Moving Beyond Burnout

It was a Sunday afternoon when my husband Craig took me by the hand and led me into the small living room at the front of the house. He seated me in a wing chair and knelt in front of me, holding my hands in his. “Sweetie,” he began. “This is an intervention.”

In his most compassionate voice, he began describing my life—my job and the amount of travel I did with it, my responsibilities in raising our teenaged kids, my ministry as a pastor’s wife, my efforts to be a good friend and a good daughter. “This is just not sustainable,” he said. “I’m not upset with you, but something has to change.”

I kept my eyes on my lap, my cheeks burning. Waves of inadequacy and shame washed over me. I was trying so hard to do it all. People depended on me. How could I stop?

Looking back, I think some of the shame came from my awareness that I knew better. I was a counselor and leadership consultant. I worked with congregational leaders and helped them manage the demands of their busy lives, kept an eye out for burnout, reminded them to take care of themselves.

And honestly, most of the time, my life worked really well. It was full, but it was full of good things—enjoyable, God-honoring, and important things. I had worked hard at rooting out meaningless busyness. With a touch of self-righteousness, I would say, “My life is not busy; my life is full. There’s a difference.” And there is. But I had lost track of it, and said yes too many times And now, as Craig said tenderly, it was unsustainable and needed to change.

1. Stop sanctifying stress and spiritualizing busyness.

In I Thessalonians 1:3, Paul describes the life of a Christian as “work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus." Though we mean well, we're often experiencing “work produced by obligation, labor prompted by the expectations of others, and your endurance inspired by just putting one foot in front of the other.”

I once knew an evangelist who habitually answered the question, “How are you?” by telling everyone how busy he was. It was clear he believed that being busier than everyone else made him more important. It’s not just him, of course. We are frustrated by the pace at which we live, but we are also secretly proud of our stress, so impressed by our busyness.  

The church leaders I know are not busy for no reason. We are caring for people, running programs that bless people, and ministering to folks in need. We feel the urgency of all the need around us. When I mentioned the cost that his pace was having on his family, one minister challenged me, “So there are people all around me going to hell, and I’m supposed to take a vacation?”

We are frustrated by the pace at which we live, but we are also secretly proud of our stress, so impressed by our busyness.  

2. Be honest with yourself about your motives.

We genuinely want to help people, keep our churches running, live missionally, and make a difference. But let’s be honest—our motives are not always as pure as we think they are. We may think:

  • “I am important if I am busy.”

  • “I am the only one who can do this.”

  • “It will be a disaster if this doesn’t get done.”

Sometimes we are—in the words of Brené Brown—“hustling for worthiness.” We may be trying to impress others with our indispensability, but we may also be trapped in our efforts to please God with our productivity.

One pastor I coach has set the goal of living “at the pace of grace.” For her, that means not giving in to the temptation of believing that God is more pleased with her when she is wearing herself out with busyness or that he is somehow displeased when she relaxes when she could be feeding the hungry or writing a sermon.

“God would rather that I burn out than rust out,” one church leader told me—as if those were the only two options. It is important to challenge this idea because resentful, overextended, and exhausted Christians are at best useless and at worst dangerous to the kingdom of God.

3. Set a realistic pace.

In Ephesians 5:15, the apostle Paul reminds us, “Be very careful, then, how you live, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity.” Some of us feel relentless pressure in Paul’s words. I have so many opportunities to say yes, to serve, to take on this ministry or that responsibility. How on earth am I supposed to make the most of all of them? Often, I’m just trying to get things done so I can move on to the next obligation.

That’s where the first part of Paul’s admonition comes in. My constant engagement, my resistance to slowing down, my tendency to overcommit is neither careful nor wise.

4. Practice Sabbath.

We know this because God is very clear about the human design; we are designed to rest at least 1/7 of our waking hours. And God’s design for that rest is a total ceasing from work, a deep commitment to stopping our attempts to keep the world turning on its axis.

One of the best ways to combat burnout is to practice Sabbath—to give up the illusion that we are indispensable and just stop for one full day every week and surrender to a rhythm of rest, play, and worship.

Overextended, resentful, and exhausted Christians are at best useless and at worst dangerous to the kingdom of God.

5. Remember the priority of love

Paul also reminds us to watch our priorities, since “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6). Much of our stress comes from trying to change people, not love them. We are much more likely to burn out trying to fix people than we are when we are loving them with gentleness and acceptance.

I have a friend who nurtures a deep spiritual life and also struggles with chronic pain. She gently teases me about the way I live my life at breakneck speed while her ideal pace is about 35 miles per hour. It’s clear that I check more things off my list than she does. But she is someone who moves slowly, hugs long, listens deeply, speaks carefully, and holds space for the stress and pain of others. This kind of love can only be done slowly, and my friend wisely knows that.

I often ask my clients who are on the edge of burnout to stop what they are doing for a little while—stop leading, stop trying to change things, stop trying to fix their family, their church, or their coworkers. Instead, I ask them to focus for a while on just loving the people in their lives.

I asked one man his life looked like when he was really loving his family; he answered that they tended to linger at the kitchen table and eat pie together in the evenings. My recommendation to him was to stop trying to improve his family and instead to eat more pie!

Many years ago, I was part of a conference encouraging us to live a more missional life. The preacher described the dire need of the world and was challenging us to get out of our comfort zones and change the world by loving it sacrificially. His text was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world . . .” and he challenged us to follow God’s example. I felt my chest tighten until tears started to flow.

“God,” I cried, “I can’t love the whole world. I’m overwhelmed. I’m exhausted. I’m doing the best I can.” God, in a rare moment of almost-audible presence, whispered to my soul, “Trisha, I never asked you to love the whole world by yourself. I just want you to love the person in front of you at any given moment.”

For me, that is the pace of grace.