How to Prevent Burnout

“It may be legal, but the ethics stink!”

I winced at my friend’s comment about a Christian organization’s poor employment practices, but I knew he was right.

That’s why I read and blogged about Richard Kyte’s Ethical Businessbecause ethical decision-making doesn’t happen automatically even for those who claim to be Christian. In an age of “alternate facts,” we need the reminder to hold on to truth, to consider the intended and unintended consequences of our decisions, to exercise good character, and act fairly. So if you missed it, I’d love for you to read Good Ethics Require More Than a Good Feeling, and share with others.

In his book, Richard Kyte also offers one of the best definitions of burnout that I’ve ever read.

burnout

Burnout describes a condition more complex than simply working too much. It refers to an exhaustion that comes from doing the wrong kind of work, working with the wrong people, or going to work with the wrong type of motivation. (pages 94-95)

Aha! Suddenly the lightbulb went on for me. This is why many of the usual remedies for burnout don’t seem to work. It’s all very well to take some time off, be with your family, practice Sabbath, go on vacation, re-set your work-life balance, and so on–and these strategies may offer at least some short-term stress relief. But they may also leave you still feeling burnt out and with a work-life balance that doesn’t quite work, wanting still more time off, more family days, more Sabbath, more vacation.

That’s because simply taking time off doesn’t address the underlying issues of burnout. I know for myself that if I’m tired from too little sleep or too many hours of ministry, an evening or a weekend or a week off can do wonders. I can take a break, catch my breath, sleep in, feel refreshed. But if I were doing the wrong kind of work with the wrong people and the wrong motivation, I couldn’t remedy those things by simply taking a break and going back into the same stressful situation. Instead, the break would be most effective if I could use it to address the content of my work with whom and how.

A number of years ago, a Bible college student asked to interview me about burnout for a class on pastoral ministry. I was happy to answer his questions, but I remember thinking that he had chosen a rather odd topic for his year-end essay. Why was he so concerned about burnout before he had even started ministry? Why focus on setting boundaries around working too hard, before he had even taken the first step of serving?

After reading Richard Kyte’s definition, I now realize that both the student and I had wrongly defined burnout as spending too many hours on ministry, as if burnout were simply a matter of working too much. We thought of burnout as a form of exhaustion brought on by too many evenings at church, an ever-growing to-do list, that sense of being on call 24/7, of being stretched and spread too thin. That kind of stress definitely needs to be addressed with good self-care, including appropriate boundaries, careful time management, and other strategies.

But if Kyte’s definition holds that burnout is “an exhaustion that comes from doing the wrong kind of work, working with the wrong people, or going to work with the wrong type of motivation,” then the best time to address burnout is exactly before the start of ministry, during the time of discerning a new call. Instead of waiting to address burnout only when it happens in the midst of ministry, preventive steps can begin much earlier.

So if you’re looking to prevent burnout, or need to address it in your current situation, consider the following three questions based on Kyte’s definition of burnout.

1. Is the kind of work a good fit for you?

In Burned Out Christians, mentor and spiritual director, Judy Turner asks:

Are you doing what you’re “wired by God” to do? Is the ministry a match for your spiritual gifts and talents? Does it really engage you at a deep level? Many of us end up spending a lot of time and energy doing something for God that is not really our passion or our calling. Recovery and renewal may start with a prayerful examination of what God is calling you to do. It may be that a particular ministry was right at one time, but God is calling you to begin a new adventure in serving. God may be releasing you to a new ministry in a new season of your life.

2. Can you work well with the people involved?

In a helpful article on stress and burnout, Pastoral Care Inc. lists the following among other causes of burnout:

  • feeling betrayed by co-workers or those you serve,
  • feeling used or uncared for,
  • frustration with others,
  • disappointment or disillusionment by a leader.

Again, such underlying causes cannot be solved by better time management or taking a break, although that might help in the short-term. Is it possible instead to address frustrations with practical changes in your work environment? To deal positively with your feelings of disappointment or betrayal?

3. What is your motivation?

The University of Western Sidney completed a study of well-being in ministry among Christian workers in Australia. On positive motivation for ministry, they wrote:

Commonly considered the opposite experience to burnout, engagement is a positive state of motivation and fulfilment that is characterised by vigour and energy when at work, dedication to the work, and being happily absorbed in doing the work. . . . The ideal for Christian work is not simply avoiding burnout, but rather to be motivated and have energy for the work at hand. It is the presence of motivation, not just the absence of cynicism and its other burnout companions that is desired.

So to prevent burnout, we might ask ourselves, am I motivated to do this work, happily absorbed in it? Or am I reluctant, or simply going through the motions in order to please others?

Have you experienced burnout, and how have you dealt with it?
What would you add to prevent burnout?

_____________________

Thank you for your interest in When You Work for the Church. Join me here in another two weeks, or sign up for my free updates to read at your own pace without missing anything.

2 thoughts on “How to Prevent Burnout

  1. Thanks for sharing this one. Definitely provided me some useful insights into burnout and added some helpful direction in how to effect change for those of us who are experiencing it.

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