“If we apply the dictionary definition of burnout to human beings, we must imagine a man or woman who has been devoured from within by fiery energy until, like a gutted house, nothing is left.” J. A. Sanford.
Brian Doerksen has recently released a worship album called “Level Ground” in which he includes a song called “Will You Still Love Me in the Winter?” This song echoes the plaintive cry of the servant who has succumbed to burnout:
Changes bring a chill
As the last leaves fall
And the winter closes in
I try to stay warm
But it’s hard alone
In the dark night of my soul
My heart aches
I feel numb
I struggle to go on
When my body breaks
When my thoughts have failed
Will you love me still
Will you love me still
In the winter
In the winter
I remember the spring
The thrill of budding life
Now just a faded memory
I gave what I could
Did my best to serve
Now there’s nothing left to give
My flesh fails
My thoughts collide
My question lingers
Perhaps, you recognise the consequences of continual and unabated stress in yourself or another.
What can you do?
How can you recover the situation?
In this, the third article on stress and burnout, adapted and abridged from “Freedom to Lead” by Colin Buckland, we briefly look at a number of things that can be done to support the Christian leader once ablaze with that “fiery energy”, now the ruin of the “gutted house”.
The final article in the series will consider how burnout can be avoided in the first place.
Burnout sufferers have been denying their need to themselves and others until it has become a practised art. Since they have now reached the position of advanced and debilitating stress, they can no longer keep going, but they may still deny the serious nature of their condition. Many force themselves back to work believing that they can shrug off their condition in the same way that they have before. ‘If I just keep working then I will be OK,’ they may say.
The qualified and professional support of a counsellor is essential to enable them to admit that they need help and that they are not failing because of this. It is important that sufferers from burnout be gently but firmly encouraged to get professional support at this time.
The emotional needs may seem paramount but medical needs of the individual are important too.
It is common for burnout sufferers to experience a range of health problems, like muscle pain, high blood pressure, lowered resistance to infection, headaches, diarrhoea, etc. It is good for sufferers to build relationships with their GP, who can help them recover.
Some of the physical symptoms experienced are similar to those experienced in major illnesses like cancer and heart disease, which can be highly alarming. Sufferers may experience a sense of pending doom and be absolutely sure that they are about to die or have a mental breakdown.
Addressing these medical needs, if only for clarity, is vital.
Sufferers from burnout must establish relationships with their counsellors or psychologists. They need the support of these professionals to be able to work through the issues and make a healthy recovery.
Professional support is essential since sufferers often have a low level of trust of others in terms of self-disclosure. They have been wounded in the past and are reluctant to reveal to anyone the truth about their inner person. Burnout sufferers are unlikely to talk about their deepest feelings and issues without trusting their counsellor completely.
Sufferers often feel isolated and need to feel safe and in the hands of someone who will understand them. Experienced professional counsellors who have a sound awareness of Christian leadership issues meet this need. Other Christian ministers who are qualified as counsellors are helpful too, because they are seen as streetwise and know first hand what the sufferers have experienced.
Immediate Responses to Burnout
Aside from the essential, qualified, professional support there are a number of immediate responses required to help the sufferer recover.
Remove from the heat
Like the victim of a terrible fire, the sufferer must be removed immediately from the fire. This sounds simple but the heat is not as easily recognised as in an actual fire.
Burnout sufferers must, as a first-aid response, stop working and recognise the severity of their condition. Since burnout is little understood, this first-aid response is not always easy to achieve.
Some employers (including churches) have difficulty with this and are reluctant to allow the necessary sick leave. It is important, therefore that sufferers see their GP and have their condition confirmed. They will often prescribe a leave of absence.
Stopping work may seem like entering a vacuum. Therefore, ‘stopping’ must have some structure. The suffer:
- Must not be left to recover alone.
- Needs to have people around who are sensitive and understanding.
- Should not be exposed to people who represent the same field of responsibility, as they will remind the individual of work.
- Must be surrounded by caring and loving people who do not crowd the individual but allow space.
- Needs to be reassured by family members and others, that he or she is still respected and loved.
- Should be loved, even when they are abrasive and angry.
- Should know that it is OK to express their emotions.
- Should not be put under pressure or made to work to another person’s schedule.
- Needs loving support as well as a counselling. These roles should not be confused and should be kept separate.
Rest and relaxation
The sufferer will need to rest and relax at this time. This is not easy since they are emerging from a time of intense activity. Many people who are suffering from burnout have lost the art of rest; they do not know what to do with their time out.
- Peace and quiet may be helpful to sufferers, and sleep is vital, as patterns of sleep may have become distorted by stress.
- Sufferers must be encouraged to get the rest that they need but a natural sleep pattern will take time to develop as the adrenaline levels subside.
- They will need help to establish how best to use their time.
- It is often helpful if the sufferer and the family can get away from the area for a time.
Confronting the Causes
In order for health to return the processes that cause burnout need to be examined, understood and defused in a person’s life.
Those who suffer from burnout often have a low self-worth. They have been driven to the point of near collapse and are no longer able to work at their usual rate. Unable to see their usual results they feel like failures and were feeling this way for some time before they were forced to stop working.
Examine the drivenness
They may have been driven by a deep-rooted need to gain approval or earn love and respect. Whatever the reason, all burnout victims have had unhealthy patterns of work, being driven by inner forces to do more than any human being should. This drive needs to be examined and re-evaluated with the help of a trained counsellor or psychologist.
Grace of God
Burnout sufferers have forgotten the grace of God and tend to focus on work and results. Their encouragement comes from achievement and not from God’s unconditional love. They need to be reminded gently of the grace of God and that their worth is found in God and not in results. Facing God as a welcoming Father is difficult when one feels like a failed son or daughter.
Lack of encouragement
They may have gone for long periods with little feedback and need to be affirmed and encouraged. This can be difficult since they may have an entrenched belief in their own worthlessness.
It may be helpful to recall places and people that have been positively affected by their ministry. Avoid pointing to achievements that were a part of the burnout process.
Sufferers may be helped by listing their particular gifts and strengths. Encourage with truth only. The temptation to help someone by stretching the truth is strong but damaging.
Show your love for the sufferer with acts of kindness.
The sufferer from burnout may be troubled by memories of past failures or misunderstandings. These ‘ghosts’ have a wearing effect and can be part of the cause of the drivenness that has led the sufferer to burnout. They need to be exorcised.
Sometimes problems with their parents may have left unresolved tensions. It can be a good plan to get sufferers to meet with their parents to discuss their feelings with them.
Sufferers may recall unhappy situations. It can be helpful for sufferers to meet with people who were involved and have a much more positive view of how things went. But avoid doing this where you are not sure of the dynamics.
Laying to rest
Sufferers may have a number of haunting and stressful memories that can be laid to rest by gentle and skilful reappraisal.
Sufferers from burnout may have developed a value system that is deeply embedded and based on ‘success’. In the Western world the worship of success causes people in different professions to push themselves and others to perform to inhuman levels.
Being seen and heard
Personal ambition exists within the church and church leaders. Being acknowledged by well-known speakers is the desire of many, and becoming a well-known speaker is the desire of even more. A fine line exists between being successful for God and being successful for self. Many are working with the latter while believing it is the former. It causes individuals to work too hard for their cause.
Many Christian ministers secretly desire to lead larger and more prestigious churches. Success is understood here as greater numbers and size. This view suggests that bigger churches are better churches. It also courts the thought that the bigger the church you lead the more effective you are. This is a terrible trap for ministers. Their own success is then based on how many people attend the services.
Being and doing
A healthy value system is based on self-awareness (realising that one is a child of God, part of the household of God) and God-awareness (realising that this is because of the work of Jesus on the cross and not because of the product of one’s labours). From this basis of security in God, we are more able to adopt a healthy working pattern. Seeking importance based on action and achievement and status is an unhealthy value system that drives individuals and is liable to cause burnout.
What feelings does this statement produce in you: ‘A fine line exists between being successful for God and being successful for self. Many are working with the latter while believing it is the former’?
Whereas this article offers some insights in to addressing burnout, it is plainly better to avoid it in the first place. It has made a number of challenges to the perspectives that might make one susceptible to burnout. The final article will consider how to avoid burnout in the first place.
The next article in this series is
You can also read more about managing and minimising ministry stress here: Minimising Stress and Avoiding Burnout
If you have discovered that you recognise your situation in all of this and need assistance now, then please contact the Claybury/One Another Ministries team on +44 1543 878 656 or email info@OneAnother.com.
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