My first encounter with burnout was back in 2002. I experienced what I would call an ‘emotional valley’ that lasted for about 6 months. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with me but it took everything within me just to make it through the next meeting, the next appointment or the next project. My mood was higher when something was done, rather than when I was leading up to it or during the event or experience. I felt overwhelmed a lot of the time and didn’t have the energy to think much beyond what was right in front of me. It was subtle but very debilitating.
I grappled with whether this was a mid-life crisis. After all, I had recently turned 40 years of age. Or was it some kind of spiritual attack from the enemy that I simply needed to withstand? Or maybe it was some sort of wilderness experience where God was trying to test my faith or develop my character further? I really wasn’t sure. Everything in my life on the outside was going well - health, family, friendships and ministry - but something was clearly wrong. With the help of a personal coach, I came to realise that I had been living at an unsustainable pace. I would go on a mission trip with a team to India for two weeks, come back on a Friday then preach at my church five times on the weekend then head to the USA on the Monday. As a result, my emotions were simply shutting down, refusing to live at this breakneck speed. They only seemed to provide me with enough energy for what was directly in front of me, and only just. I had nothing left over in reserve nor could I get excited about anything much beyond today.
It took time to come out of this valley. There was no instant fix or snapping out of this. I had to slow down, take more time off, rest more and lower the high expectations I had on myself when it came to productivity. I shared openly with my family, friends and close team members at work about what was going on. They were are huge support to me during this time.
I now recognise the indicators when I am nearing this valley again. Similar to when you go slightly over the edge of a road when driving a car, I can feel the danger signs. I have learned to pay attention to these signals and to make adjustments so I don’t go there again. As I mentioned before, one of the key indicators for me is when I am not looking forward to something nor am I enjoying the moment I am engaging in a particular activity. If my highest positive emotion is when I am done with a task, meeting or event, then I am in a vulnerable place. I have also benefited greatly from having an external mentor like Keith Farmer in the years following this experience. He was able to assist me in continually monitoring the state of my emotional tank.
During 2015-2016, I had another experience with burnout. It was different this time and I wasn’t fully aware of it. Looking back, I see that it was more the result of the cumulative wear and tear of being on church staff for 32 years and of being a senior pastor for 22 of those years. The church I led had grown quite significantly (from about 1,500 people to around 10,000) resulting in a much larger workload, greater complexity, and a large organisation to be responsible for. In addition, at this time the growth of the church had slowed somewhat and, for various reasons, my wife, Nicole, was no longer as involved as she was in the earlier years. I missed her participation very much. My hope for the future, my drive and my motivation levels were at an all-time low. In retrospect, I can see that I was no longer enjoying my job. In fact, during my processing time, Nicole asked me an insightful question: “If you didn’t have your current job would you apply for it?” I had to admit that I wouldn’t.
This provided the context for me eventually deciding it was time for a change - something that I believed would benefit me, my family and the church too. I officially resigned in February 2016, then a year later in February 2017 I finished up in my role as senior pastor, passed the baton to a new leader, and began a new season of life and ministry. After taking a few months off, I started engaging in some energising activities which perfectly fit my gifting and experience but without the degree of burden, pressure, and responsibility I had been carrying for so long. As a result, just one year later I am experiencing new amounts of joy, peace, and well-being in my life. I feel totally different. I feel so much better. I am enjoying each day and the activities and meetings I am involved in to a much greater degree. I have extra emotional reserves to sustain me. I am so glad I made the change.
Christian psychologist Arch Hart notes that there is a difference between burnout, stress, and depression. Burnout is more emotional while stress is more physical in its symptoms. Burnout often includes a sense of helplessness or hopelessness, a loss of motivation and drive, and a lethargy.
Are you experiencing any degree of burnout? If you are, I strongly encourage you to give attention to your inner world. Talk to an experienced counsellor, get some help and be courageous enough to make some tough decisions, if necessary. You will be so glad you did.
Let me finish with these amazingly freeing words from Jesus:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Matthew 11:28-30. The Message Bible.
Here is some additional recommended reading:
- Adrenaline and Stress by Arch Hart.
- Ministry Burnout: Prevention and Cure by Arch Hart.
- Burnout in Church Leaders by Peter Kaldor and Rob Bullpitt.
- Unloading the Overload by Cliff Powell.
- Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Richard Swenson
- The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Roehr and Tony Schwartz