Burnout and Serving

Everyone is afraid of burnout

Everyone is afraid of burnout. We talk a lot about spreading ourselves too thin, about over commitment, about work-life balance. Everyone seems to be concerned about self care… but is it really self care?

I’m starting believe that what many are now passing off as “self care” when choosing not serving others or refraining from active participation in community is really a stubborn and perpetual self ignorance masquerading as prudence. We think, “Do less things and we’ll solve the problem of over commitment!” But this is a false peace, akin to Jeremiah’s challenge to Israel:

They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.

Our problem goes deeper than merely “doing too many things.” I’m sure all of us are guilty of over-commitment – promising to do more than we can handle. Maybe some of us ended up doing too much unintentionally: served too much at a previous church, felt pressured or obligated by leaders who were more concerned about us as workers than as people.

And our reaction is to pull back.

We don’t want to be taken advantage of again. We don’t want to be caught in such a position ever again. Our reluctance to service or commitment may be a way to avoid tension or conflict, echoing the belief that “if there is no stress, then there is goodness.” Our modern false call of “peace, peace,” healing our wounds lightly when the truth is that there is no peace.

But this reaction is often a settling for a much lesser “good” at the expense of pursuing the greater good of self knowledge, growth, and transformation. We think the question is “how much?” rather than “why?” with regard to work and service.

We often overcommit, not because we don’t know how much to serve, but because we don’t know who we are.

Parker Palmer writes in Let Your Life Speak:

One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess-the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.

We find ourselves doing anything and everything to fill this void within us… to heal the wound that festers within us… We burnout because we try to give out of this emptiness, trying to be someone other than ourselves.

But why serve?

Before getting into reasons why we should be serving one another in community, it’s just as important to lay out some reasons why we shouldn’t serve. Allow me two short disclaimers before diving into why serving is not only a way to show love for others, but to love yourself – true self care.

There are some of us that are really good at serving. We have a greater capacity for work than others; we are high-functioning people who need less sleep than most. But there’s a danger in basing our identity upon our service and seeing yourself as a worker more than person. We can unintentionally hide from ourselves through our service. Sometimes we need to “take a break” from serving to find ourselves in the absence of service and work. We can ask ourselves, “Who am I without [this job/function/position/ministry]?” And if you’re willing, ask someone who can speak truth to you, “Do you sense that my identity is too attached to my work/ministry?”

And I know there are some of us that do need to pull back from serving. Maybe you are coming from an environment where you really did serve too much but did not feel like you had a choice. Over time, your understanding and posture toward serving has really soured; the effects of that souring affect the whole person. And it will require more than just a new understanding in the mind about service; we’ll need our hearts and minds and our bodies – all that we are – to experience a “reset.” BUT this isn’t done alone. What’s often missing in the “break” from serving or commitment is any plan or purpose to the break. A break is not supposed to be permanent, but without purpose, we can easily get used to it and find ourselves stuck. Don’t take breaks without purpose, for there is and inherent good in serving.

Transformed by love

We should serve because it is through disciplined love to one another that we grow in Christlikeness. When serving others, we are bound to experience tension and conflict, but tension and conflict are not bad in of themselves. It is in conflict and tension that we learn more about our souls. If we avoid service and tension altogether, some of sinful and selfish tendencies will never be revealed.

Thus, when tension arises, we should not treat it only as something to avoid or despise, but see it as an invitation to transformation; ask the Spirit to work as our hearts are revealed. For the LORD knows us intimately – better than we know ourselves! (and that is not just a figure of speech; Psalm 139:1!) And we can join with the psalmist,

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!

In this we join with God’s work in the world and in our souls. What do our hearts tell us in conflict? What have you learned about yourself through difficult experiences? How is the LORD teaching us and shaping us to be more like Christ? It is in committed love that we are transformed. And we can confidently enter into this transformation because it is Christ who holds us, thus we cannot fail.

Let us enter into this disciplined love of service with confidence.