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Are You on the Path to Burnout?

Written By Tom Nelson

I enjoy catching up with congregation members at a favorite coffee shop. I not only really like a bold cup of coffee, I also enjoy unhurried conversations where joys, hopes, dreams, and fears bubble to the surface of our often too busy lives. A conversation I am having more frequently is around the stressful work world so many are experiencing in the fields of health care, mental health, education, business, and non-profit worlds. For many there is a lingering post-COVID exhaustion, staffing pressures, mental health challenges, increasing workloads, longer work hours, economic pressures, and a host of disruptive technological changes. This amount of stress is putting more people on the path to burnout. Finding themselves physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually depleted, the cry of the heart I often hear is articulated with these words: “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”  

In addition to the high stress of the workplace, we live in a cultural context with increasing macro-pressures that are also fueling burnout. We sense in unsettling and disorienting ways what the writer of Psalm 11:3, declared, When the foundations are destroyed what will the righteous do?The worldview and ethical foundations we have stood upon are fast crumbling around us. The organization Renovare convened 35 leaders from many societal sectors including the arts, media, technology, politics, mental health, higher education, non-profits, and clergy. Four macro themes emerged around our cultural moment. First, we are in a time of deep instability manifesting itself in panic, isolation, and loneliness. Second, polarization and breakdown are increasing across our culture and institutions, including the church. Third, many people don’t know who they are, what is true, and where they belong. Fourth, there is a loss of confidence in leaders because of abuses of power and tragic character flaws. 

In addition, to these macro cultural pressures, the orthodox Christian faith we hold dear is not only marginalized, it is increasingly ridiculed and vigorously opposed. The increased overload in many workplaces, the broader cultural pressures, the overwhelming bombardment of information, the gnawing isolation and loneliness, and the dizzying amount of technological and cultural change are all contributing to the emotional, spiritual, relational, and physical depletion of burnout. How do we navigate our cultural moment and our challenging Monday worlds so that we can flourish and not face burnout? As a starting point, I suggest carving out some time to evaluate your pace, your patterns, and your people. 

First, how is your pace? The late Dallas Willard, whose now-famous advice to pastor John Ortberg to ruthlessly eliminate hurry, was once asked what one word he thought best described Jesus. Dallas paused for a moment and then said, “relaxed.”  As yoked apprentices of Jesus, are we like Jesus in that manner? Are we learning the importance of healthy pacing in our lives?  Let’s remember that Jesus, although facing innumerable demands and having many important things to do, lived a wise pace of an unhurried life. He often said no and we should, too. Looking back at your week, month, and your year, what pace have you been keeping?  We know that when a car speeds, it can kill, but do we grasp that when we speed through life, important things can be missed, souls can wither, and relationships implode. What is your weekly schedule telling you? Are you trying to do too much?  Are you trying to say yes too much and no too little?  

Second, what are your patterns? We are all patterned people whose habitual daily and weekly rhythms form us either for flourishing or spiritual, emotional, and relational impoverishment. Varying seasons of life often require adjustments to life patterns. Yet regardless of our life season, God built into creation a rhythm of six days of work and one day of rest. Weekly sabbath rest is God’s great gift to us in every season of life. Sabbath is not to be seen as the end of an exhausting week, but the climax of the week. God had all this in mind when keeping the sabbath became an integral part of the Ten Commandments. Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote one of the most insightful books on the Sabbath puts it this way, “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays, the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.” How are you building a sabbath day within your weekly planning and patterns? What changes do you need to make to observe a consistent weekly sabbath day? While a sabbath is about much more than avoiding burnout, I know of few better antidotes to burnout than regular sabbath day practice. 

Another pattern to pay attention to is our daily sleep. In Psalm 4:8 we read, In peace and safety I will both lie down and sleep for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.  Getting adequate and regular sleep is foundational for flourishing and avoiding burnout. This year at our Leawood Campus we had a seminar on sleep. Let me share a few practical tips that were offered. First, we must realize there is a relationship between good sleep and regular physical exercise. Daily exercise has multiple benefits, and good sleep is one of them. What is your physical exercise pattern? Second, avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening, and create a regular pre-sleep routine, including a consistent time you go to bed and when you get up. Third, stay away from screens and your phone prior to bedtime. What they do to your brain and the light they emit affects melatonin and hinders good sleep. Keep your phone and computer screens out of your bedroom. Keep all work out of your bedroom. Your body has memory and it will function best when that bedroom space is associated with sleep.  How are you sleeping? What is your sleep pattern? 

Third, who are your people? Inevitably, when I interact with someone approaching or facing burnout, I ask them about their close friendships. Do they have a handful of people in their lives who they do life with, that know them well? Do they feel seen, safe, soothed, and secure in the context of a few close friendships? Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson points to isolation and loneliness as a major factor in burnout. Peering through the illuminating lens of interpersonal neurobiology, Curt writes, “We know the brain can do a lot of really hard things for a long time as long as it doesn’t have to do them by itself. We only develop greater resilience when we are deeply emotionally connected to people.What close friendships do you need to cultivate and give more attention to? 

In the midst of the many stresses of our Monday worlds and in a culture that is increasingly hostile to our faith and worldview, we can avoid burnout and instead flourish. As yoked apprentices of Jesus, may we pursue daily intimacy with Jesus, keeping a sustainable pace, embracing wise patterns, and cultivating close friendships. Let’s pursue a path of flourishing, not burnout.

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