Burnout: What it is and isn’t (2016)

Man carrying a heavy stone on his back

Bring up the word “burnout” and you are likely to hear someone tell you their story about their own or at least their incipient burnout: “I’m on the edge—so much to do, so many requirements! I will be late to the meeting tonight, I’m behind and I will just get there. I do not have time or energy to do what you want me to do.” There is a lot of distress out there, a lot of stress.

Most of us have days when we feel bored, overloaded, or unappreciated. Those might be days when the dozen balls we keep in the air aren’t noticed, let alone rewarded. Those might be the days when dragging ourselves out of bed requires a lot of determination. If you feel like this most of the time, however, you may have burnout.

Try on definitions of burnout

Burnout does not have a real great definition. It is not in the DSM. (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). But it has a lot of characteristics people can name. Burnout is a state of exhaustion—emotional, mental, and physical, usually caused by excessive and prolonged stress. A burn victim will pass out from pain—literal burn out from the stress of being burned. Your boss might keep the office at 79 degrees in summer because they are old and they get cold, or keep it at 64 in winter because they are saving money. So you finally might be unable to get yourself to go do work because their irrational lack of care has burned you out, one day piled on another. Generally, burnout occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.

Burnout reduces your productivity and saps your energy. You are left feeling helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. You might have become depressed—so you are probably angry, snappish, messing up relationships, so you get isolated, and don’t want to face things. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.

Mostly this is a workplace issue. But Americans work all the time. They seem to think life is working, or vegging—two choices. For exercise they work out. For family fun they do activities. Their devices make them multi-taskers all day and night. So since people work all the time, they use this workplace malady to apply to everything. They burn out on relationships. The term is often applied to the church. People burnout from being a cell leader, or a team leader, and maybe the pastor—although we seem to retain those rather well.

Now let me add some more ideas to the definition.

Burnout is the situation where too much is going out and not enough coming in.

Maybe this was implied in what I have said so far. But it is classic. “I am stretched too thin. I am scraping the bottom of the barrel. They are asking too much.”

Burnout is a mismatch between effort and recovery.

Like when my sump pump got a piece of something stuck in it and kept running when the water was all gone. It burned out the motor. Or like when I ride my bike —  now that I am older, I need more time to recover. Over-using ourselves or not allowing ourselves time to recover our strength leads to burnout.

Burnout is the gap between expectation and reward.

This might be the big thing for our church—especially the millennials. The expectations of success among millennials are through the roof, and when their reality doesn’t match up with their expectations, it leads to burnout—they leave no room for error or failure at all in their formula. There is a lot of perfectionism. I call it “empire” thinking. Either we think we have the power to get everything right and deserve it to be that way. Or we think we must  get it right or something terrible will happen or we will be severely punished by “the way things are.”

One person calls the burnout moment “the failure of the existential quest”—that moment when we wake up one morning and realize that what we’re doing has appallingly little value. What we expected did not happen. One person studied the insurance business, for example, a profession often associated with the ultimate cubicle tedium. Yet she noticed something very interesting. The ones who had some traumatic experience related to insurance when they were children—maybe their house burned down—can work for a long time without burning out. They came to the profession with a calling. They feel their work is significant.

Jesus does not burn us out

The way the world works us will burn us out. So burn out is a real thing. If you are a social worker or teacher dealing with troubled children in an unsupported, underfunded system, you are a prime candidate for burnout. If you are a lawyer or a doctor and are expected to work as long as it takes, or you are a small business owner trying to survive no matter what, you are a prime candidate for burnout. Most of the chart has to do with situations in which too much is going out and not enough is coming in. This is the classic definition.

But I want to make sure and say: I do not think the way Jesus works burns us out. I think Jesus keeps filling us with enough to do what we are given to do. There are important words in this promise:

  • Jesus – We need a relationship with the living God.
  • filling us – This takes experiences, discipline, community.
  • given to do – Not what we can imagine, or feel guilty about, but what we are given. This takes discernment, commitment over time.

I believe Jesus can sustain us in a world that might destroy us, but we’ll have to be serious people to access the possibility.

These two realities: Jesus can sustain us, but we are in a world that might destroy us, are having an argument in most of us. One of the reasons I was asked to work with this topic is because people talk about burning out quite often. They even think being a cell leader is burning them out (which is certainly possible, given what I just said).

Thirtysomethings, in particular, experience the threat of burnout: young children, young careers, financial instability. They have so many demands and so few resources to meet them all, that they feel like one more thing will reduce them to ashes. You will meet up with fortysomethings in our church who are still hanging around, but they burned out on us years ago. Rather than connecting to Jesus more and growing, they reduced their output to a level they could handle. So when you ask them to give what you know they have been given, they may beg to be excused, lest they burn out.

So in an intense system like ours, in which we say we are doing the work of transformation, serving people in need, having healthy conflict, working on proactive peacemaking, people regularly feel overwhelmed. If their cell is not a source of restoration, they might burn out. If people are essentially managing the church like they survive their job, thinking the church is much like an extension of their job, they will very likely burn out.

The spiritual core

Finally, let’s talk about the spiritual core of burnout which is often missed when psychologists write about it. Burnout is often about the need to move on. The move could be to a new location or job. But most likely it is to a deeper place inside.

Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5 NRSV)

Jesus says he will fill you with what you need to do what you are given to do. You will notice that Jesus does not think there is another world, another reality, where you can do things without him. If you do things without Jesus, you burn out, permanently.

We have to think this through. People in the world think you cannot extinguish the human spirit, that we have a flame inside, “this little light of mine”—not a light given by Jesus, but mine I was born with, not reborn with. You saw the Mohammed Ali funeral which was evangelism for that hopeful thought. But then people experience burn out. The little lights around me get extinguished all the time. The way back is seen as stoking the flame, doing things better, being more protective, getting back to “the way I used to feel, the way I want/deserve to feel, the way toward fulfilling my potential. It is kind of complex.

What does burnout tell us?

I’m pointing this out because I think burnout points us to a deeper place where we can experience what God has given us. “Do not let you hearts be troubled” Jesus said. “In this world you will have many troubles, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” Burnout may be a time when we have passing troubles and Jesus helps you overcome them. But burnout may tell you that the way you have seen your life is wrong and you need to go a new direction. I think burnout may tell you you need another kind of job. But it may also tell you that you need another kind of life.

We might need to go to a very primitive place that is not all empire-driven. Go back to slash and burn farming with people who don’t think they can control the world. Millions of people still practice farming like this. They cut down part of the forest. Burn it. Plant crops in the ashes until the plot is exhausted. Then they move on. Maybe that is your job—you are at the end of it; you’ve done all you can or you’ve outgrown it, or you just can’t find any way to keep it producing; the plot is exhausted. You need to move on. Clear new land. Plant new things. But maybe, more important, you are at the end of you, you can no longer be the person you have been, you need to go on to more fertile territory. You are burned out because things need to burn (like on Ash Wednesday). You need to move on, be planted and plant new things. Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24 NIV)

When I listen to people who are burned out, I often hear them wanting to go back. “I don’t feel like myself. I am different. I can’t feel like I used to. I feel foggy and stuck.” Something needs to change. The burnout is an indicator.

So when you or someone else is burned out, they may react poorly or ignorantly, but that does not mean they are bad. They just have to go through something. They may overreact and move to Seattle. They may underreact and get deeply depressed. They may react like I hope and do some growing so they can get to what is next for them.

Nobody knows how another individual will be renewed. To use one of my favorite words—life is a long pilgrimage—exhaustion may be expected. Nobody knows how another individual will be restored. But another one of Jesus’ images I hang on to—we will need to keep coming to Him and our own development, as a child. Change may seem foolish. We may be led to a new era of dependence, to become our true self.