As we read the story of Elijah, “a man just like us” (James 5), he had put himself on the line after being in hiding for three years of drought (1Kings 18). After the Mt Carmel confrontation he had reached the end as the continuous stresses he faced consumed the last of his energy, his ability to go on. Then came the Elijah-decision. “I have had enough; I would rather die than go on facing this day in and day out”.
Stress is all around us, perhaps not as extreme as for Elijah, but it doesn’t have to be. It only needs to be there, never departing and always just around the corner, always consuming spiritual, emotional and physical energy. It can be forced on us by circumstances or induced by the choices we make. If like a forest fire it only burns out when everything is consumed it leaves only charred remains.
The Elijah-decision represents the depths of burnout. It is the culmination of the following major consequences of burnout:
- Loss of purpose in life
- Having one’s self-image destroyed
- Feeling alone in the world
- Being filled with resentment and bitterness
- Feeling that all is hopeless
But How Does Burnout Happen?
Colin Buckland describes burnout in “Freedom to Lead”:
“The exhausting of the inner resource that enables a carer to go on caring. The using up of the essential ‘inner you’, rendering the individual in a serious condition of dysfunctionality. The spending of self on others in such a way that the ‘inner bank balance’ has gone into the red.”
It is a big risk factor for people, like Christian leaders, who have a calling to care for others. It’s something that happens all too frequently as a result of never-ending ministry stress and the need to continually give out at one’s own spiritual, emotional and physical expense. Its consequences can be devastating for minister, family and church alike.
Stress does not have to lead to burnout if one is aware and takes steps to set sensible boundaries.
Forewarned is forearmed.
The aim of this short series is to enable church leaders and those around them to be alerted to the nature, risks and consequences of ministry stress and the devastation of burnout that so often follows. The last two articles provide some practical tips on avoiding and dealing with stress and burnout. The text is adapted and abridged from “Freedom to Lead” by Colin Buckland.
What Does Burnout Look Like?
So what does burnout look like? How can we recognise it? What are its symptoms? Especially as it plays out differently for each individual.
Seven common effects of burnout
A person suffering from burnout may begin to withdraw emotionally. The life of a church leader involves a high level of contact with other people. Often when the church leader is suffering high stress or burnout he or she will withdraw from relationships and fear public appearances.
Burnout is not simply switched on overnight; it builds like a small flame, eventually turning into a forest fire. Ministers may avoid aspects of their work, and this process may begin almost imperceptibly. They may join more committees, read more books and attend more conferences. They are finding a semi-legitimate means of escaping the role that causes their pain and stress
Becoming less approachable
The role of the minister is largely person-centred. Not only may ministers withdraw, but their manner may also be such that they become less approachable and perhaps irritable as a result of anger welling up inside.
A person suffering from burnout may develop serious family problems. Sufferers lose the ability to monitor or control their emotional changes. They are less sensitive to and less aware of others and may become the centre of their own universe, feeling so bad that they cannot escape their own needs in favour of others. This may make them difficult to live with.
Openness to sin
One of the most destructive effects of burnout is the increased susceptibility to sin. Temptations long held at bay seem to take on new strength and the sufferer may have much less resistance to them. Old sinful patterns may return and new ones may develop.
Loss of productivity
A person suffering from burnout will begin to be less productive. Christian leaders will almost certainly become more ineffective in what they do.
Wanting to give up
A person suffering from burnout may want to give up their ministry. Our research has shown that 28% of all Protestant ministers are considering giving up the ministry at any point in time. This is far more serious than ‘feeling low’ about your role.
“Three Men in a Boat”
Lets look at some of the most frequent other physical, emotional and spiritual symptoms. But as we do, we should remember that human nature has a tendency to reflect symptoms upon itself. Like the character in G.K. Chesterton’s comic classic, Three Men in a Boat, we may read a medical dictionary and imagine that we are suffering from every recorded ailment.
Nine physical symptoms of burnout
Fatigue or tiredness
A constant state of tiredness can envelop the suffer that is not alleviated by regular sleep patterns. One’s energy is dissipated to such an extent that the smallest task seems difficult.
Comfort eating or loss of appetite leading to weight gain or weight loss may occur.
Pain including headaches, low back pain, stomach problems, limb aches and chest tightness may arise as the result of muscular tension brought on by the stress. (It is important to get these things checked by a doctor, but they are often stress responses.)
Loss of sleep
Insomnia; vivid dreams; difficulty in staying asleep are often a problem.
Loss of perspective
Small problems becoming large in the mind as it churns over concerns and anxieties.
High anxiety state
Heightened anxiety in response to fears and qualms.
Raised blood pressure
The sufferer may experience a rise in blood pressure.
More accurately it is adrenaline addiction. Stress produces a surge of adrenaline as our body prepares for ‘fight or flight’. This can feel like a motivating rush to which we become hooked and, strange as it may sound, we can become addicted to hurry; to pace and to rushing.
The sufferer may experience some skin complaints like soreness, itching or flaking as the body reacts to high levels of stress.
Eight emotional symptoms of burnout
Burnout is a form of emotional exhaustion that is for many a hell on earth. They experience an emotional roller-coaster ride not easily recognised by others. Burnout is a disorder that develops gradually, and it is therefore difficult to identify its beginnings. Here are some of the symptoms that may be observed or experienced.
Some may feel emotionally numb or hardened while others may feel emotional about everything or anything.
Feelings of dread
This is the feeling that at any moment something awful will happen.
This is a broad category. The sufferer may feel the fear of failure or discovery and have a strong sense of vulnerability. Some people fear for their health others fear things like the telephone ringing. Irrational fears they may be, but sufferers don’t necessarily think so.
Sufferers may begin to believe that people are discussing them behind their backs. This often begins as a fantasy but can become a reality as friends, church members and colleagues notice the paranoia.
Loss of optimism
Sufferers may have little enthusiasm for anything, and helpful suggestions may meet with a negative response.
Loss of courage
Many activities become risks and risks become highly threatening. This is particularly true for those who have been helped on their way to burnout by heavy criticism of their leadership or gifting.
Loss of self-esteem
Sufferers of burnout often experience a diminishing sense of self-worth and loss of self-respect. They may also change their patterns in areas like cleanliness and dress. Some ministers have left the ministry for this reason.
Sufferers from burnout may become increasingly depressed. It is important that a person, who begins to feel depressed, pays a visit to their GP.
Five spiritual symptoms of burnout
The general downward pull of the condition can easily have that effect on one’s spiritual life too. What follows is a brief list of some of the more obvious symptoms.
Lack of enthusiasm
There may be a lack of enthusiasm for the spiritual life.
Anger at God
Sufferers may have decided that their suffering is undeserved and that God has somehow failed them. They become angry with him, but may have difficulty accepting it. However, burnout results from our own actions and not those of others.
Doubting the existence of God is a more or less frequent visitor to every Christian, but sufferers from burnout may experience a profound doubt of God since they feel so unlike their former selves.
Sufferers from burnout may feel a strong sense of guilt. Their condition renders them ineffective, yet they feel guilty for it.
A desert experience
A spiritual drought of gloom and barrenness, often described as a “desert experience”, may result and in which there would seem to be no oasis of meaning.
Burnout comes from ignoring the warning signs for a long time. It is like a railway journey, with the ultimate destination a complete physical and emotional breakdown. Fortunately the train stops at every station and we can disembark before the journey’s end.
Take a moment and take an honest look at yourself. Are you able to identify any of the symptoms of burnout in your own life?
If you are around and about a minister or other church leader, do you see any warning signs?
Burnout is a serious condition. It is destructive, wasteful and no respecter of persons. This destructive force can be stopped and, with a sensitive approach, can be avoided. A system of survival or an avoidance strategy needs to be employed to overcome the effects of burnout and to prevent it from taking place at all.
The next two articles will provide some insight in how to avoid or respond to excess stress and burnout.
The next article in this series is:
- If I Just Keep Working Then it Will All Go Away: Responding to Burnout
- “Hoot a Few Hoots Voluntarily, Now and Then”: 15 Things That You Can Do to Reduce Stress
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.
Image: Ken Lund Flickr.com