One Pastor's Journey into Burnout . . . and Beyond
by Darlene B. Muschett (March / April 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 2)
A pastor shares her ordeal with burnout–and how she has regained hope and strength
Burnout is real. It is not a once-trendy word nor a figment of the imagination. I know; I have "been there, done that." It was not pretty.
After sleeping several hours, I would wake up, still physically exhausted. Increasingly, I withdrew from those close to me at work and at home. In my mind the same old tape played over and over again: "Is this all there is? Why don't I enjoy life the way I used to? What's wrong with me? Am I losing my mind? God, why don't you do something to help me?"
I went through life like a cat chasing her tail: around and around she goes, ending up precisely where she started. The more I worked, the less I accomplished. The more I slept, the more sleep I needed. The more I prayed, the more distant God seemed. The more time I spent being productive, the less time I took to be, just to be with family, parishioners, God, and myself.
Almost a decade has passed since the time I am describing. It was a year and a half before I could put a name to my experiences. I now understand that I was going through burnout: a work-related state of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual exhaustion.l
Burnout can happen to anyone: someone employed or retired; someone who gets hooked on volunteering, or care-giving, and forgets to care for her- or himself as well.
|For waters shall break in the wilderness, and the streams in the desert: the burning shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water...and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing.|
Most difficult for me was the spiritual component of burnout. A lingering fear gnawed within me, a fear that the God who had first found me, the God who had guided me into once-fulfilling parish ministrythis same God had abandoned me.
It took me some time to realize that it was I who had pulled away from God. For it was my worship of another god that drove me into burnout in the first place: an addicting god named success.
Gerald May defines addiction as "any compulsive, habitual behavior which limits the freedom of human desire."2 My compulsive choices to do more and more limited my freedom to beto relax and simply enjoy life. At that point in my journey, "success" meant these things and more: be the best pastor, anywhere; work harder than anyone to be somebody who is worthy; and strive to please everyone, always.
My homage to the false god of success was addictive because no matter what I achieved, it never seemed to be enough. I learned that success can be a very unhealthy god.
Ray of Hope
A ray of light entered my darkness when, in utter exhaustion, I stopped railing at God to make things better. Slowly an ember of hope in the God whom I used to know personally began to burn. Timidly, I began to wonder if God had ever moved away. My dry and empty soul turned back to the Living Water as I remembered Jesus' words once again: "If any are thirsty, let them come to me and drink" (John 7:37-38).
As I relaxed my grip on my compulsion to achieve, I began to look for and to find more time, time simply to be.
Psalm 42:l has become a favorite Scripture: "As a deer longs for the flowing streams, so my soul longs for You, O God; my soul thirsts for the living God."
Picture a beautiful, brown fawn licking her tongue on a salt lick. Now she is thirsty, so very thirsty for water. And so I pray to be always thirsty for the Water that only God can give.
Often I tell God, "Hello, this is Darlene, an over-achiever in recovery here." And then I pray, "God, please draw me closer to you this day. Give me a longing for you that is stronger than my desire to achieve." In short, I have come through the emptiness of burnout into a greater awareness of the fullness of God's presence in every aspect of my life.
Am I forever freed from the seductive, addictive drive to be a "smashing success?" No, not in this lifetime. Am I now completely exempt from the exhausting, downward spiral that is burnout? No, once again.
But do I live in hope? Yes, yes, yes! Hope not only for myself, but for any who read this and resonate with any of my experiences. For my hope has shifted from myself as the source of strength and meaning in life back to God, the real God, not the phony one I worshipped. My soul which once felt like a "desolate desert of God's absence"3 has, by God's power, begun to bloom again. With the returning exiles of old, I too have reason to rejoice:
"For waters shall break in the wilderness, and the streams in the desert: the burning shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water...and the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" (Isaiah 35:6a-7a; l0).
Darlene B. Muschett is pastor of Christ the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Rochester, New York.The author would like to extend her thanks to Dr. Gerald May, of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, Bethesda, Maryland, for offering suggestions for the writing of this article.
l. Darlene B. Muschett, One Pastor's Journey into Burnout...and Beyond, doctoral dissertation, Colgate Rochester Divinity School, l998, p. 2.
2. Gerald G. May, Addiction and Grace (San Francisco: Harper l988), p. 24.
3. Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (San Francisco: Harper, l992), p. 2l.