Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Burn Out

For months I struggled to find the creativity and energy I was accustomed to. My fuse was short and I was easily upset and irritated by even minor things. I knew I didn't feel like "me" but didn't feel I was depressed like I have been in years past.

Basically I muddled through and got the job done. Generally I felt good about the work I was doing, but I struggled to muster energy or enthusiasm for Bible study (of which I taught 3 a week) or even Sunday morning worship. I knew something wasn't right, but had no idea how to name it or fix it.

One night, late, I sat down and talked with a friend/spiritual mentor/colleague. I shared how I was feeling: my fatigue, my frustrations, my lack of drive and he said, "What you're describing sounds like burn out." As soon as he said it, I started to cry. I knew he was right. I didn't want him to be right, but I knew he was. He asked if I had vacation time coming up and I said, "Well, sort of, but it's already scheduled and I will be running a major event and climbing a really tall mountain. It's time off, but not really vacation."

He recommended that I take some time away and said that I'd need more than just one week.

The next day I called my (official) mentor and shared what I had with G. When I said, "He said it sounds like burn out," her response was, "Well, it doesn't surprise me. You've been going full bore for so long, it was bound to happen." Her words stung (I didn't want to be burnt out) but I knew she too was right. She also asked if I had time off coming up and I gave the same answer. She recommended I take a full month off to recover and get restored.

She told me to talk to my SPRC and even my DS and ask for their support. She said, "Can you do that?" I said, "Well, I can do that, but I don't want to. I don't want to be the one who is burnt out. I'm only in my fourth year of ministry."

She understood but still urged me to take a break and ask for help. I didn't want to ask for help. And I didn't want to be the one who had to ask for help. I don't like asking for help in general (and that's when things are good), let alone when things are bad (and God forbid I should have to admit failure or weakness or some other frailty of the human condition).

I really struggled with the notion that I should take time off, or let go of some of my responsibilities. I also knew that one of the pastors I admire most had had a (self-acknowledged) mental breakdown because he worked himself into the ground (but took time off and has since recovered). I knew that if I didn't attend to things then, they would only get worse.

Fortunately, I had already decided to make August a month of sabbath for the whole church. I would not be teaching any Bible studies. I had encouraged all the committee leaders to give their committees the month off. In other words, aside from Sundays and staff meetings, nothing else was pre-scheduled for an entire month.

I scheduled a meeting with my SPRC chair and told her what was going on with me. She was very understanding and concerned and told me to do whatever I needed to feel better and be restored.

So, for the next month, I laid low. I worked a minimal work-week (30-40 hours instead of 50-60) and tried to do only the necessary things. I preached and led worship, answered phone calls, and did hospital visits. I ran staff meeting and kept the general planning for the church moving. I also took time to rest (sometimes probably more because of depression than an actual need to sleep--but either way it was important). I dealt with issues in my personal life and gave myself permission not to be a frantic workaholic (a task that is harder than it sounds....even on vacation I was compelled to answer phone calls and plan programs and sort out church conflict).

After four weeks of "part-time" work, I finally feel better. I feel like myself again. I get excited about teaching and preaching and have enthusiasm and energy and lots of ideas for the work we are doing.

Burn out isn't simply something that happens to the 'old guys/gals who have been doing this forever'. Burn out is something that can happen to any of us if we don't set good boundaries, if we have insufficient personal (or professional) support, or if we work far too many hours and do way too many things (even for all the "right" reasons). Burn out can happen, even to the youngest clergy member in the conference.

I am grateful for G and H who named it for what it was. I am grateful I had already planned August for sabbath so I didn't have to feel like I was bailing but instead just following the plan (it also made me think that every August should be sabbath as it was a nice reprieve for everyone from the routine of meetings and weekly Bible study commitments). I am grateful for B who called every day to make sure I was ok. I am grateful for R who did cooking and cleaning and laundry when I simply couldn't muster the energy. I am grateful it didn't take a bigger toll on my physical health. I am grateful for an SPRC chair who was 100% supportive and would send me notes of encouragement and reminders to take time away and to honor my weekly day of sabbath.

And now, as I feel "recovered" I keep reminding myself not to pick up a million projects all over again, to slow down and wait, for the busy season will come all on its own--I do not have to go looking for extra things to do. And, as of yesterday's staff meeting, it seems the busy season is nearly here...two weeks before there is a flurry of activity in the church associated with baptisms, stewardship, membership classes, major fundraisers, and special Sundays!

1 comment:

Scott Endress said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I hope you stay well and take care of yourself.