Beating Burnout

I’m at a conference in Houston for the organization I write for, The Anglican Mission in the Americas. Between sessions, I am eating a lovely green salad in my hotel room and enjoying a little peace and quiet.

 It’s funny how being away helps to clear my head. For the past week I have been in a black mood and have not known why, or been able to explain it to my poor husband and children. Today, at a workshop on “How to Avoid Burnout,” I figured out why I have been so abysmally down. Duh! Oof.

The definition of burnout is putting out more than you are putting in. So simple, it’s almost embarrassing. We are like cars. If the car runs out of fuel or needs an oil change, we don’t kick the car. It’s not the car’s fault. Cars need maintenance. So do people. But we punish ourselves for not being able to keep going endlessly on an empty tank, not asking ourselves what we need to be filled. It’s not American to not be productive, tireless and in motion.

 The workshop leader, an empathetic, bearded, flannel-clad priest from Atlanta, told us he suffered burnout after his church exploded in growth in 2002. He drove himself ruthlessly to keep up with the meetings, budgets, questions and buildings, ignoring all the signs of impending breakdown, until one night while watching TV with his wife, his whole face went numb. He thought he was having a heart attack, but soon realized it was a response to the incredible stress he had been under. He knew he had to make a change.

The following week, the priest created a rule of life, or a specific plan to achieve what he needed to flourish. He based it on writings from Ignatius that describe a balance between the things that cause us desolation and those that offer us consolation. The priest made a long list of all the things he was doing that desolated (drained) him and the things that consoled (replenished) him. Then he began intentionally incorporating more of the things that consoled him, like prayer and meditation, reading fiction, exercising, etc. It wasn’t easy to reorient the way he spent his time, or managed the demands that still pressed, but it brought his soul back from the brink of death. Once he gave himself space to engage things that brought consolation into his life, he was able to achieve a sustainable lifestyle and continue leading his church.

I sat there and took notes. I truly, deeply need consolation. I am a working mom and for a long time, most if not all my free time has been spent working on writing projects to supplement our income. Naptimes have gotten shorter but my deadlines have multiplied. The rest of my hours are consumed with childrearing, cooking, cleaning, volunteering at church and trying to maintain the relationships that are dear to me. The problem is, I am a contemplative and an introvert. I crave stillness and solitude. For the last few years, I have not been putting in as much as I have been putting out. Somehow I need to get full … and stay full.   

If only for that realization, it’s been a wonderful trip. It’s great in other ways, too. I love meeting these sweet, genuine people I write about, clergy and their wives. Many of them have read my writing and have kind things to say. Others are open about their problems and situations and I am honored to listen. It also doesn’t hurt that I have my own room at the Hilton with a king-size bed and fluffy robe. 

Have you ever been burned out? What did you do about it?



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