By Rev. Lisa Talbott
In my first article on burnout, I used the metaphor of flying a small plane. In flying and in life, it’s easy to get distracted and let things wander off course. Pilots never intentionally endanger themselves, just as pastors never intentionally overwhelm themselves. But things happen. Holidays and worship services and Christian education planning and someone gets sick or a beloved member dies and then the church secretary retires. You know how it goes. Things build up, and if you’re not paying close attention to your time and your energy, burnout starts to creep in, and you can stall.
Here’s the thing: a stall is not a crash. A stall is a warning that you are getting dangerously inattentive and it’s time to get things back under control. I didn’t experience full-blown burnout. If I had, I don’t think I’d be over it yet. But I stalled, and that was scary enough. I got the hint.
How do you know you’re facing burnout as opposed to just being tired or overworked after a busy season? What’s the line between needing to take a vacation and needing to rethink the way you’re living out your vocation?
Your signs will be different from mine, but see if any of these sound familiar.
Like the stall indicator on my little Cessna, the warnings were fairly subtle at the beginning. First, I missed my days off for a few weeks in a row because some important ministries were happening—funerals, community meetings, activities with local partners. Sundays kept coming like a freight train, and more and more sermons were turning into Saturday night specials. A couple of months went by with no real time of rest, and I was starting to get tired. If I had been paying attention, I would have heard my stall indicator starting up—a low whine at first, telling me I needed make an adjustment.
As I got tired of the relentless pace, my stall indicator started getting louder. Soon I felt like I couldn’t take a day off because I needed to get caught up, and there was always so much to do that I felt like I was never caught up. I desperately needed a break, but like the public school teacher I used to be who would go in sick because it was easier than writing sub plans, I felt like it would be harder to take time off than to just keep working.
My next warning was resentment. I felt like I was the only one doing anything, and I was the only one doing it right, which meant that if I wanted something done I had to do it myself. I feel embarrassed even writing that because I serve an amazing congregation with strong and enthusiastic lay leadership. Many of them would have gladly taken tasks off my plate if I had only asked. But remember, approaching a stall means that the nose of the airplane is up too high, your vision is limited, and you can’t see what you’re getting yourself into. My view was obstructed, and that feeling of resentment robbed me of the joyful obedience with which I want to serve God and my flock. The warning indicator was starting to get awfully loud.
The final warning shriek of the stall indicator came when I realized just how badly burnout was affecting all of my relationships. My ears were so blocked with anger and resentment that everything I heard sounded like criticism. I could not take comments or questions graciously, I felt under attack for no reason, and I could no longer even hear compliments. Compassion fatigue came crashing down. Everything felt like an imposition. Everything felt like a burden. Everything felt like a reproach. Nothing was fun anymore, nothing was relaxing, nothing was refreshing.
I realized that this was not the life I wanted to live. This was not the vocation to which I was called. If I did not make some serious changes—and quickly—I was in danger of rejecting my call or becoming a bitter parody of the pastor that I could be.
When I stalled, I realized just how far off course I was, and even though I wanted to keep applying power and pulling up, I did the hard and courageous thing—I pushed the nose down. The last thing I needed was one more appointment on my calendar, but I called my doctor because I knew I had to ensure the safety of my physical and mental health and start taking care of myself. That was the first step toward recovery.
In my final article in this series, I’m going to describe some of the things that helped me recover from my stall. Some of them may work for you, as well, but we are all living out different callings in unique contexts, so you will have to discern for yourself what getting back on course looks like for you.
Burnout can be a dark place. If you are feeling desperate, depressed, or in a dangerous situation, please reach out to your doctor or to a trusted friend or colleague. You are not alone.
Is your stall indicator going off? Push the nose down and level out. Scan the cockpit. Breathe. A stall is not a crash. You’re going to make it.
May the incremental return of light be a sign of hope in your internal darkness that Christ is always with you, sharing your burden and balancing your load. Amen.
- To schedule a WebMD Health Coach: 1-800-302-5742
- To access EAP for Emotional Counseling and Work/Life Services: 1-800-788-5614 or use their website (LINK).
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
- Carey Nieuwhof has written some excellent articles on burnout:
Rev. Lisa Talbott is an elder member of the Pacific Northwest Conference serving as pastor to Homer United Methodist Church in the Alaska Conference.