Burnout is a real thing.
“I feel so busy…”
I cannot even begin to count how many times I have uttered this phrase in my pastoral ministry. I feel like I am always moving from one busy activity to another. I am always hoping and praying that it will slow down at some point. However, I often find that respite does not come, resulting in feelings of burnout.
When I look at the calendar for the year I could readily label my busy seasons (Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter). However, when I begin to break down the spaces between those seasons the rest of the calendar gets filled very easily. I then find myself sitting at my desk, often in a mode of ADHD paralysis, knowing the work I need to do and unable to do it.
I am sure there are many folks who feel the same about vocations that are not pastoral ministry as well. When the busyness of everything that needs to be done becomes overwhelming.
This is a clear sign of burnout. For me, this burnout then leads to further anxiety, only exacerbating my situation of needing to get work done. Then I just hope, pray, and long for my next vacation.
This was my mode recently. I was awaiting a 2 week-long summer vacation. I remember telling myself to just buckle down and get my work done and vacation will be here before I know it. However, once I finally made it to vacation and had a fraction of time to unwind, I thought if this was truly healthy for me. It did not feel healthy. I have even found that it made my vacation much harder to relax.
The problem is, I think we have become so conditioned to busyness that we think this is a healthy practice. We work ourselves to the ground when we are working, and then we spend our whole vacation just “trying to relax.” We do not experience the actual renewal that should be a part of a vacation.
Vacation (or any sort of leave from work) becomes more about trying to let go of all the stress and anxiety we have built up since our last time off that we can’t enjoy said time off. In my experience, I see a couple of factors that play into this idea. I think the amount of vacation we receive plays a large role in how we treat vacation. That coupled with our time and ability to take vacation limits how, when, and even the renewal nature of the vacation we do have.
Virginia Conference United Methodist Vacation/Leave
As a United Methodist Pastor in the Virginia Conference, I have 4 weeks (28 days) of vacation leave and 1 week (7 days) of renewal leave per year. Every so often I qualify for extended renewal leave that can last up to 12 weeks paid. When my wife gave birth to our children, I qualified for 8 weeks of leave. I could extend it to 12 but it could be unpaid unless my church decided to pay me. Now this may sound like a lot but when we consider days in a year or even the amount of time across a career, is this truly offering opportunities for renewal?
Why it is Tough for Me
I have noticed in my life that I have problems with taking lots of time off. I often seek to surround myself with work. “Workaholic” is often a word used for enneagram 3s (for those of you unfamiliar with the enneagram learn about it here).
When my kids were born I took off five weeks with my son and four weeks with my daughter. This was far from the full leave I qualify for. Even the thought of extended renewal leave fills me with a bit of dread as I consider it for 2025. I don’t know how I will fill my time each day as if I need to remain busy with pastoral work to feel valued in this world.
More than Vacation
This issue though is more than just time off via vacation or leave. It is also my daily and weekly rituals of renewal that as well.
Some may folks have more time off than this and some have less (which saddens me). Our ability to be able to escape and find renewal away from our vocation is something that can help us in our vocation.
Even with the vacation I have, it becomes difficult to navigate. In the aftermath of really busy seasons, I know I need to take some time off. Therefore, after Christmas and Easter are always times for vacation. With my kids in school, I usually take the rest of my vacation during the summer. My renewal leave is usually used sporadically throughout the year.
Vacation After Busyness
It is hard to consider that vacation often only comes when we are most tired. Sometimes it is even when we are most likely in the midst of, or very near, a burnout episode. The busyness we involve ourselves in becomes the central nature of our burnout. The disconnection becomes even harder.
The Busyness of Burnout
How do we move beyond the “busyness of burnout?”
This is difficult to answer because to ignore the busyness in most cases is to ignore our jobs. It is impossible to ignore the need to be busy because we work after all. So, to move beyond it we might need to redefine what work or vocation looks like.
The problem is our society has largely ignored the busyness of burnout. People are expected to work hard and often because, for the most part, we are replaceable. If I get burnt out as a pastor and I leave the local church, my bishop will appoint the church a new pastor and I will be a name on a list of former pastors for said church. So how do we respond?
Community as an Answer?
In the church, a greater focus on communality can be part of the answer to this. To be in a community that values you as a person, and recognizes the stress your vocation can have on you. This may not get you out of all that busyness you often have to do. However, it can provide you with people to help carry the load so it does not weigh us down as much.
There is a cost/benefit analysis when we look at service within our vocation. If I am not feeling very valued it can negatively impact my job performance. Yes, we can work through those difficulties, though we often do so at the risk of harming our human nature in the process.
We do not need to be superhuman when doing our jobs. Nor we do need to be the greatest or the best in all ways. We just need to be who we can be, and we need to give ourselves and others grace in the process. We also need to teach grace to be given to us as we struggle to manage high expectations with our actual abilities.
What We Can Do
- Set clear and distinct boundaries of when, where, and even how we will accomplish the work we need to do.
- Take all of our vacations and utilize our time off as true time off.
- Use the tools at your disposal.
- Create our own tools where others are absent.
- Use community to help us when we need it.
The opposite I fear is that we will be in cycles of burnout until finally, we cannot take it anymore.
I am aware of how young I am (only 34 yrs old), and thereby how much time I have left in ministry before I can retire (minimum retirement around 62, and maximum retirement at 72). That is if I am even able to retire given the state of the economy. It is hard to imagine maintaining a cycle of work, stress, busyness, and burnout for another 30+ yrs.
Luckily, right now I can see my tools to help find renewal amid busyness. I can also advocate finding more space for these things to happen.
I have encouraged retreats, that allow pastors some escape to spend time with one another and in times of soul and self-care reflection. I have advocated for policies that allow us to find time to escape. I have advocated for health benefits and shed light upon benefits we already have that help clergy and church professionals. Just a few examples, and an opportunity for us all to consider what we need.
Do you need:
- Better access to childcare?
- Access to financials for time away?
- People to fill your role while you are away?
- Basic policies that set up space for all of this?
Yes, all of this is often needed, and it takes a village to grow these systems of support and care around us. None of this is easy, but I can see how it can be worth it when we as a society band together to care for ourselves and one another.
Closing – Reflection
The busyness of burnout tells us it always needs to be this way, but a theology of self-care says there is space within ourselves and our communities for this sort of care and renewal to take place.
What do you need, and how are you building a community around you to create this environment?