By Rev. Lisa Talbott
I learned how to fly before I learned how to drive. In my Alaskan high school, one of the science classes offered my sophomore year was ground school. I started flying lessons when I was fifteen on a gravel strip next to Lake Hood, the largest floatplane base in the world.
The plane I learned in was not much bigger than the mosquitoes we jokingly call the Alaska state bird, but being in that tiny Cessna flying over Cook Inlet and seeing the pods of Beluga whales below, or on a clear day seeing from Denali to the Alaska Range, Sleeping Lady to the Kenai, the Chugach Range and beyond, were some of the most profound religious experiences I ever had.
But flight school is not about sightseeing. In Alaska, there is a saying about Bush pilots: There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. The majority of flight training focused on how not to die: how to read the weather; how to avoid crashing into one of those majestic mountains; how to calculate weight and balance; how to recover from a stall.
Imagine you’re flying parallel to some lovely mountains, leisurely spotting moose and maybe even bears on the foothills. Suddenly, a sound catches your attention, an alarm, and you realize it’s been going off for awhile, quietly at first and then in ever increasing volume until you pull your head out of the clouds and into the cockpit and realize that something’s wrong.
There is no more jarring, mind-numbing sound than the stall indicator on a small plane. It’s designed that way so you can hear it, no matter what, over the sound of the engine, the rush of the wind, or the chatter of the radio. At first, it’s a low whine, giving you a chance to pay attention and get your stuff together. But if you do not respond and correct the problem, the volume continues to increase until it is one long, loud, continuous, dissonant shriek that pierces your mind and demands your attention, warning you that if you do not change your behavior, your airplane will stall and gravity will win.
A stall occurs when the angle of ascent is too steep, which changes the air pressure around the wings and the airplane cannot maintain lift. As the nose of the plane goes farther and farther up, the plane loses lift, it stalls, and you fall like a brick.
Now, any reasonable person merrily flying along in a plane who is suddenly trying to steer a brick that is plummeting toward the earth would do the natural thing—pull up. But the problem is, there is no more “up.” The nose cannot go any higher and the wings cannot get proper airflow.
In order to recover, you have to do the most counter-intuitive thing possible—you have to push the nose down. Stick forward, nose down, the wings level out, air pressure is normalized, and lift is restored. You have to go down before you can come back up. You have to trust the plane, trust the forces at work, trust your training, and fight against every human instinct to pull up.
I have not been in the left seat of a small plane in 25 years, but I can still feel the soul jarring sound of the stall indicator and the sheer terror of falling through the sky until you do the least logical yet bravest thing possible—push the nose down.
My flight lessons came in handy this fall when I wasn’t paying attention, when I took on the weight of more and more tasks that unbalanced my load, when I kept trying to gain momentum by pulling up and pulling up and pulling up until I stalled.
Just like you can’t pull up out of a stall, you cannot work your way out of burnout.
You have to do something different. In the face of having so much to do that you don’t know where to start, you have to do the least logical, most counter-intuitive, bravest thing possible to get your lift back. You have to stop trying so hard. Push the nose down. Let gravity do its job. Surrender to the forces that are at work, and just stop.
It’s no easier to do that than it is to push the nose down.
Burnout is a real and serious problem in ministry, and as clergy, we need to talk about it, we need to share strategies for avoiding it, and we need to encourage one another to not let things get so out of control because it most often happens when we’re just going along enjoying the scenery, saying yes far too often and no far too rarely.
We’re all unique, and we all experience stress differently. As someone who is still fairly new to ordained ministry, I’ve been acting like a bold pilot, taking risks, using up my energy, spending too much time with work and not taking breaks, and bearing far too much of the load alone. As the years go by, I realize I don’t want to be a bold pilot—I want to be an old one. I want to have the strength and endurance for the long haul, and I certainly don’t want to crash and burn.
I’m learning how to pay closer attention to my own internal stall indicator, and I hope you will too.
In my next article, I will share with you my own signs of burnout and how I realized what was happening. In the final piece, I will share some practical advice on what I did when I stalled that may also be helpful to you (Hint: The answer is notto work harder, longer hours!).
In this season of Epiphany, may your vision be cleared of all that clouds it so you may see the glory of Emmanuel surrounding you, uplifting you, and empowering you to love God and serve your neighbors.
Rev. Lisa Talbott is an elder member of the Pacific Northwest Conference serving as pastor to Homer United Methodist Church in the Alaska Conference.