Burnout: What is it?


Traditionally, burnout refers to a rocket that burns fuel as it climbs into the sky. Engineers try to design the rocket to avoid burnout (burning out of fuel) until it reaches the intended altitude goal. Like a rocket in burnout, some ministers burn out before reaching their goals. Like a rocket that exhausts its supply of fuel, they run out of energy and simply cannot function any longer.

To the question, “What is burnout,” the answer rings, “Burnout is merely one of the numerous forms of depression.” The cause of the depression represents the only difference between burnout and other forms of depression. Burnout results from too much work and stress. That is, depression results from numerous causes, and burnout merely represents one of those causes. Regardless, burnout is still depression. Ministers sometimes almost brag about burnout, feeling proud of their tendency to work hard. At the same time, many feel reluctant to admit to depression. But a person with “burnout” is depressed.

The American Psychological Association (APA) avoids using the term “burnout” altogether, avoids developing special burnout assessments like those found on many websites and in some pop-culture books, and never recommends burnout interventions any different than the interventions for depression. Burnout and Compassion Fatigue merely represent two of the numerous causes of depression. The numerous causes of the depression remain much less important than the interventions and the lifestyles that serve as prevention measures. Thus, the APA interventions for depression represent the only approved interventions for burnout and Compassion Fatigue.

For many cultures, the term “burnout” poses a problem. I (Nathan) recently returned from Tajikistan, where I asked about the frequency of “burnout.” After a rather puzzled look from my interpreter, she explained that they never use the term “burnout.” Instead, they and many other cultures use, “downcast in spirit,” or “poor in spirit” to describe the Western concept of burnout or depression. The terms “burnout” or “clinical depression” only emerged in Western cultures with the advent of modern medicine in the 1900s. Although Western cultures use the terms “depression” and “burnout” to describe long-term exhaustion, many other cultures never use these terms. Instead of a single word, they describe the condition as “poor in spirit,” or sometimes refer to the “downcast in spirit.” Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).”  Psalm 34:18 refers to the “crushed in spirit.” Without a comparable word for depression, Psalm 38:6-8 uses descriptive narrative to describe the same condition, “I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all day long I go around mourning. For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart.” This description by King David certainly sounds like a major depression. Psalm 102:4 further describes the essence of his depression, “My heart is stricken and withered like grass; I am too wasted to eat my bread.” Coincidentally, a change in appetite acts as one of the key symptoms to burnout and depression. Psalm 41:6 uses the same words as my Tajik interpreter when it says, “My soul is cast down within me.” In Psalm 42:3, King David asks, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” Modern cultures invent the terms “burnout” or “depression” as near synonyms for the biblical descriptions, “downcast in spirit” or “poor in spirit.” Thus, “burnout” and “depression” serve as near synonyms for “downcast in spirit” or “poor in spirit.”

Burnout in ministry remains fundamentally different than burnout in a secular occupation. In a secular occupation, most stress remains somewhat manageable (hence the abundance of books offering stress management skills). However, a normal ministry lifestyle includes at least five times more stress and 100-500 times more crises than what the average secular individual experiences. Each minister not only experiences his or her own crises, but also the crises of everyone else in his or her congregation and greater community. And the minister feels much more affected than the causal observer of a crisis. Usually, the minister knows the individual in crisis well, and grieves over the crisis like everyone else in the immediate family. When the crises of others weigh down a minister, we say that he or she suffers from “compassion fatigue.” However, compassion fatigue merely represents burnout caused by ministry to those in a crisis. And almost all the church member crises remain inherently unmanageable for the minister. Since a minister cannot manage the stress of another individual, stress management rarely works in ministry. Therefore, we never recommend the conventional stress management approaches for ministers. Instead, we recommend implementing a vastly different set of research (prevention related studies) completed since 1999. For ministers, resilience skills coupled with depression prevention skills work much better than stress management approaches.

Ministers (especially foreign missionaries and chaplains) need resilience. To a large extent, it defines their ability to remain productive in one of the most stressful vocations in the world–ministry.

What is resilience?

We define resilience as the capacity of an individual to cope positively with stress and negative events such as crises and disasters. Resilience includes:

  1. The ability to rebound to a “new normal” that represents a healthy condition after a negative event (a stressor).
  2. Adaptability that uses a stressor to build additional hardiness against burnout.

Resilience skills help ministers to prevent and recover from burnout. While secular individuals may survive with little margin of resilience, few ministers avoid burnout (long term exhaustion) unless they develop skills that promote resilience.

Like a three-legged stool, three support legs provide resilience for ministers:

  1. Physical resilience
  2. Emotional resilience
  3. Spiritual resilience

Most ministers spend a considerable amount of time developing spiritual resilience, but correspondingly less time developing physical and emotional resilience. However, a weakness in any single support leg can cause the stool to collapse.

The capacity for resilience seems comparable to the capacity of three cups of water that represent physical, emotional and spiritual resilience. Every cup provides a capacity to store a liquid. However, from a distance, no one can see if the cup is full, half-full, or empty. Likewise, most individuals cannot see their level of physical, emotional or spiritual resilience. They assume that they possess adequate resilience for any stress coming their way, but rarely notice their dwindling resources for the three types of resilience until they suddenly discover one of their resilience cups dry. Without an ability to notice the level of their resilience, they feel shocked to find themselves burned out and unable to rebound. Thus, resilience tends to dwindle so insidiously that few ministers recognize their shortfall until burnout suddenly disables them.

Secular individuals commonly take a short vacation to rejuvenate. While this “Sabbatical” works well in the secular world, it usually fails miserably for ministers. Since few ministers can notice their dwindling supply of physical and emotional resilience, they rarely take a “Sabbatical” until much too late. That is, by the time they notice the need for a sabbatical, they are usually already burned out.

To learn how to assess burnout, please read, How can I measure it?

© 2013 Nathan Davis

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