Like most good ministers, I was living my emotional life on the edge. An overcrowded schedule, unguarded private time and very few boundaries contributed to a severe case of burnout that eventually pushed me over the edge. I spiraled down into a state of clinical depression that lasted over a year and a half.
What did I do? I kept it hidden until I could hide it no longer. Finally, I sought help and found it. Fortunately, it never displaced me from ministry, but it easily could have. Needless to say, I'm on the backside of it, and I lived to tell my story.
Burnout is a serious problem in America today, particularly for clergy and professional people. It is primarily a recent malady caused by the busyness of modern-day society.
Burnout is a physical, mental and emotional response to constant levels of stress. When the body and mind are relentlessly strained, unusual levels of emotional and physical fatigue develop. If not attended to, it can lead to many unhealthy emotional and physical responses—and even sin.
Here are a few pointers to help with burnout:
1. It doesn't happen overnight. For me, it was an accumulation of many years of living on the edge. I've learned that the very nature of ministry causes most ministers to live constantly on the verge of burnout. A heart to serve people, coupled with the pressure to succeed, sets ministers up for this malady. It is important to recognize the early warning signs of burnout. Here are just a few:
• A constant feeling of being emotionally, spiritually and physically drained
• An overwhelming resentment about your workload or life in general, or a continued state of frustration
• Fatigue, high blood pressure, and regular headaches
• A marked loss of appreciation for people
• Minor decisions become major issues.
Any of these symptoms sound familiar?
2. Imbalance between vocational life and private world can lead to burnout. Ministers and professional people must learn to find balance. Most want it; few achieve it. The balance of work, play and spiritual life is a must.
Many ministers have not taken charge of their personal lives. They build no "margins" into their lives, putting themselves at great risk. The question is: have you learned to balance your busy life? Many good books have been written on the topic. I recommend Ordering Your Private World by Gordon McDonald and Stress Less by Dr. Don Colbert.
3. Talk to someone about your stress–today. For me, this was difficult to do. I mistakenly felt I couldn't share my problems with anyone, especially my superiors. It might displace me from ministry, I thought. Besides, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone: friends, ministry colleagues and, in the beginning, even my wife. After all, I was a "successful minister," I shouldn't be burned out and depressed.
Unfortunately, many ecclesiastical systems are structured to save and preserve the system at the expense of its constituents. I believe we must address these issues and create new structures. Good coaching relationships can really help. Yes, burnout is real, but it's also preventable. What are you doing to avoid it or recover from it? I hope this helps.