I don’t want to burn out. But there are so many threats in life that push me toward spending all my energy and having nothing left. Especially after a season of heightened crisis, we need some recovery. So, what can we do to avoid burnout? Let’s try these six practices:
1. Assess Myself
Burnout doesn’t look the same for everyone. Some of us can mask our weariness better than others. So what are the markers of fatigue that you are seeing in your life? Professor Chuck Lawless offers fifteen of these markers for leaders. Here are some you can use to check yourself:
- Are you trying to “just get through” the day?
- Have you developed poor sleep patterns?
- Are your spiritual disciplines declining?
- Is your joy fake?
- Are taking out (or dumping) your stress on family members?
- Are you becoming numb—with little emotional bandwidth to process your experiences or be present emotionally for others?
It’s good to identify the fatigue that’s setting in and have your finger on the places where it is popping up in your life.
2. Do Your Best Not to Break Promises
This is hard to hear; but if you have already committed to do something, do your best to complete it. As author and pastor’s wife Nancy Wilson states,
“If you said you would make those stupid pies, you can’t bail out now and show up with a bag of chips… We are Christians! We keep our promises… One of the ways we learn to be wise rather than hasty in our commitments is by sticking to them. If we stay up late making those pies, we will think twice before we over-commit again. And we will find out that it is not a sin to say no. … So ride this part out. Finish your commitments by the grace of God.”
There are times when we need to step out of a commitment, but this should always be accompanied by a humble asking for forgiveness for not completing what was promised. This is humbling. But it also is one way that God teaches us our dependence, weakness, and sometimes foolishness.
3. Get Away…To Get Near God
What is consuming our energies? We may need to get away from people, get away from our to do list, or get away from numbing entertainment (that isn’t actually renewing us). We need to get away.
But we get away in order to get near God. This is exactly what Jesus did (see Mark 6:46). He knew that a life of exhausting ministry can only be refreshed in the Father’s presence. Tim Keller has pointed out, “The more ‘people work’ [Jesus] was doing, the more time he got away from people.” As John Piper has said,
“If there are parts of the day with much energy and parts with little energy, then let one of the parts with much energy be given to what is absolutely indispensable: communion with God in his word for the sake of seeing and savoring the King of heaven. If this personal joy, personal fellowship, personal hope languishes, everything languishes…”
One of the things I need in fatigue is to simply see God’s character and praise him. The book of Psalms, singing songs, praying historic prayers, and writing praise-oriented reflections help me seek God because he is God. His bigness, love, and power that go way beyond my circumstances become my soul’s refreshment.
4. Tell Others
We are not called to complain, but we are called to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2)—including allowing others to help carry ours. Let those you love know that you are burning out. Let them know:
- That you need to say “no” to additional commitments right now
- That you are trying to go through a spiritual reset because you’re feeling overwhelmed
- That they can pray for you right now—and it would be appreciated!
Give those around you (including those in your Small Group) the opportunity to encourage you in the season of dryness and being worn out. Don’t become bitter if they don’t lean in exactly the way you want; but at least give them the chance to try.
5. Do Something Renewing
John Piper takes pains to tell us that not all of our habits of rest are actually helpful: our phones, our TVs, our computers can fill us more with “God-ignoring, sin-enjoying, pride-exalting assumptions” that can do more harm than bring renewal. There is such a thing as sinful leisure.
So, what do I do for self-renewal beyond just the Bible? When we’re spent, we can engage with things that don’t demand our significant attention, but also help renew us, like:
- Scrabble, Uno, or other games with a spouse or friend
- Working out
- Taking a nap
- Walks and bike rides outside
These things actually renew our minds, our relationships, our emotions, our bodies, and our wonder at the God who made the breeze, the birds, and us to enjoy them!
Life during burnout becomes like the Emergency Room: everything feels urgent, and we need to triage!
- What is the most important thing that needs done?
- What is mandatory versus what just “seemed like a good idea at the time” but you need to say no to?
- What were you doing at an “A+” level when right now a “B” or “C” level will suffice?
What To Do When “Something Else” Still Comes
Sometimes our plans to rest or get renewed or triage fail. And sometimes that “something else” creeps onto our plate even when we’ve done our best to clear everything off. What do we do when we don’t feel like we have the energy to love, listen, or labor one more time? Realize the Spirit can help us still do it.
I’m amazed at how the Father empowered Jesus to respond after exhaustion.
Jesus and his disciples had had an overwhelming ministry week, went “away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves” to “rest a while” (Mark 6:31-32)—and when they got there, a crowd of people wanted more from them! How did Jesus react? “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them…[A]nd he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).
God can give us what we don’t have when we need to serve others. He’s in the business of providing what we lack. And he can transform our burnout from the inside out.