On the Edge: What to Do When Facing Burnout

Burnout!  What is it and who suffers from it?  Burnout is total exhaustion in every area of life: spiritual, physical, metal, and emotional.  It is feeling alone, tired, worn out, stressed out, and completely out of control.  It is more than a bad day at work.  It feels as if you have nothing left to give.  You are no longer treading water; you’re drowning. 

Youth workers run an especially high risk of experiencing burnout.  I did. This is my story.

I graduated from Concordia University in May of 2001, and received a call to a Lutheran School in California.  I was called to be a full time Physical Education Teacher and Athletic Director.  However, the school was small, and it expected a lot more than just fulfilling a job description.  Within the first month of moving to California, I was swamped, but I thought I could do it all.

I began teaching, I was attending my athletic meetings and running the sports program, and I was coaching.  Soon after the beginning of the school year, I was asked to run the youth group program.  I was thrilled and said I would, which added the additional tasks of meeting new kids and parents, attending planning meetings, doing Bible Studies, and leading the usual outings: lock-ins, Wednesday night youth meetings, laser tag, progressive dinners, fundraising, chancel dramas, etc.

In addition to all this, I started working day care before school. California is not a cheap place to live. I was paying $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment with no washer, dryer, dishwasher, or parking. In order to pay all of my bills I needed another job.

These were just the big things. I also headed up all the assemblies and pep assemblies. I did all the training and scheduling for our Acolytes (an unusually large organization in our church). I led the songs at our Chapel services. I was on the worship/liturgy team, helped lead the young adult ministry program, attended weekly faculty meetings, did pictures for the yearbook, was on an accreditation team, and planned things like family chapel gatherings, field days, and Holy week chapels. The list goes on, but even after all this I was excited to be doing the job that I had worked my whole life to do. I was doing the Lord’s work.

I held up fine for a while.  I had a lot of energy, I was enthusiastic, I was helping people and the church, I was sharing God’s word, and I was making a difference.  But slowly, very slowly things began to change. I started neglecting myself, my family, my friends, my relationships, and most importantly, I neglected my relationship with the Lord.  I started to forget why I was a church worker in the first place.  I was losing sight of HIM.

This is one of the first signs of burnout. I was no longer praising God; I was fighting deadlines. I was doing things out of guilt. I was volunteering because I knew I could do it and it needed to be done. Over time, I began to resent the Church.  In fact, by the time I left California, I did not even want to attend church.  Church was work; it was not worship. Church wasn’t leaving me feeling spiritually fed enough to give the rest of the week.  It was emptying me a little bit at a time.

My physical health also began to suffer. I was averaging at least 12 hours a day at work, and I was there almost every weekend as well.  At one point, I went from the first weekend in January all the way to spring break in April without a day off from work.  I was exhausted!  I was physically drained.

I would go days without sleeping due to stress.  I would lie awake all night.  I started to get headaches. I had a very hard time staying awake during the school day. If I was not physically moving, I was half asleep. I started to gain weight. I started to eat on the run or not eat at all. I started to get sick more often and people began to tell me I looked tired. My body was burnt out.

When you are physically exhausted, it is nearly impossible to keep yourself emotionally and mentally healthy.  I started to feel depressed at times. I was irritable. I made abnormal choices, and I just did not think straight.

My home started to suffer. I had a hard time finding time to do my dishes, do my laundry, clean my house, pay my bills, go grocery shopping, write birthday cards, and so much more.  I was single, living by myself, with a family that lived 1,000 miles away.  I had no help with any of the everyday things. I learned that if your life at home is not in order it is hard to do what needs to be done in the office, and visa versa.  When I got out of control at home, I became out of control in other areas of my life.

My burnout affected other people, too. I lost a very important relationship.  My frustrations at work began to take over my relationship with my boyfriend (we were talking about getting married) and eventually we broke up.  I had nothing to give to him any more.  I had given everything to the job.  I started to loose other friendships and relationships, too.  It was terrible. I suddenly realized that I needed to make some changes.

Below are some things that I found worked for me when I began to suffer from burnout.  I recommend trying these ideas to help you prevent burnout in your own life, and cope with it when it affects you.

Do A Daily Devotion
Get down on your knees and pray to the Father. Spend time with Him. Planning devotions and leading Bible studies for other people is not enough. You need time alone with your creator every day.

I also really recommend joining a Bible study and /or an accountability group.  Establish a relationship with someone you trust and let this person support you. I also highly recommend that you find a second church to worship at when you need a place to worship without any connection to work.  Find a place where you can praise the Lord without worrying about what you have to do, should be doing, who you have to talk to, or which parent is going to complain after the service.

Join A Devotion Group
Spend time in devotions and prayer with the people you work with (church and school staff). Make it a priority; don’t just try to fit it in.  Also, spend time in prayer and in the Word with your family.

Nail Down Your Job Description
Figure out what your job description is and what your priorities are.  Work within those boundaries.  Say NO to anything not within those boundaries.  Figure out how many hours you are going to work a week and how those hours are going to be spent.  When you have completed those hours, GO HOME!

It was so hard for me to learn to delegate.  In fact, I am still struggling with it.  You have to let go of a lot of control and have to put a lot of trust in other people.  When you delegate, make sure you pick someone you can trust and someone you know can get the job done.

Give your students and youth group members more responsibility.  Not only does this help you, it makes students feel needed and important to the success of the group.  Also, there are a number of people with gifts and talents that we often fail to use in the church.  Seek them out and ask for their help.

Take Time
Take time for yourself and your family and friends.  God does not want those we love to suffer most.  Set up a night to have dinner with friends.  Take your family on a weekend get away or on a vacation.  Take time to get away.  Moreover, always date (wine and dine) your spouse or special loved one.  Keep that relationship healthy.

Get Physically Active
Go for a walk, play a sport, go to the gym, take an aerobics class.  Do something that gets your heart rate up and makes you sweat a little.  This will help release tension and stress.  It will also help you sleep and you will feel better over all.

Prioritize Your Health
You are not any good to others if you are not healthy.  Watch what you are eating.  Make sure you are getting plenty of rest and sleep. Keep your home life in order. Find a hobby that helps you to relax.  Read a book, build model airplanes, crochet, sew, cook, anything that helps you relax and gives you time to yourself.

Vent On the Way Home
Talk out your frustrations with the Lord.  Your family and friends don’t want to hear about everything that went wrong at work. If you do need to vent, ask them first. Say, €Do you mind if I vent for a minute?€ or €Will you just listen so I can get this off my chest?€ or €Can you help me work through this problem that I am struggling with?€ Set a specific amount of time to vent.  For example, you will have 10 minutes every evening to scream, yell, talk, or whatever you need to do to release stress and frustration.  But at the end of those 10 minutes you are done. That’s it, no more.

Take a Break
When things get out of hand, sit back and take a deep breath.  Figure out what your priorities are and where they are getting out of control.  Then make the changes that need to be made.  Remember, only you are going to know if you did not get the new bulletin board up, or did not put enough clip art into your article.  Look at what is most important; your products should be Praising God and making new disciples.

Ultimately, none of this comes easily. The fight against burnout is a lifelong journey, and you will always find yourself struggling at one time or another. That is the nature of our jobs and our hearts. Nevertheless, when you realize that burnout is crippling your ministry, stop, get on your knees, pray and make the appropriate changes.  God’s blessings on your journey.

About the author

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