Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Confession: I Am In Burnout

It's true. I'm there. Burnout is here.

About two months ago, I read Carey Nieuwhof's 9 signs you're burning out in leadership. I have all nine. 100%.

I had been telling others for awhile that I was living life at an unsustainable pace, that I was feeling drained and weary, that I felt headed towards burnout. Reading Carey's post made me realize I wasn't headed there--I was there.

I hesitate to say I've burned out. It's in the past tense, and implies "I quit. Finished. Over. Caput." There's a sense of defeat or devastation with this phrase. Yet I'm not done with ministry, because Jesus isn't done with me yet. I still am called to be a pastor, still passionate about youth ministry and leadership development and the local church.

No, I'm in burnout. Present tense. I may be in the shadows of a valley, but I am certainly not finished. There is no defeat here, only a season of spiritual, emotional, and physical exile, where the exhaustion runs deeper than simply being tired. There is a weariness in this place, a numbing fog that makes the world a bit more grey and dim.

What exactly is burnout? 

Imagine a car engine running for an extended period of time, only without changing or adding motor oil. This engine can keep going for a long while without much maintenance, despite emitting worrying noises or some fits and spurts. However, at a certain point, when things have been pushed for far too long, the engine wears down. Gears grind to a halt, metal pounds upon metal, and the whole thing seizes up, unable to continue forward as it should. To keep the engine running would begin to cause irreparable damage. The engine needs to stop, to be cared for and repaired. This is a picture of burnout.

Burnout is an overwhelming and holistic exhaustion due to prolonged stress. It is pervasive, affecting the physical, mental, emotional, and social aspects of a person. In its wake lies depression, low energy, lack of immune system defenses, emotional numbness, and a sense of spiritual discouragement or defeat. That's what I'm feeling. It sucks, because it's not me. The feelings of cynicism, the lack of desire to be around people, the constant underlying frustration and stress--this isn't the typical people-loving naively idealistic hopeful Joel.

What caused your (Joel's) burnout?

One word: pride.

That's the root cause, at least for me. There were all sorts of external factors that were the causes of much stress, anxiety, and frustration. But the internal primer that ignited the flames of burnout was a reliance upon my own strength instead of the Lord's. I would try to talk myself into things being better than they were. "I'm fine. I'm good. I've got this. Everything is going great. If it's not going great, it's going to get better soon, just you wait. This busyness and exhaustion is just a season. I'm unstoppable." For two years, I have been pouring myself out for others at a much faster rate than others have poured into me, straining to keep up with unrealistic expectations and the desire to please others. But this strain has led me to act in defiance of my own personal values and vocational leanings. I've spent a great deal of energy trying to be and act like someone I'm not.

How does someone recover from burnout?

Here's another image I've found helpful: imagine ministry as a marathon, not a sprint. I have been running in this marathon since 2003, with a few short breaks and moments of rest along the way. I've had people to pace with me for much of my ministry career, kindred spirits who are partners in the gospel. This past ministry season, it's been like the trail has taken an uphill turn and I've picked up both some heavy burdens and increased momentum. I've been running at an unsustainable pace. With burnout, it's as if I've twisted an ankle or torn a tendon in this race. I'm in a great deal of pain or numbness, depending on the moment, and it's slowing me down. I need to stop and rest and let the wound heal. Yet if I keep running--which is what I'm prone to do--it will certainly cause irreparable damage, certainly to me and possibly to others around me.

The only way to heal from burnout is to slow the pace, lessen the burden, and lean into Jesus and community for healing and strength. If I keep running in the marathon with a significant wound, I'm likely to ultimately wound others. So, I'm taking some significant action steps to recover, including stepping away from my current youth pastor position at my church in Langley, BC. Along with this resignation, our family will be moving from Canada back to the Portland, OR area to be closer to family, for me to pursue graduate studies, and to take a season to discern and heal. By this Christmas, the chapter of our lives in Canada will come to a close.

I'm recognizing that what got me here was my own pride, choosing to trust in my strength and try to tell myself things will get better. As Carey Nieuwhof writes in his post about recovering from burnout, "Only humility will get you out of what pride got you into." I just quit my job so I could be a better pastor, husband, and father. I'm not saying everyone has to do this, but it's my act of faith and obedience.

Where is God in all this?

We each go through spiritual cycles, and burnout is a season of spiritual exile. I long for the days when I felt "at home" and there was a deep joy in life and ministry. It's not that I don't experience joy now, but it's a different sort of joy--a sustained internal contentment and hope that God is with me and for me, regardless of circumstance or feeling. Katie and I are quite confident of God's presence and guidance through all this, particularly in our decision to leave our church and Canada. We just want to be obedient.

As I write these words, a morning fog has covered the hillside where my home sits. The grey mist has engulfed the slopes and trees, obscuring the world around in a blanket of murk. I cannot see much beyond what is directly ahead of me, but this isn't absolute darkness either. It's a temporary opacity, the blue-grey of the early morning. Suddenly, a brightness pierces through, illuminating the haze into a warm yellow tone. The sunrise warms up the world, offering hope for a new day, recalling to my mind a passage of Scripture that feels appropriate for this season of exile and awaiting redemption:

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
Lamentations 3:19-24


  1. Wishing you every blessing as you begin a new pilgrimage, Joel, I have been through the same experience and know what a hard choice that was to make. My church life is a little opaque but my faith life has had the veil lifted in ways I never could have imagined. God bless. :)

  2. Joel, I am so proud of the work God is doing in your life I could burst. You bring me great joy!

    1. Thanks Jill! You and your family bring the Maywards joy too. :)

  3. May He who keeps Israel - keep you - and cause you and Katie to know He keeps you.

    May He pour out grace in measures yet known as you take step by step on this journey through to the other side.

    blessings! lylah

    1. Thank you, Lylah. Praying for you in this season of grief too.

  4. Thanks for writing that Joel. It bless'd me. Lylah and I will pray many blessings on you & your family in this next season of your life. - Micahel Ledner

    1. Thanks, Michael! Appreciate your prayers and support.