Avoiding Burnout

Posted by Pastor J.D. on January 30, 2012

The following three blog posts come via Brad Hambrick, Summit’s counseling pastor. Brad presented this information to our staff a couple of weeks ago. It was enormously helpful. I shared it again with our businessmen’s group a few days ago, and wanted to make it available to you, particularly fellow pastors. To note, Brad has  his own blog, which you should check out as well for a lot of helpful info. Brad is a beast. And if you’re interested in our businessmen’s group, you can contact James Forrest at james@forrestfirm.com. They meet here at the Brier Creek campus the third Thursday of the month from 7:00 to 8:00am in Suite 111.

This is written from the vantage point of a pastor, but it really could apply to anyone in a high pressure environment.

Stage One: Caring

Pastor Jeff truly cares, or at least he used to. He cared about his family—he spent time with his children and regularly took his wife out on dates. Pastor Jeff cared about people—the homeless, the orphans, and the lost. Pastor Jeff cared about his work—he was excited to see what God was doing through his church. Everyone liked Pastor Jeff and wanted to be like him.

Stage Two: Unfocused or Unrealistic Expectations

“Caring” is a fire that burns, and burning requires fuel. The problem was that the better Pastor Jeff did at anything, the more “great opportunities” came his way. Pastor Jeff cared, so he tried to honor every “open door” God brought into his life. Soon there were more care-fires than there was Pastor Jeff to burn, and he started to be consistently tired–physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Stage Three: Fatigue

Pastor Jeff began to find that he didn’t have “it” to give to his family, church, or friends. His talent and likeability covered things well enough that few people noticed, except his wife. Instead of taking this as a warning to slow down, Pastor Jeff felt guilty that he wasn’t able to give his best anymore. At first this guilt provided a great energy boost and got him “back in the game.” This happened several times over the course of a couple years. He thought it might be a mild bout of depression or fatigue, so he started taking some vitamin supplements and working out. That helped… for a while.

Stage Four: Motivation by Guilt or Shame

But the fatigue kept coming back. Pastor Jeff tried not to notice, but he could tell he was becoming more cynical. His once tender heart was growing callous. Pastor Jeff was a caring guy who was starting not to care. He would help when needs arose, but it felt like a burden. Now even the guilt he felt about not caring wasn’t enough to wake him up. A sense of duty was about all Pastor Jeff had left.  His friends wanted him to be “Pastor Jeff” again, and he noticed that he had begun to resent them and avoid them. “They don’t understand me anymore,” he began to tell himself. For now, Pastor Jeff was going to take care of Pastor Jeff; everyone else would just take from Pastor Jeff.

Stage Five: Callousness or Cynicism

While Pastor Jeff was going through the motions of work and family, he was making sense of life in a whole new way. Since life was a black and white movie with a theme of duty, anything that introduced color with freedom and excitement was deemed “good.” Pastor Jeff was torn, knowing that he used to call these things “bad”—the attention from his secretary who seemed to genuinely care, the couple of drinks at night that took the edge off, the impulse purchases that proved his independence. Pastor Jeff’s wife and “old friends” (as he now thought of them) raised concerns. But this only reinforced his now firmly held cynicism that they were judgmental and didn’t care. He sank further into isolation.

Stage Six: Failure or Crisis

Predictably, Pastor Jeff’s work performance fell, he starting having an affair with his secretary, and the drinking grew beyond “a couple.” Everything started to come to light—his wife noticed some “questionable” e-mails with his secretary and started to piece together the truth. With the separation that followed, the affair became public knowledge. Pastor Jeff was fired, living in an apartment with his secretary, and only saw his kids for about an hour a week at McDonalds. He was shocked and sickened. When he permitted himself to ask, “What happened?” his emotions fluctuated from intense guilt to cold bitterness, then retreating back into numb callousness.

Stage Seven: Realization

How could he have gotten here? How could he have been as mean to his wife and friends as he was when his sin came to light? How could his conscience have missed that he was slipping into such dangerous patterns? While he was still a pastor, he had taught on the dangers of everything he had done. Why was he just now starting to care again? Now caring hurt so bad that he almost didn’t want to come out of his cynical stupor, and when Pastor Jeff talked to any of his “old friends” he found himself quickly getting defensive and retreating within his calloused conscience.

Burnout is never caused by a single area of life. One area of life can’t get out of order without overt neglect in other areas. No, burnout is a result of how we have managed our life as a whole.

Burnout is simply the result of living beyond our means with the time God has provided. It is common to say that someone is “living beyond their means” financially, meaning they owe more than they earn. Here we use the phrase to help us refer to time management.

The first step for those moving towards burnout is to rest in the fact that everything fits in a 168-hour week. If there are 200 hours worth of excellent things for you to accomplish in a week, at least 32 hours of your agenda is outside the will of God. If God wants it done, He will do it through someone else.

Budgeting Rest, Work, and Family

You must have an intentional plan for how you use your time. Like a financial budget, it must be detailed enough to be useful, flexible enough to be practical, and looked at enough to alter your life (here is a model that I’ve made that you are welcome to use). Here are some general parameters:

First, you should allocate at least 50 hours per week to sleep. This is a bare minimum of honoring the Sabbath command to express faith in God by resting a significant portion of each week.

Second, you should budget around 50 hours per week for work. Even before the fall, God called every person to productively use their lives for the betterment of others and stewardship of creation (Genesis 1:28). Allocating these hours may be easier for hourly workers than for, say, business owners or full-time parents. But some limit must be put on this sector of life or it will expand until it destroys the others. When the rest of life is destroyed, productivity loses its purpose.

Third, you should budget at least 17 hours per week for marriage and family. This is a little arbitrary, but represents a tithe (10%) of your time. Being part of a family strongly influences your usage of the rest of your time. If you are married with children, it is difficult to have quality time with your family if this quantity of time is not being met. And “family time” does not merely mean “in the same physical location.” It means investing your full attention to reinforce and strengthen the sense of knowing and being known within your family.

Budgeting “The Rest of Life”

Fourth, if you follow the recommendations above, that leaves 51 hours for “the rest of life.” In the first 117 hours you are merely looking for the wisest and most enjoyable way to accomplish rest, family time, and productivity. But in these last 51 hours we have an additional degree of freedom.

For those of us who are Christians, the lordship of Christ necessarily places a limit upon our freedom. Within these last 51 hours God calls us to do maintenance, service, and recreation.

Maintenance: This involves cleaning your house, going to the store, paying bills, and the other mundane activities necessary for life. In this area, a grandmother’s advice on home cleanliness provides sound guidance for all areas of life maintenance: “A home should be clean enough to be healthy and messy enough to be happy.”

Recreation: This involves the kind of activities that you find rewarding and replenishing. Life requires more than just 50 hours of sleep in order to be healthily sustained. Here the advice is to know yourself—what restores you, gives you energy, or relaxes you?

Service: This involves service through your church to the congregation and community for the purpose of spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth and deeper into the lives of those around you.

No recommended time allotments can be given for these three areas. But all three are essential to healthy living and should be given time. Healthy relationships are those that actively help you guard and honor balance in all three of these areas of involvement.

Generosity vs. Sacrifice

In order to properly allocate these last 51 hours you need to understand the difference between generosity and sacrifice.

Generosity: Planning to give more of the last 51 hours to serving God and others than we are comfortable doing and learning to find our joy in this service.

I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities [giving habits] do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say that they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities [giving] excludes them.

~C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity

Sacrifice: Cutting into the first 117 hours for crisis needs. This type of activity should be relatively rare because it is unsustainable.

God may lead us into seasons of sacrifice, but they are not sustainable. The financial parallel is again helpful. If you give the money for your house payment to pay someone else’s mortgage, you are simply trading foreclosures. Thus, when sacrifice is made, it should be done (1) in consultation with a community of trusted Christian friends, (2) in concert with the efforts of one’s church, and (3) only on a defined, short-term basis.

Start the day in relaxed dependence. This is merely a new description for “quiet time.” This description focuses on the state of being (relaxed dependence) rather than the activity (reading, praying, or journaling), but both are essential. For those struggling with burnout the temptation can be to make your time with God one more thing you’re trying to do to get better, rather than a place of refuge and time of rest.

Steward your finite body. Eat healthy, exercise, and sleep. We have a responsibility before God to care for our body so that we are in the best position to face life’s struggles. Whenever possible, we want to avoid situations where our spirit is willing but our flesh is weak (Matthew 16:41).

Live within your 168-hour week. This concept helps us remember that when we say “yes” to a new thing, we must say “no” to something we are currently doing.

Practice Stillness. Have some time each day when you are still—not doing a task, watching a television, or listening to music. Use this as a tangible reminder that you can stop moving and the world won’t.

Learn how to manage stress and conflict. Two of the leading predictors of burnout are stress and conflict. If these are areas that you feel ill-prepared to face, then study in these areas during your personal reading time.

Have non-functional friendships. When all your friendships know you because you are their teacher, parent, boss, colleague, etc., then you are setting yourself up for burnout.

Pay attention to when pleasures lose their pleasure. When things that you once enjoyed begin to lose their appeal, this should be considered a red flag.

Listen to your body. As embodied souls, if something depletes you emotionally it will show up physically. Pay attention if you begin to feel tired often, get sick frequently, have more frequent headaches or muscle pain, notice changes in your appetite or sleep habits, clenched jaw when trying to relax, or digestive problems.

Listen to your emotions. If you begin to experience a loss of motivation, an increase in procrastination, callousness towards problems, or cynicism about life, then treat these as probable signs of burnout.

Listen to your family. Your family will probably notice the early warning signs of burnout first. If they are saying you don’t seem like yourself, don’t respond to this as criticism calling for you to “do more” but as a concern about unhealthy changes in your life.

Don’t use food or substance to escape. Using food or alcohol to escape stress is like drinking saltwater to quench thirst. There is short term relief but the problem is actually made much worse.

Connect your work to serving your loving Heavenly Father. When work loses purpose, the potential for burnout increases. Connecting your work with God’s service and viewing God as a caring Father is an important balance in burnout prevention.

Multiply yourself in your most demanding responsibilities. If you have areas of your life where there is high demand and few qualified people to which to delegate, then a wise line item in your time budget should be equipping others to come alongside you.

Listen to how you read your Bible and pray. If you find yourself bracing against hearing from God because you can’t add “one more thing” to your life, then you are probably on the brink of burnout and your wrong view of God is building your momentum towards collapse.

If you are in the helping role with someone who you fear is on the brink of burnout, then here are several questions you can ask to discern if your concern is valid.

Are you “all there” when you are with your family?

Do you use your schedule as an excuse for bad eating habits?

Does your devotional time feel rushed, like a check-list item, or get neglected?

What are your most restorative activities and when do you engage in them?

When I ask “how” you’re doing why do you tell me “what” you’re doing?

What is your prevailing mood, feeling, or disposition?

Pastor J.D.


J.D. Greear is pastor of The Summit Church, in Raleigh-Durham, NC and author of Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (2011) and Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved (2013). More

5 responses to Avoiding Burnout

  1. Thanks so much for this J.D. – i’m looking forward to reading part 2. I have seen first hand almost this exact scenario play out right on front of my face and the consequences are devastating. I pray many pastors/ministers read this and heed the warning signs of burnout.
    Also, appreciated your words so much at the Sola conference in Montreal, Canada. You were more than a “fill in” for Platt – God used you powerfully in my life and in that conference.
    Finally, wondered if you’d be willing to look over a post i’ve just written on “Widening our gospel vision” http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/widening-our-gospel-vision/
    Love to hear any feedback/ push back you might be able to offer if you have a spare moment.
    God’s peace -

  2. We met briefly before a Saturday evening service at the main campus. I was there with Cameron Wooten – from Lexington, KY.

    Thanks for these two posts. I have been working throught this issue lately while trying to find the limites of my own productivity and sanity. I read both boths so far. While the guidlines that are suggested are not absolute, they provide some kind of an baseline for my own physical, mental, and spiritual journey. This is is much needed.

  3. Pastor Jeff was me. I have been Burned Out twice in the last 38 years. I had everything ,, great marriage, good children, loving friends, self employed. plans for retirement.I HAD reached my goals. I was searching for that God had all-ready given. I lost everything He had provided.

    I am on the right path now,God is in control.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Avoiding Burnout (via J.D. Greear) | mgpcpastor's blog - February 5, 2012

    [...] underbrush. You’re on dangerous ground. Read and learn from these excellent posts. Part One: Portrait of a Burnout identifies seven stages of the descent into burnout. Sample: Stage Two: Unfocused or Unrealistic [...]

  2. Links of the Week « My World - February 10, 2012

    [...] Greear on Avoiding burnout part 1, part 2 and part 3. This stuff is so, so [...]

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