Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Burnout Season

My Facebook feed is full of people making cheery New Year's resolutions.  Exercise!  Pray!  Write scintillating articles!  Read the Bible in a year!  Get more rest!  Take a Sabbath each week!  Take long hikes!  Bike 10 miles a day!  Do good deeds to change the world!

I am all admiration for these amazing ambitions.  I just have one question: where do you get the energy?  Especially for those of you who are worn-out, maxed-out post-Christmas clergy like me.  

Really?  You can make plans for the future?  It was all I could do to get myself to church on time last Sunday.

Admitted, my Advent this year was more taxing than ever before: after an intense two years of planning, fundraising, and preparing, our congregation moved to a wonderful new building on December 9, with our Grand Opening service on December 16, followed in short order by, you know, Christmas.  Moving into a new church building involves an incredible amount of work, from unpacking boxes to deciding on placement of art to completely re-training the ushers, altar guild, chalicists, acolytes and lectors.  And then re-adjusting everything when it doesn't work out quite right the first Sunday.  Tell me again about peaceful waiting in Advent?  

But it's not just me and my situation - there are times when all clergy and lay church leaders fall into exhaustion, when we don't have the energy to think ahead, when one more hospital visit, meeting, or liturgy feels like it might just drive us over the edge.  Not to mention having zero energy left over for getting out into the community and reaching new people in new ways, where they are rather than where the church is.  I believe in doing these things!  But how do I do them when I am exhausted?

I have to add that it's not just clergy who find themselves burned out.  I had a ten-year career in public accounting, and I got plenty burned out then, too.  I have lots of parishioners who work just as hard as I do, and some who work harder for lower pay.  We clergy shouldn't fall into a poor-me trap of thinking we are uniquely put-upon.  Think about public school teachers if you want to consider a noble, service-oriented, hardworking, and vastly underpaid profession!  But I guess I somehow believed when I embarked upon this career that serving Jesus would make me more joyful, less stressful than serving my accounting clients was.  And it is, most of the time.  But then there come those times of exhaustion.

And oh yes - those times hit Jesus, too.  Witness the gospel stories of Jesus retiring to a secluded place to pray, and being followed by the crowds.  He seemed to react the same way I do - sighing and then pleasantly doing what the crowds required.  I'm not much like Jesus, most of the time - but I certainly identify with him in the stories where he is worn-out and stressed.  

So that's the question, Gentle Reader.  How do we replenish ourselves in times like this? How do we keep on leading our congregations in accomplishing Christ's mission - that mission we have devoted our professional lives to, in which we passionately believe - when we feel like empty, burned-out vessels, with very little left to give?  Where do we find the spiritual reserves to do that joyful, life-transforming mission that we are called to do?


  1. You have just moved into a new church building. The activities leading up to that must have been energizing as you anticipated new opportunities/dreams. Review those past dreams and see if the energy returns. Isn't there scripture that says something close to, "Relax and know that I am Lord."?

  2. Susan: I think the answer is to do nothing. That's right. Nothing. At all.

    Silence, as our Quaker sisters and brothers know, can be one of the most intimate forms of communication and worship. But our society hardly knows the meaning of the word. And as Episcopalians, we're particularly bad about this. Even in my parish--which I adore and has some of trhe most beautiful services you could imagine--there seems to be a feeling that every second of the service has to have something going on. And those rare times when it seems we are about to lapse into silence, the organ starts up, seemingly to fill the space.

    But silence isn't emptiness. It doesn't need to be filled.

    Just sit back, relax, and learn to enjoy the silky, luxurious feel of utter silence and rest. And see if, during that time, you don't feel a still, small, voice saying, "I was waiting for you."

    Happy new year!