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Burnout: Giving It All and Gaining Nothing

Mar 7, 2017

“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
-C.S. Lewis

burnout arch desert sunset milky way galaxy

An interesting quote from Lewis to say the least. It’s been shared many times by well-respected authors, leaders, and speakers. You may have even heard it before yourself. The only trouble is C.S. Lewis never actually wrote those words. At least according to what we can find. (For the full takedown on this apocryphal quote, click here.)

While the quote is not actually from Lewis, it does reflect a reality and challenge we deal with on a daily basis. We aren’t simply souls and we aren’t simply bodies. We are both and we have both. According to Christian theology, we will have both in heaven too.

Therefore, what does it mean to live as someone who has a soul and a body, not as someone who operates more like a machine or a computer?

This post is the first in a four-part series about challenges we’re facing as a culture but which remain largely unaddressed. (Today, we’re talking about burnout.) If you’d like to receive future editions of this series, delivered directly to your inbox, enter your name and email in the boxes below.

Living Like We Have One but Not the Other (or Neither)

In our present culture, we regularly live as if we have a soul or a body, but not both. Many of us live without an awareness of how our bodies are being ruined because of an unsustainable pace of life.

According to a Stanford Study, 20% of all American meals are eaten in the car.

Americans believe it’s easier to do their taxes than it is to eat healthily. (As many of us are knee-deep in tax season, this felt particularly relevant.)

Nearly 78 million adults and 13 million children in the United States deal with the health and emotional effects of obesity every day.

Many of us sleep with our phones next to our beds and the first thing we do after waking us is check these devices.

61% of Americans who did vacations in 2015 reported working while on vacation.

Anxiety among young adults is at an 80 year high.

That’s some really encouraging data, right?

From Wall Chargers to Portable Batteries

I was walking through an airport recently and noticed small congregations of people around designated charging stations. Between long flights, men and women were charging their devices. I was rushed on a layover and didn’t have time to charge my device.

Not to worry, though. Once I was on the flight, I pulled out my portable external battery pack. It recharged my phone to full capacity and would’ve done so another seven times without recharging. (All for $21 on Amazon, if you’re interested).

As awesome as that external battery is, I began to wonder if I don’t often treat myself like my phone. Sometimes, I wonder if we all don’t expect ourselves to renew with the ease and speed of our smartphonesI think many of us are living as if we can recharge and re-engage with a speed our bodies and souls cannot sustain. The results of this kind of thinking can be summed up in one word – burnout.

“And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?” -Jesus (Mark 8:36)

My Experience with Burnout

I never thought it would happen to me.

When I was in seminary, I heard about how many pastors left the profession each month (over 1,000 per month according to one study). Professors used phrases like “burnout” and “moral failure”. I don’t know if the point was to scare me into dropping out, but I left thinking, “that will never happen to me.”

If you fast-forwarded four years from that seminary class to the summer of 2012, you’d watch me hit a wall while pastoring. I began struggled to find words when writing sermons. (This had never been a problem in the past.) I went through the motions on a lot of Sundays. Physically, I hadn’t been taking caring of myself, neglecting healthy eating habits and ignoring the discipline of exercise. Spiritually, I was prepping my public acts of spirituality (writing, teaching, leading a ministry) while neglecting my private spirituality (silence, solitude, meditation, prayer). Emotionally, I had been fighting to maintain hope amidst disappointments in my church environment. And it just kept getting harder.

 

A Breakdown Leads to a Breakthrough

One Thursday evening, I broke down in a planning meeting with some volunteers. Failing to care for me physically, emotionally and spiritually caught up to me. As we struggled to navigate different opinions on how our ministry should handle a philosophical conflict, the team looked to me to solve the problem and lead us forward. But as my opportunity to lead came, I didn’t have any resources to drawn on – I was spent. I became as vulnerable as I’d ever been. Through tears, I confessed. “I don’t know – I have nothing left to share. No new vision to share with you. I don’t know how to solve this. No idea where to lead you. I’m empty.”

My friends responded with love, not judgment. I found acceptance instead of rejection. They circled around me and laid hands on me. Several friends prayed for my body and soul, giving me the permission to be in a dark and difficult place. I will never forget that evening, nor the gift they gave me.

But I knew things needed to change. I couldn’t keep going down this path. In spite of my good intentions, I was becoming another statistic. The next day, I left for a personal retreat. I sat in a room overlooking a pool, where I began rediscovering God’s unconditional love. I reconnected with a book which had changed my life in college — The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat Up and Burnt Out by Brennan Manning – while recognizing the unhealthy patterns which had led me to burnout.

After finishing the retreat by contemplating what it would mean to look for a new job, I started networking for a new opportunity.

Within nine months, I was in a much healthier place. I’d improved physically, lost weight, slept more and relying less on coffee. I gave up drinking RockStar energy drinks entirely. My excitement about my work as a pastor returned. And by a miracle, it was possible for me to experience this transformation while serving at the same church.

burnout person asking for help holding a sign
How Do We Live as Both Souls and Bodies?

-Admit we’re going the wrong way.

I heard a successful entrepreneur talk this week about the sad conversations he has with other business owners who give it all for their companies and then wake up and realize they have no one to share “success” with. They say, “I gave it all to get to the top and then realized I climbed the wrong mountain.”

Talk about your struggles in this area publicly. I talked about my sense of burnout with my volunteers that night. We need to share our struggles, for the sake of accountability and to encourage others who think they’re alone. People don’t believe you if you have no weaknesses. They believe in you more when you have the courage to admit what they already wonder about or see.

-Go in a new direction.

The word “repent” has so much baggage. We’ve all heard someone yell “repent!” at us through a bullhorn in our city’s downtown area or outside a sporting event. While the word is often connected to anger and judgment, it’s actually a close friend to a word we use all the time – “u-turn.”

Repenting is going in a new direction after acknowledging we were headed the wrong way. If we realize we’re “climbing the wrong mountain” or running a race we really don’t want to win, then it’s time to stop and change directions. We can’t always control the endings in our lives, but we can decide to create a new beginning.

 

-Seek help.

The hardest part of that night with my volunteers was asking for their help – both that night in the form of prayer and in the future in the form of patience. None of us like to admit we cannot do something on our own. But seeking help is not weakness, it’s a sign of courage, confidenceand strength. In my burnout, I had to reclaim my identity in God’s unconditional, not my performance. As a recovering Type-A, driven, perfectionist, admitting I couldn’t sustain my performance was incredibly difficult. And incredibly freeing.

While seeking the guidance of a counselor to untangle the mess you’ve created may seem awkward and scary, seeking help shows we really do want to change.

If we were going to change on our own, we would’ve done so by now. We need help when we’ve gotten stuck and come to the end of ourselves.

-Be intentional.

Our actions are the manifestations of our intentions. If we don’t want to gain the whole world and lose our souls, then intentional action can create new patterns and habits. I’ve listed 10 things below which can help us live as souls and bodies with more intentionality.

Start your day with silence. For me, this currenlty includes prayer, Scripture reading, gratitude and focusing on what matters most that day.

Plan your meals in advance. We are what we eat and many times our lethargy comes from eating haphazardly.

Guard time for exercise. Exercise not only cares for our body, but it can feel like detox for our souls.

Put your thoughts and feelings on paper. When we process what’s inside of us outside us, I believe we get the perspective to address our feelings without being driven by them.

Get rest. Whether it’s a nap, going to bed early, or taking a digital Sabbath, be intentional about rest. Your body doesn’t give as clear a warning sign as your phone’s low battery notification.

-Filter the voices you engage. In today’s deluge of information, we often take in a variety of voices. Some voices should be evicted and some should be empowered.

-Serve others. Serving others can carry us through dark, cynical days by pulling the focus off our struggle and onto someone else’s need which we can meet.

-Do life with other people. In age of constant “connection,” we’ve never had a harder time at relationships. Pick a few people who know more about how your soul is doing than how what your Instagram feed includes.

-Use every single one of your vacation days. In a 2015 study, researchers found that 55% of Americans didn’t take all their vacation days. I can promise you two things you won’t be thinking about on your death bed – I wish I had binged more Netflix and I wish I had worked more.

 

“I’d rather burn out than fade away.”

Neil Young and Kurt Cobain both sang this phrase as a lyric. And they’re incredible artists. But it seems like a crappy choice to me! We don’t have to burn out in exhaustion and we don’t have to fade away, losing our fire and passion either.

However, we get to reject both options if and only if we care for our bodies and souls.

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