving friend brings a small measure of relief. Then, after they feel some initial relief, they are able to approach their difficulties from a practical perspective.
Hiding From Everyone
Some people want to crawl into a hole and hide when life becomes too stressful. I don’t say this to be demeaning. In fact, this is how I respond to burn-out. I feel like if I can get away from my troubles or responsibilities and escape into Netflix, or a book, or even a game on my phone, I will find a small measure of relief. Then I’ll be able to reenter the world from a healthier perspective.
Moving From Burnout to Growth
In your difficult time of burn-out, with its accompanying depression and anxiety, your first response will be to release your stress in whatever way feels natural to you. But the direction you go after this initial reaction is incredibly important.
Tim Keller says that suffering will change us. Whether it changes us for the better or the worse remains to be seen.
When we face severe stress or burn out, we may be tempted to turn against God, wondering “Why would God let this happen when I’ve tried so hard to be good?” I’ve thought that before. Then we have a choice to make. Will we leave behind all thoughts of God, turning to secular comforts or another religion to seek relief? Or will we face this trial with a new understanding of the God of All Comfort, and walk away stronger for the experience?
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”
2 Corinthians 1:3-5 ESV
According to Amanda Ripley, the author of The Unthinkable: Who Survives Disasters and Why, resilience is the quality that most determines how well a person will weather life’s storms. She says:
Resilience is a precious skill. People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a belief that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life’s turmoil; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences. These beliefs act as a sort of buffer, cushioning the blow of any given disaster.”
As Christians, we have an advantage in our approach to burn-out and stress. Our advantage is that we believe that our good and loving God stands between us and every trial we face, allowing only that which is truly best for us, and strengthening us to face every hardship and come out stronger in the end.
Let’s take our burn-out, our stress, and every anger and frustration, and put them on our God who can carry them. He isn’t offended by our feelings. He prefers our uncensored feelings over silence!
Steps for Healthy Burn-out Processing
- Give your mind and body a rest.
Take a personal day to get away from some responsibilities to give yourself an opportunity to process through your feelings. As a mom, I understand that what I’m saying sounds like a fairy tale. Do you have a friend who could sit with your kids for a little bit so you can get away? Resist the urge to use this time for errands. Use this time in an emotionally productive way. Use this time to ask yourself how you feel. And take a nap. (Seriously, though. It’s what I tell my kids; why wouldn’t it work for adults, too?)
- Own your feelings.
Some feelings are uncomfortable. We can be tempted to resist those uncomfortable feelings. But as long as we keep the feelings suppressed, we also suppress the healing we so desperately need. I find it helpful to journal my feelings, or to talk out loud to God (the car is great for this). Avoid the temptation to backpedal as you express your feelings. You don’t need to qualify. You can say, “This makes me so frustrated” without adding “but I know I should trust you” in these initial stages of burn-out. (For more about this, you should check out this post.)
- Revisit what you believe.
What you believe about God and the world will make an enormous difference in how you will respond to burn-out. If you have been working extremely hard in a thankless job (ahem, mothers, am I right?) and you reach a time of extreme physical and emotional fatigue, can you turn to God for rest? Is God your relentless taskmaster who will crack his whip and say, “Get back to work, you sluggard!”? Does God want people in important jobs to be able to take a break? Is God pro-rest? (Hint: Isaiah 40:30-31, 2 Corinthians 4:16, Matthew 11:28-29, Jeremiah 31:5)
- Reengage thoughtfully.
As you begin to feel better, you may be tempted to jump back in with both feet, even if only to prove that you are still a “good and useful” Christian. Resist this urge. Jumping back in to the deep end will just land you in burn-out again. Instead, reengage with ministry and responsibilities thoughtfully. Imagine that you are packing a figurative suitcase for the next month. It can only hold so much. Look at each responsibility and ask yourself, “Will I pack this? Does it fit? Do I even like it? Is it taking space away from something else that’s more important?”
- Reevaluate and repeat.
Today as I listened to Kai’s online fourth grade class, I heard the teacher talking about physical signs that show us when we feel stressed. She mentioned headaches, stomachaches, muscle aches, increased illness, and nausea. I’m so glad that they are teaching this to the kids. If only we adults were so tuned in to our bodies to recognize early the signs of oncoming burn-out. If we stop in our tracks in that moment and take the break we need, feel our feelings, remember what we believe, we could potentially fend off future burn-out the way a healthy diet, sleep and exercise fend off the seasonal cold.
1Keller, Tim. “Tim Keller: Four Principles to Avoid Burnout.” Redeemer City to City, Redeemer City to City, 13 May 2020, redeemercitytocity.com/articles-stories/tim-keller-resilience-and-burnout.
*These statistics were shared at a Christian leadership conference my friend recently attended. I was unable to confirm them.
For Further Reading
If you’re a fan of Malcolm Gladwell and his sociological observations on our world, you will enjoy this book by Amanda Ripley. In it, she explores the varying responses to large-scale disasters. Why are some people heroes? Why do so many of us freeze? What other strange responses do we have to disaster, and why? And what can we learn before disaster strikes?
I love the practical way that Tim Keller handles the reality of suffering. He never strays from theological truth, yet connects with the heart in an important and necessary way, pointing us back to our good and loving, suffering-servant Savior.