Rest For the Restless
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2).
Burnout is a serious issue. It is a serious issue in the workers of the church and it is a serious issue throughout the world. Now, this is not going to be a column of advice about how we need to “let go and let God” or something of that nature. In all honesty, everyone experiences burnout differently, everyone responds to burnout differently, and everyone believes to have a perfect solution that does not actually exist apart from salvation in Christ because sin is real and lurking. As St. Paul reminds us, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21). Instead, this is written as a reminder that we are called to bear the burdens of our sisters and brothers, yet we are not taking seriously the daunting nature of this task.
First, let’s get a basic definition of burnout: according to the Mayo Clinic, “Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Unfortunately, this is not considered a medical diagnosis, which may cause the lack of seriousness with which many approach the issue. In the church, this issue is approached with even less seriousness, with too many claiming that a church worker is “lazy” without realizing how much effort is going into each day’s work. Unlike a job with a seemingly normal schedule, church workers are often working more hours in the office, plus hours at home. Along with that, most church workers are working both weekend days, especially as much of their ministry work happens on Saturdays and Sundays. Of course, every situation is different, but the assumption that most church workers are “lazy” is certainly problematic.
Is it possible that some church workers are lazy? Definitely. Like any vocation, you will always have those who do not work diligently and faithfully according to their calling. The issue is that too many assume this to be the norm within church work instead of recognizing it as an outlier, while those who are actually lazy are quick to claim that they are being overworked (and/or underpaid). This creates a dangerous stigma of disbelief when the claim of burnout is actually true. This also creates a stigma in the mind of the church workers, especially those who desire to serve faithfully and diligently. As a pastor, I know that I am highly aware of the stigma of laziness that is associated with my vocation, so I find myself wanting to fill my schedule in ways that are often unhealthy, seeking no time to rest properly and being unwilling to recognize that rest is just as valuable as the time spent working.
Sadly, when such a mentality goes unchecked, it often leads directly to burnout. In church work, burnout is often more difficult because there is a tension in which we live, seeking to understand that God is the one who is ultimately working through us. In this tension, however, there is a devious temptation to believe that we are not allowed the feeling of exhaustion or the need for rest because to exhibit such is a failure of trusting God’s presence in us – If God is working in us, how can we be tired? This thought tempts many to continue working past the point of exhaustion, which is exactly where burnout is experienced.
Furthermore, burnout manifests itself in so many different ways that a proper response is often difficult to craft. For many in church work, burnout manifests in ways that are often upsetting to those being served because they cannot understand how such failures and shortcomings could exist in their spiritual leaders. Of course, this lack of understanding does not alleviate the pressure of those church workers who desire to avoid the seeming fate of burnout through communication and proper scheduling. What often happens, then, is that the church worker will suffer in silence, seeking a renewal of their identity or a renewal of their joy through some other means. Unfortunately, this is often found in a vice or sinful act of some sort because their faith is often muddled with their feelings of burnout, so there is a disconnection from God, their actual needs, and their sinful thoughts and behavior.
In conversations with church workers who have suffered from burnout, most have turned to some sort of addiction – drug, alcohol, sexual sin, and pornography seem to be the most popular. In other situations, some workers have become so tied into their work that they find themselves connecting with certain people, yet their connection goes beyond the proper boundaries of spiritual caregiver because it is the only part of their work in which they are feeling a sense of fulfillment and they are often feeling cared for in this relationship in ways that they feel are missing from their other vocations. Many times, the burden of burnout and its manifestation is also hidden from their spouse and their families because they do not wish to burden anyone else with their struggles, especially while wrestling with the fear of assumption that they will be misunderstood, embarrassed, or treated as a pariah.
Within our church body, I have had conversations with a number of those who have been honest about their struggle, yet faced such backlash. Every time someone is confronted with this attitude in the midst of their hurt, it creates another barrier to faithfully approaching this issue and a deeper desire to suffer silently. Sadly, this reaction is often coming from both directions, as church members and church oversight – circuit, district or synodically speaking – are both approaching with condemnation rather than with a desire to care for those who are hurting in these moments. Of course, when the church workers have committed some failure within their vocational life, this disdain from every angle is evermore prevalent, making it seem impossible to seek healing and find forgiveness in our loving Lord.
Therefore, we must take this issue more seriously. Burnout is real, it is not going away, and it needs to be approached faithfully, thoughtfully, and with great care. Every situation is unique and all need to be approached with the love that Jesus first shows to us. Before assuming why something happened, we must be quick to listen and slow to speak. If possible, we need to offer a listening ear to those suffering – especially church workers, recognizing them as those who are just as desperately in need of the salvation that Christ gifts to us.
For those who are church workers, I offer a humble plea: seek help if you are hurting and know that there are those who will listen, who will care, and who will bear your burdens alongside you. In the Roman Catholic Church, there is a common practice of keeping a “Father Confessor,” which is someone to whom you share your sins and hear the promised forgiveness that we have in Christ Jesus. Though we do not necessarily need to mimic their practice exactly, this is a practice from which we can learn much. We need to have sisters and brothers in ministry who will hold us accountable, help us when needed, and share in our burdens and joys all the same. Thankfully, I have found this in some dear sisters and brothers in ministry, as well as sharing much with my wife, who is the most gracious person whom I have ever met. Her encouragement and her vocal love and advisement have helped me to recognize the need for proper rest, the need for time with family, and the dangers of burnout around every corner.
Whatever the case, we must continue to seek our Lord in the midst of such struggles and sufferings, trusting that true rest is found in Him and knowing that His giving of the sabbath highlights our need to breathe, sigh, weep, and give thanks in His peace. We must care for one another, for our fellow sisters and brothers suffering in silence, especially those serving in our churches. We must be thoughtful and faithful in our desire to bear the burdens of one another and be loving as we remind one another that Jesus bears all for us:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).