I am a mother of a 5-month-old, a 6-year-old, a wife, a pastor planning several brand new programs and projects, a daughter, a granddaughter, a friend, a neighbor, an employer, the list goes on. I am busy and I am tired. But all of our lists go on and on, don’t they?
We are taught in seminary and by mentors that burnout is an apocalyptic event that all pastors are to avoid. We are given many examples and strategies of how to avoid this all-consuming fire that is coming for all of us: read the Bible, read the confessions, and pray. Find a group of pastors that you meet with each week/month/year. Make sure you have a spiritual director. Go to pastoral counseling. Spend time with your family. Spend time alone.
Just looking at all the strategies begins to make me feel anxious. How can I possibly avoid burnout when I don’t have the time or energy to employ the strategies that are proven to work?
This is the tension where I spend my time, and where I suspect most pastors spend their time. Right between “I am so busy and tired” and “this is the best job/life possible.” And right in the midst of it is the healthy place to be.
Burnout by very definition is a fire that takes over and is uncontrollable—a fire that burns everything down around it and eventually there is nothing left and the fire goes out. For pastors and professionals personal, spiritual, psychological burnout is very much the same. Burnout is when we are overwhelmed by what we are doing and what is expected of us to the point that there is nothing left—nothing left for us to give and nothing left for us to receive.
So how do we avoid burnout?
For each individual it is different. There is no prescribed strategy that will work for everyone. But we have to find ways that keep us from becoming overwhelmed by what we are doing and what is expected of us.
Personally, I know that the fire is burning uncontrollably around me, when I am no longer receiving. When I cannot receive love from my family and friends, when I am unable to listen to others, when I am unable to see the good that is happening around me in ministry and at home—that is when I am approaching burnout. At that point, I have to adjust my perspective. I have to take moments to myself. And then I am ready to receive and to give all over again.
So maybe there is not one strategy to defeating burnout. Maybe there is a different strategy for each individual. Maybe there is a different strategy for different times in our lives. The most important thing is recognizing your personal signs that burnout is approaching before the fire kills everything in sight.
The Rev. Erin Davenport is a 2005 alumna of the MDiv program. Through the Seminary’s joint degree program, she also earned her MSW from the University of Pittsburgh. A former chaplain, she now resides in Pittsburgh and serves as the Seminary’s director of the Miller Summer Youth Institute.