This past week I had three different pastors and church leaders ask me the same question – “How can I know when I’m burned out?” Ultimately, only you can decide if you are in burnout. Each person has different tolerance levels and what will be stressful for one can be devastating for another. Don’t play the comparison game. You have to take a hard look at yourself and ask, “Have I exceeded my own limits?”
I usually start the conversation by saying, “If you have to ask, you might already be there.” Here are a few of the things I share with potentially burned out pastors.
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.” This general definition is a good start. My own journey through burnout taught me that ministry burnout has the added component of serving God – an element that adds weight to the whole discussion and may lead to feelings of guilt or shame in some people.
Stress & Burnout
Stress and burnout have a clear link, but that link can take several different forms. When building large structures, engineers talk about six types of stress; compression, tension, shear, bending, torsion, and fatigue. Let’s use these terms as metaphors for ministry stress.
- Compression – Pressure coming from every direction, causing one to feel squeezed or trapped by ministry (cracks form until we break).
- Tension – Being pulled in every direction; this feels like there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done.
- Shear – A single high-stress event that leaves one broken and unable to move on.
- Bending – Stress that pushes us beyond our normal tolerance levels and leaves us feeling permanently weakened.
- Torsion – Stress that twists us around and around, leaving everything spinning. Sometimes we feel like we need a new understanding of the world in order to move forward.
- Fatigue – Prolonged stress that slowly wears us down until we break – usually in a catastrophic way.
Which kinds of stress are you enduring right now? Burnout is what happens when one or more of these various stresses exceed our capacity to tolerate the pressure. Burnout happens to those who have been pushed beyond their strength. Like a bridge that collapses under the weight of too many cars, we fail because we exceed our God-given limits. The problem isn’t our weakness, but in our trying to have more strength than God supplies.
The most basic sign of burnout is fatigue. Do you feel physically tired all the time? Do you continually feel like you need a nap? Are you wakeing up tired, even after a good night’s sleep or an afternoon nap? Does a little exercise make you feel like you’ve just run a marathon? Do you suffer from headaches or muscle pain? Are you having trouble eating or digesting food? If you said yes to one or more of these, you may be in burnout. Be careful – these symptoms can be caused by many other things, so be sure to see a doctor.
Emotional Exhaustion and Burnout
In addition to physical fatigue, someone in burnout feels emotionally depleted or exhausted. They feel like they no longer have the emotional resources to deal with everyday life. Things that previously were minor annoyances become major obstacles. For example, administrative duties that you were able to accomplish before, now leave you completely drained, angry, or confused. This emotional exhaustion can show up as bitterness, anger, cynicism, or depression.
Hopelessness: A Key Indicator of Burnout
One of the best ways to know when you’re burned out, is a feeling of hopelessness – the sense that things will never change and never get better. You feel trapped in a dark cave without any light. There is no way forward. Things that once inspired you now leave you feeling discouraged. Optimistic or hopeful people begin to annoy you and you don’t know why. You become an Eeyore; finding the dark cloud hovering over any good news.
Loss of Identity in Burnout
Another major sign of burnout is that you no longer know who you are. You have lost your sense of identity as a child of God. Your relationship with God is weak at best. Prayer and Bible reading are almost nonexistent. You feel like a failure instead of one who overwhelmingly conquers in Christ Jesus. Listen to your self-talk. Are you saying what God says about you? Or are you constantly berating yourself or calling yourself names like idiot, failure, or useless? If someone were to ask“Who are you?” would you be at a loss for words or ashamed to answer honestly?
Guilt and Shame: The Companions of Burnout
Often, someone who is experiencing the depressing feelings of burnout also feels guilty. Usually this is false guilt, known as shame. Feeling like you are less than others or that no one knows what you are going through can be indicators of shame. In this case, believing a lie is keeping you from the freedom of truth. It’s not your fault, so stop blaming yourself. Open up about your shame by talking to a counselor.
Occasionally, burnout is caused by hiding from the real guilt of sin. Maintaining a lie or hiding a sin is stressful work. If you are constantly living in fear that your sin will be found out, then you will eventually crash. At some point, your sin will be uncovered, and that knowledge will drive you beyond your limits. The only way forward is through confession and repentance.
Help! I’m Burned Out!
My next article will explore what you can do to get out of burnout. If you need help now, contact The Pastor’s Soul or Pastor-in-Residence ministries to talk with someone who has been there. We offer ministry coaching that can help you recover from burnout and help you find a new hope for healthy ministry life.
Here are a few more resources to explore whether you are in burnout:
9 Signs You’re Burning Out in Leadership – by Carey Nieuwhof
How Dry Is Your Well? A Burnout Self-Assessment Tool
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