Updated: May 25
It was 2007, year 14 of my 20-year run as a pastor, and I was burned out.
I found myself spending more time at the YMCA, lingering in the pool to avoid going to the office. At work, I couldn’t concentrate and found myself resorting to scanning headlines instead of getting things done. There was a noticeable difference in my speaking and preaching. Discerning people would meet with me to awkwardly share that I lacked real conviction in my sermons.
Recognizing the severity of the problem, I began intentionally withdrawing for quiet and self-reflection, invested in coaching, and took a mini-sabbatical with the blessing of the elders. It didn’t happen overnight, but I regained my energy as I retooled my rhythms. Graciously, the summer of 2007 was a turning point for me.
Do you find yourself in a season of burnout? Are you recognizing that your current ways of working aren’t sustainable? In the following article, we will define burnout, identify its causes, and glean wisdom from the prophet Elijah’s burnout recovery journey.
Burnout is a chronic dynamic of fatigue, low motivation, and joyless performance at work. In burnout, hope and drive disappear and cannot be regained by usual means. According to the Harvard Business Review, the three major symptoms of burnout are a) exhaustion: a chronic state of fatigue; b) cynicism/or depersonalization: psychological disengagement and detachment from work; c) inefficacy: a sense of incompetency and lack of productivity.
What our Research Tells Us
Burnout came in second in our 2021 Dilemmas project. Over half of respondents indicated it is a top struggle for them in their work. This number almost perfectly matches our 2021 client load, with 45% of new clients dealing with work challenges stemming from or complicated by burnout.
The Diagnostic Challenge
We know burnout is a real challenge. With so much change in work rhythms during the pandemic, it seems reasonable that new ways of working will not work for some. Yet with so much press and buzz around the topic, we also suspect it is over-diagnosed.
There will always be times when work is frustrating and exhausting. Scripture tells us it will be so. Having a difficult day, week or even month is not the same as being burned out. Research on the prevalence and frequency of burnout would be more effective if workers were asked about the intensity of their symptoms rather than direct questions regarding how burned out they feel.
Armed with clarity around burnout symptoms and the stakes involved, burnout affects our whole being—vocationally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Below are ten major causes of burnout that we see in the literature and in our own client work. Understanding the causes empowers us to identify burnout when it’s present and prevent it when we are at risk.
Top Ten Causes of Burnout
Violating our Values: Incongruence between our behavior and our personal values creates exhaustion.It is God’s tool to awake us to change, “the sorrow that leads to repentance.” (2 Corinthians 7:10)
Isolation: Traveling through life and work alone, living absent of deep spiritual friendships, leads to burnout. Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. (Proverbs 18:1)
Success: Achieving a noteworthy milestone is often followed by a feeling of burnout. The focus, the adrenalin, and the challenge are replaced with new questions. This was Elijah’s experience.
Chronic Toxicity: Working under angry, foolish leadership is exhausting. A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression. (Proverbs 29:22)
Failure to Recognize Change: The world has changed, but we keep working as if it is the same. We are missing the signs of the times. David’s men of the tribe of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do (1 Chronicles 12:32)
Your Contribution Zone: We see clients frequently attempting to be someone they’re not. For instance, a top salesperson who sees themselves as the CEO. In reality, they aren’t wired to be the CEO and instead are made to be a great salesperson. Extended periods where we cannot use our top value-adding skills lead to burnout. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10)
Lack of Agency/Lack of Action: When one feels powerless to effect change in a difficult environment, it can lead to burnout. Biblical wisdom provides a different set of imperatives, actions that can always be taken to anchor our work in God’s story and escape burnout. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:17)
Ego: Believing you’re the only one that can do what you do, so you never delegate, never move on, never let others shine. The need to do everything burns you out. But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
Poor Rhythms: Lack of rest, sabbath keeping, exercise, poor sleep, too much interruption and screen time. For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)
Spiritual Skimming: Going through the motions instead of breaking new ground in intimacy with God. Usually involves a lack of quiet, solitude, and deep spiritual work. “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." (Matthew 15:8)
The Core Strategy: Elijah’s Example
These causes are not a complete list, but offer a picture of how we can, over time, find ourselves in a season of burnout. Burnout is not new. Scripture is not silent on this topic of feeling overworked and overwhelmed.
Take Elijah for example (1 Kings 19). Elijah was a prophet during the dark days of the northern kingdom of Israel. The kingdom was rulled by Ahab and his maniacal wife Jezebel. Elijah was the center of an amazing divine victory on Mount Carmel. God was powerfully present and showed the religion of the king and queen to be fraud. And now Elijah was running for his life. Coming off a victory, Elijah wants to quit–quit in the extreme–he was ready to die. But God walks him through a process of restoration. God uses a “Core Strategy” for burnout:
Sleep and food: Food and sleep, sleep and food. That’s where the journey begins. Elijah’s tapped out and needs to just rest and nourish himself. This is all he did for several days.
Solitude: Elijah gets away with a 40-day journey alone. Jacob, too, had seminal encounters with God alone. You may not need 40 days, but some time alone–really alone, with no distractions–is often required for a reset to move you beyond burnout. Workers can get this same experience through 1) A real weekend off 2) An unplugged vacation 3) An extended vacation, 4) A leave of absence, or 5) Changing jobs. In order for the break to be effective, leverage wise counsel to craft and execute a plan.
A fresh encounter with God’s power and intimacy: We love to camp out on the tender whisper of God in the cave. But remember the setup: wind, earthquake, fire. The majesty of God prepared Elijah for intimacy with God. We need both a God who is frighteningly bigger than us and gently close to us if we want to restore our equilibrium.
Truth: Elijah thinks the game is over! His work has been futile: “I have been faithful and what do I get in return, a death wish?” God doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t even entertain Elijah’s tale of woe. He just gives him more work to do. Elijah got a dose of divine truth. God wasn’t done working in the world. God wasn’t done working through Elijah.
Recommissioning: Elijah is given a fresh assignment. He is told to go anoint several kings, including Ahab’s successor. He also is told who his successor will be. Elijah is commissioned to continue his work through a mentee, Elisha. Burnout can lead us to fresh clarity of calling.
Action: The way we complete our recovery from burnout is through action. God listened, God commissioned, and Elijah left the mountain and the wilderness and got on with it. He sought out and found Elisha. He fulfilled his orders.
Questions to Decide Right Action
Understanding your action steps will require careful listening and discernment through asking the right questions. Consider:
Cause: What is causing your burnout?
Meaning: How does embracing the idea that all work matters to God and has dignity help you endure your current work? Dialing into the meaning of your current work will lessen the drain as you reassess your life rhythms and vocational calling in the hunt for longer term solutions.
Alignment: What does it look like to align your activity with your sense of calling. How well do you understand your unique God-given design to add value, your mission? If you cannot move to work that is more aligned in the near term, how can you express your mission and calling in micro ways on a day-to-day basis?
Relationships: Would you describe yourself as isolated or sharing the journey with wise fellow travelers? What’s behind your answer?
Options: What options are available to you now? What steps do you need to take in order for there to be more options in the future?
The Break: What kind of break do you need? How will you know? Who do you need to talk to about this?
Great Expectations: How realistic are your expectations for your work-life? Are you expecting utopia or not aiming high enough?
Prevention: What kind of rhythms do you need to put into place to avoid going back or sliding into burnout?
Burnout is Not Inevitable
Seasons of fatigue and frustration are inevitable while we work in a fractured world. Burnout, however, is not. We can monitor symptoms and rhythms and course-correct before we land in the ditch. Ultimately, we believe that nothing can
replace the power of understanding yourself and pouring yourself into work that aligns with your greatest contributions through God’s power and grace.