Prior to our move overseas, I recall occasional talk about this thing called “burnout.” I could not articulate exactly what it meant, but it sounded like a toxic mix of depression, deep exhaustion, and despair. One counselor explained that burnout was like a house that has had a fire on the inside. From the front lawn, everything may look tidy and intact. But once you get inside, it is immediately clear by the smell and charred walls that this home was badly damaged and requires repair. Maybe it was confined to just one room, or maybe the entire interior needs to be remodeled. Either way, the house needs internal gutting and rebuilding before it can safely function again.
More than a decade later, my husband and I got a crash course in “the notorious B.O.”, as we came to call it. Despite the good and beautiful fruit of God’s work in our personal lives and ministry that year, I felt exhausted and unmotivated. I had little motivation to get together with friends or go visit the Afghan ladies whom, at some point prior to those days, I had loved so dearly. Upcoming events sounded overwhelming, and I desperately wanted to find an escape route from every responsibility.
We knew that we both needed help, but the weight of the many responsibilities we were bearing felt too consuming to leave any margin for yet another regularly scheduled Zoom call with a counselor. Eventually, however, the alarms were blaring, and it was clear that if we did not get help soon, the fire damage on the inside of my proverbial house was going to cause the entire structure to collapse.
In my particular case of burnout, I had allowed pressing, important work to overtake equally important, but non-urgent personal needs. Simultaneously, my husband was suffering under the weight of heavy work and ministry responsibilities. We wanted to cut back on his work hours, and we also realized we needed to raise extra support in order to stay on the field. It all felt crushing.
As we were in the middle of drawing up plans for the summer, my husband’s boss decided, without any prompting, to leave my husband’s pay and benefits unchanged despite the fact that he would be working fewer hours. Neither of us realized how heavily the issue of finances was weighing on us until it was lifted. This one massive change allowed both of us to see the parts of our lives that needed tending, so we began to pursue healing in the parts of our lives that were still sore and tender.
The first few calls with my counselor felt a bit monotonous as I told her some of my own history and background. She began asking me about the nature of my work. Having just completed an emotionally intense project, I could barely get through a sentence without beginning to weep. It became apparent that, while I had been talking openly with friends and teammates about the emotional toll of work, I had not allowed myself to feel the depths of it.
Soon after, I heard an Enneagram expert explain that some folks are quite skilled at talking about their feelings while still managing to shield themselves from actually feeling them. “Guilty,” I said aloud. I invited the Holy Spirit into the innermost depths of my thought life. I asked for peace in those corners where emotional jack-in-the-boxes of memories and mental pictures would lie dormant until my sleeping brain would pop them open to be anxiously scrutinized at 3 am.
One particularly memorable session with my counselor included some questions about leisure time. “What is something you enjoy doing on a daily or weekly basis?” I could not, for the life of me, think of the last time I had gone out of my way to do something I (and not my kids) considered fun. I would go for runs some mornings, which I enjoy immensely, but as my schedule had become increasingly packed, morning runs were often overruled in favor of extra sleep.
My counselor instructed me to make a list of things that I would consider fun and could feasibly do in the coming weeks and months. The very task of being made to sit and consider what would be fun activities was much harder work than I thought it would be. It was as though I had forgotten what things brought me joy, like I had been subsisting with a charred interior for so long that I could not even remember what it should or could look like.
One of the items on my “fun list” was to have regular lunch and coffee dates with friends. Not for accountability time, not to do a Bible study, and not for ministry planning. Just regular lunch dates for some good ‘ole fashioned fun. This was not the be-all, end-all solution, but the impact of these dear people on my well-being was immense. The healing I experienced was slow, but I could see that God was cleaning up many places in my heart that had been neglected or altogether forgotten. Mercifully, He moved slowly and with intention, taking time to clean, reorganize, and sometimes hoist a giant load of trash onto a burn pile.
Those days were incredibly difficult, but the lovingkindness shown to me by friends shed light on how to come alongside others who are also trying to navigate recovery from burnout. Here are a few ways you can help a friend who is struggling:
1. Tell them it’s ok to complain. Some of us feel immense guilt for telling the truth of how hard certain situations or people are. We believe that sharing our experiences when it might paint someone in a negative light is wrong, or that we are dishonoring them by disclosing behavior or attitudes that have affected us. While situations may require us to anonymize individuals and keep some information confidential, we all need an outlet to talk about hard and painful experiences. Being a friend who is willing to hold space for the whole gamut of frustrations and pain is a noble task. It can sometimes be difficult to share these emotions because we, as global workers, tend to see a lot of suffering. The temptation to minimize our own troubles in relation to those of our neighbors is all too real, but our struggles are still valid. Plus, minimizing our pain since it’s “not as bad as That Guy’s” comforts neither That Guy nor you.
2. Encourage them to get professional help. Burnout and depression tend to go hand in hand. I was recently talking to a friend about starting antidepressant medication, and she joked that sending organizations should distribute them as standard procedure in pre-field orientation. While your friend may not need medication, they will likely need some help examining the deeper issues that created ideal circumstances for burnout. Even if they already understand these things, extricating long-practiced habits from faulty internal narratives about God, ourselves, and others is where we can sometimes find ourselves at an impasse. A professional counselor who is experienced with global workers can be a great help to someone who is feeling stuck.
3. Remind your friend of God’s unrelenting love for them. Burnout, for better or worse, serves to remind us that we are not capable of doing or being everything that we had hoped. In the depths of this realization, the voice of shame speaks pretty loudly. Here are a few of the more common phrases burnout shame spews:
- You should have been able to handle more than this.
- Look at That Guy (or That Girl)! They are in almost the same situation as you but with even more responsibilities, and they are thriving. What’s wrong with you? You really are a failure.
- You have nothing worthwhile to contribute.
The often-overlooked truth is that God’s love for your friend is unrelenting. His loving presence is so un-forsaking that he goes into the depths of our pain and despair right with us. Your friend, and indeed all of us, need to be reminded of this truth.
4. Check in on them regularly. Bring over a favorite drink or ask to go on a walk together. Exercise has proven to be a powerful way to combat mild to moderate depression and build emotional resilience, but it can often be difficult to find the motivation or energy when people are experiencing burnout and depression. The exercise is helpful, of course, but the company of a friend who cares and will simply be present is priceless.
5. Assure them that taking a break is a good thing. A season of burnout can mean needing to step away from responsibilities or leaving the field altogether. For those of us in ministry, our identity and sense of purpose tends to be so tethered to our ministry output that the idea of stepping away feels cowardly. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Stepping away, whether for a season or indefinitely, is often the hardest step to take as it can contain so many unknowns. God’s healing power and love is not only for the people we minister to, but for your friend as well.
If you or a friend are in a season of burnout, you are not alone. In fact, it is a common reality for many global workers. Those of us in ministry roles recognize the importance of our work and are often willing to make great sacrifices in order to do it well. The nature of our work is to serve and love people as Jesus did, but we tend to overlook the reality that our own souls, minds, and bodies also require as much care and attention as those whom we came to serve. While it may look different from season to season, our neediness for the healing love of Christ, delivered through the vessels of human hands and feet, will be present until the day we see Him face to face. Recognizing our frailty can be painful, but it is in these places where the body of Christ can meet despair with hope, pain with comfort, and weariness with relief.