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Written by Steven Burns
From his column To Your Health

The pastor sat in front of his physician, feeling just as bad as he had for months. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I ‘m tired all the time, have headaches, and my heart sometimes races. How did my tests turn out?”

His doctor went through the tests, explaining that all of them showed normal results and overall good health.

“So, how are things going in your ministry?” he asked.

The pastor explained he had been doing okay, but something was not right. His call to ministry was clear, and he believed he was doing what God wanted him to do. He worked hard—sermon preparation, board meetings, calls to people at homes and hospitals, and district meetings—and his church was growing, but his personal joy had departed. Demands for his counsel were never-ending. He felt guilty for taking personal and family time. Sleep was fitful. Decisions—even simple ones—were becoming more difficult. He was spent.

“Sounds like you’re depressed and overwhelmed,” said his doctor. He advised the pastor on activity and counseling, perhaps medication—advice the pastor did not want to hear. He left the office dissatisfied.

One morning while he was pondering his situation, an old college roommate called. The friend asked what was happening in his life, and the pastor began to sob. His friend waited patiently, asked a few questions, then suggested that what the pastor was experiencing was common for those, like ministers, who serve others. He offered encouragement that, with time, effort and lifestyle changes, the problem could be fixed.

“Burnout” is a topic that is covered in the journals of every profession—medicine, clergy, business, education, law—and yet it is poorly defined and may mean anything from disappointment to emotional collapse. So, how can we spot burnout before it causes us harm?

Merriam-Webster defines burnout as “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” The term was coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to describe symptoms in “helping professionals” such as physicians and nurses. These persons sometimes reach a point of exhaustion, listlessness, and inability to cope with ordinary life stresses. Although anyone can feel this way, those who devote their lives to serving others seem to be uniquely affected.

We must recognize that we are not, in fact, ten feet tall and bulletproof.

Medically, there is no single term for burnout. It is often described as anxiety, depression, fatigue, and may be accompanied by symptoms such as heart palpitations, insomnia, muscle pains, and headache, among others. These conditions often share a root cause of overwork, frustration, stress, and of being over-extended.

Signs and symptoms of burnout include:

  • Exhaustion: Feeling drained, not rested after sleep, lacking energy. Physical problems may occur, such as abdominal pain or migraine.
  • Alienation: Work activities become rote and non-fulfilling. Cynicism is exhibited in interpersonal relations and the individual may become distant in relating to others, including family.
  • Performance Problems: Poor concentration, difficulty producing intellectual work like sermons, Bible studies, emails, text messages. Procrastination may result, adding to feelings of being overwhelmed.

Spotting burnout in oneself can be difficult. A trusted advisor, like a spouse or close friend, may help us recognize the problem. Since symptoms can manifest themselves physically, we may think we are developing heart or rheumatological disease, anemia, or cancer. Seeing a professional, either a physician or counselor (or both), is an important step in diagnosing the problem.

How can we prevent reaching the point of burnout? First, we must recognize that we are not, in fact, ten feet tall and bulletproof. Asking others for help is not a sign of weakness but of strength. Leadership requires reliance on those who assist us, and that may mean accepting their work even if it is not done exactly as we would have done it.

Second, we must care for our temple. If we are God’s temple, we must keep it in working order. This involves getting adequate sleep, exercise, good food (not constant fast food on the run), and down-time to rest, study, and recreate. Listening to music, hiking, painting or sketching, photography, leisure reading and any number of other hobbies are a great way to take our minds off the daily grind.

Third, we must develop a strong devotional relationship with God. Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain” (NIV). God needs our help in carrying out His work, but He never expects us to go it alone. Making time for God—to offer praise, share our concerns, and seek His guidance—provides stability and helps us to stay on-track. Bible study for sermons is important, but it should not replace regularly finding time alone with the Lord to recharge our spiritual batteries.

The troubled pastor of our story took steps to recover from his burnout. He set aside time for himself to exercise, pray, and meet with a counselor. He also began blocking time out of his schedule to spend with his family and a pastor friend in his community who, like himself, needed encouragement in learning how to balance ministry with his personal life. It took a while, but the joy he had felt in his early days of ministry returned, giving new life to his career.

Burnout can be crippling, so finding balance in one’s life is vital to maintaining good health and sanity. Seek and accept the help you need, from God and from those God puts in your life to help.

Dr. Steven Burns is board-certified in family medicine and has been in practice for more than 30 years.

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