Solving the Burnout Problem

Like most people starting out in ministry, I was responsible for the “junk-drawer” of the church. Most interns in any business or non-profit have experienced the “junk-drawer” job description. In a church, that meant anything that was not preaching, counseling, or “big ministry” items fell to me. This usually meant cleaning, organizing, small Bible studies, and lawn care. The church had 30 acres and an old ride-behind lawnmower that took about 4 days to cut the entire property. That was when it would work. I had experience mowing grass, but I did not have experience in fixing lawnmowers. Fortunately, one of the pastors taught me how to quickly identify the problems, which was actually the hardest part of fixing a small engine. Identifying the problem is usually the hardest part of fixing the problem. The pastor explained if you have a problem with your lawnmower or motorcycle not starting, you can trace it back to a problem with one of four things: Fuel, Fire, Air, Compression. There is an issue with one of those four things, and usually in that order. The solution may not be easy, but identifying the problem can be that simple.

So how does that relate to burnout? Through my own life and through the last 20 years of working with hundreds of leaders in businesses, non-profits, and ministries, I have seen burnout come and go. The severity of burnout varies, as do the stages and levels of leaders. But the root causes remain. You can usually trace burnout back to at least one of these issues: Pace, Purpose, Place, People, or Grace.

1. Pace

People facing burnout often look to this as the first cause. They are usually going too fast for their own good. I see this especially with people who take the seemingly “slow” seasons (summer and winter) and ramp up their speed while others slow down. In reality, they need to not run faster, but dive deeper during these times. They out run their staff, their families, and ultimately their personal abilities.

Interestingly enough I have also seen people burnout from moving too slow. How is that possible? Go back to the turtle and the hare. If you put a rabbit in a long-distance marathon that requires a slow and steady pace, eventually the natural instincts of the rabbit will overtake the actual race. I have seen many people who had the capacity to do more and run harder, begin to burn out because they were not being utilized. Which leads to our next root cause.

Action: Take a look at your week. Audit your week by identifying what you are doing with your time. Take two minutes a day and jot this down. Then look at it the following Monday. What can you adjust to make your pace just a hair better? Ask yourself how you can slow up in some areas, or go faster in others. There is usually a deeper reason one is working too much or not enough. Unchecked, this problematic pattern can come back quickly.

2. Purpose

More and more I am finding that people do not know who they are or what they were created to do. It has been said, “The greatest day in a person’s life is the day they are born. The second greatest day is when they learn why they were born.” This ultimately goes back to Logo Therapy and Viktor Frankl. For me, this was life-changing, as I went through a study from Donald Miller’s company Storybrand on the subject. Another author, Simon Sinek, says you need to start with “WHY.” I echo that, but also suggest you start with “WHO.” Who are you? Your self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses, along with a value system, will be your dashboard of gauges for the rest of your life. Take some time and figure them out now.

Action: Some great resources are Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, or Sinek’s practical Find Your Why. If you know your “Why” but feel off track, take 10–15 minutes and focus on your “why” and how your purpose could be the lens through which you see the world.

3. Place (or Position)

When it comes to Place, I am referring to overall surroundings. This could be the city (or country) you are in currently. Your location. It could be an organization. Maybe you are in mid-level management at an organization, but it is an unhealthy organization, which is causing you to compromise who you are as a person. The pace may be fine. The scope of work may be right up your alley. You may just need to be doing this in a different environment. That is ok. There is nothing wrong with diesel fuel or gasoline; until you put them in the wrong engines.

One other note; I have personally felt like I needed to move “places” or positions in an organization. However, I did not have that flexibility. I kept asking myself “what am I doing here?” Finally, I realized my purpose and began to view my work through my personal mission statement. For me, that purpose is to help others do what they are called to do. I realized I can fulfill my purpose in ANY position or place that I am located. You may certainly need a change of venue. You may also just need a change of perspective.

Action: Take a moment, and find one thing you can change to adjust your place or position. It could be as simple as a perspective change; viewing your work through the lens of your purpose. If you are a boss/manager/leader, find one way to serve those you are leading. If you are working in a certain environment that feels toxic; find a way to shift your location for just an hour or two. If you are chained to your desk, think of a way to perk up your space. This could be decluttering, adding a live plant, or a framed picture of your purpose.

4. People

This is the root cause we do not want to talk about. We rarely give enough credit to the people around us for their influence on our lives, for better or worse. I have noticed in those who are going through crisis, or burnout, the people they have surrounded themselves with either fuel the crisis or help them through it. Those around you could be making or breaking you. You need to have community. BUT you also need healthy community. If you find yourself complaining and negative, you might also be attracting that from around you. This could be co-workers, neighbors, family members, even friends. A couple of things we need to remember in those regards. . . We can choose our friends. We also need to not blame shift. If you are wrought with negativity, do not be so quick to blame it on your surroundings. Change yourself first, and if others do not follow suit, begin to distance yourself. Remember the old adage: show me your 5 closest relationships and I’ll show you your future.

Action: Write down the 5 closest relationships you have. Do not write down the five relationships you hope are the closest. Who gets most of your time? Who do you text the most? Ask yourself how you can add another dynamic, either in the current relationship or by adding a new relationship to your inner circle. This may mean reaching out to someone and asking them for a once-a-month call to touch base on certain areas of your life. It may mean having an honest conversation with one of your closest relationships, stating you sense your conversations revolve around negativity and you’d like to change that. It does not mean you have to end the friendship, just change the tone of the conversation. Unfortunately, there are relationships you will need to let go of. This will be hard. There will be a grieving process. But, the good news is, putting space between you and another does not have to be melodramatic. Just create space and let it run its course.

5. Grace

If people are the root cause we do not talk about, grace is the root cause we do not know about. Grace is highly underrated. Sometimes called the “it factor.” People have “it” or they don’t. Lacking a certain grace is not a bad thing, but ultimately you need to be doing projects where you are graced and where you feel the “wind at your back.” Let me explain. When I say grace, I mean there are some things which hard work and perseverance simply will not get you. Some people come out of the womb with 6’7” bodies, amazing hand/eye coordination, and are “graced” with talent to play sports. Others have this with math, with administrative skills, with vision, with leadership, and the list goes on. This does NOT mean, if you do not have a natural ability or aptitude that you cannot still excel in an arena. It just may mean you might not be in the upper echelon; and that is OK. It also does not mean that you will enjoy the talents in which you are “graced.” Understanding what you have a grace for and what you do not have grace for will be a huge advantage to you going forward.

You may be be responsible for more than what you have grace for, but your role as a leader is to do what you are called and gifted to do; then outsource or delegate everything else. If you are not at that place yet; work towards offloading other tasks as soon as possible in order for you to be able to do what only you can do.

Action: Identify some times in your life, from first grade to today, where you felt the wind at your back. Was it in sports? In leadership? In school? Look at the scenario and context, then drill into the principles of what was actually happening. For example, if you were serving the less fortunate on Thanksgiving, ask yourself: was it the act of serving? Was it the connection with the people around you? Was it the fact you were put in charge of several stations of food in a leadership position? Find out what your superhero strength is. Find what you are graced with, and lean into that.

In closing, if you are facing burnout; going through it currently, or seeing others go through it; please realize it is OK. This is normal, and it can be fixed. The fix may not be easy, but it becomes simple once the problem is identified. Just remember, like not changing the oil in a car, one problem can often lead to another, and another. Soon you will have a blown engine and a burned-out vehicle. That is when you call in the tow truck and a professional mechanic. It is the same in life. If you are struggling with 3 or more of these areas, and are past the DIY point, make a call. There are great counselors out there. We also recommend Alongside Counseling Ministries for more intensive work. Overcoming burnout is more like unraveling cooked spaghetti noodles. . . it is doable, but it will not be easy.