Limitations and Burnout

My wife can read me better than I can.  She knows that when I say I feel “numb” that I am in deep need of rest.  Living in Italy over the last four years has brought new challenges to finding my spiritual and emotional rhythms.  I have found myself at times more fearful, more angry, more tired, and less refreshed than ever before.  Certainly some of that is living life in a new culture and in a high momentum ministry environment-some of it isn’t.  In my role of leadership development I have many conversations with leaders who experience these symptoms all too often.  Sometimes we describe this sensation as “burnout.”  “Burnout” is an interesting term-we know the feeling but the circumstances and causes are difficult to define.  As I have considered this notion in my own life and in the lives of others I have simply defined the primary causes as either being under relation-shipped or over taxed–or both.  By under relation-shipped I mean we are thin on our relationship with the Lord and/or other people who help to give us life and perspective.  By overtaxed I mean we simply work too much-usually because deep down we think we are indispensable to the cause or we have lost sight of our personal calling.

My brother in law recently gave me a book that has ministered to me on several levels-I highly recommend it as a necessary read for anyone, but especially leaders.  It is called Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Barton.  Maybe I can entice you to pick up a copy with the following thoughts on burnout.  Barton offers the following nine symptoms of what it looks like to go beyond your limits-to be heading towards burnout.

1. Irritability or hypersensitivity-it’s when things that don’t normally bother you put you over the edge.  This can manifest itself in outward or inward rage.

2. Restlessness-It’s when we have a vague sense of something that is not quite right or a strong feeling of wanting to bolt from from our life.

3. Compulsive overworking-this is simply the very American concept of workaholism-when we can’t seem to quit or shut it down.

4. Emotional numbness-it’s when we can’t feel anything-highs or lows-good or bad.

5. Escapist behaviors-When we do get a break in the action we “relax” in ways that not only don’t give us life-they steal life from us-and sometimes can be very damaging to our leadership lives.

6. Disconnected from our identity and calling-it’s when we feel as if we are just going through the motions of life and ministry or work-we have lost our sense of why we are doing what we are doing and at the mercy of other people’s expectations.

7. Not able to attend to human needs-this is when we don’t have time to care for basic human needs like exercise, eating right, sleeping enough, etc.

8. Hoarding energy-this is when we feel threatened by exposing ourselves to additional people or situations-so we become overly self protective and sometimes even reclusive.

9. Slippage in our spiritual practices-routines that are normally life giving like reading the Bible, prayer, personal reflection, journaling, become burdensome-they are not actually leading us to a true encounter with Jesus Christ.

Barton says that even if a few of these things are true of you and me then we are living and working beyond our limits and need to examine our lives-recognizing that what we are doing is not good for ourselves or the people we are serving.

Buy the book or Kindle it-you need the principles and perspectives that Ruth Barton offers.  I am looking forward to some oasis times in July to quiet my soul and rest.  There is no true Christ-centered leadership if something else is at the center.

2 responses to “Limitations and Burnout

  1. Hey Gary:
    Thanks for writing this. I’m eager to get the book now, after having experienced what I think was burnout about 1.5 years ago.
    As I embark on a new ministry in a few weeks, I think this book might be a great tool to take with me.

  2. Gary,

    I took your advice and bought the book, the nine symptoms sounded too much like my life.

    I CAN’T RECOMMEND THE BOOK HIGHLY ENOUGH. It has been fantastic and I would recommend it for every leader, especially those with driven personalities or are part of driven organizations.

    Thanks for recommending it.

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