Sunday, May 25, 2014

Beware of burn-out

By Silvia Purdie

Q: How do you know if you (or someone you care about) could be in danger of burn-out?

A: If you can relate to Psalm 38 you’re in trouble!

I like working hard. I like getting things done and going the extra mile. Hey, no one gets stuck into children’s ministry (or any ministry) because you want a quiet life! But how hard is too hard? How much is too much?

It’s worth doing a check-list from time to time to make sure that you’re not straying into danger-ground, because burning out is most unpleasant and destructive, and much easier to  prevent than to recover from. King David knew what it was like, and he has left us Psalm 38 as a vivid guide.

You are in danger of burning out when you are:

a) SICK AND TIRED! “My heart throbs, my strength fails me” (10). “There is no soundness in my flesh … no health in my bones” (3). We all get tired, but when fatigue kicks in, life becomes a huge effort. You can’t get enough sleep. You can’t get over the flu. Your back aches, your gut cramps.

b) GRUMPY. “Many are those who hate me wrongfully … who render me evil for good” (19-20). The Psalms are obsessed about enemies, ‘those people out there who have got it in for me’. We try not to think like that in the church, but let’s face it, we do feel got-at and unsupported at times. We try not to take it personally when people criticise and complain or say ‘no’ to our great ideas, but it does affect us. It’s called “death by a thousand paper-cuts”; little niggles that over time really do hurt and diminish us. The Psalms invite us to name our anger. Get mad at the mean-spiritedness and small-mindedness of the church. Get mad at families that don’t provide for their kids and our society that traps people in poverty. The danger for us caring ‘nice’ people is that our passion gets chipped away by a thousand small disappointments. The ‘red flag’ for burn-out is when we start getting cynical. Cynicism kills passion.

c) WORN OUT. “I am utterly spent and crushed. I groan because of the tumult of my heart.” (8) “as for the light of my eyes – it also has gone from me.” (10) Emotional fatigue is different from physical exhaustion. Too much giving out, too much caring, wears out our hearts. Compassion fatigue is when our boundaries crumble, we lose a sense of ‘this is not my problem’ and we take on other people’s pain. Burn-out strips you of the ability to care at all; don’t go there!

d) RECOIL. A specific symptom of burn-out is instinctively pulling back from any demands on you. Psalm 38 describes this beautifully: “I am like the deaf, I do not hear; like the mute, who cannot speak.” (13). Listen to the voice in you that says “I can’t cope with this.”

e) FAILURE. “My iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.” (4). Do you feel guilty for tasks not done, words that came out wrong, a relationship gone sour? Is there a growing sense in you that you’re just not up to this, you’re not getting anywhere? “I confess my iniquity, I am sorry for my sin.” (18) Name it before God. Drag shame out into the light or it will poison you.

I’d like to list a matching ‘a-to-e’ of what to do to prevent and treat burn-out, but Psalm 38 doesn’t lead far out into the light. The power of the Psalms is in the honesty of emotional experience. Sure, they exaggerate, it’s truth in hyperbole and metaphor; hopefully you have never felt “arrows sunk into me” literally (2), but I bet you have emotionally! If any of this rings bells for you, please find someone to talk to about it, someone who can help you be brutally honest about how you feel, someone who will help you make changes in your life that will protect and restore you.

What Psalm 38 does do is cling to God; “But it is for you, O Lord, that I wait” (15), “O my God, do not be far from me, make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation” (21,22). What we know through Jesus is that God is also clinging to us. Jesus entered our world, our life to share, our pain to bear. He took the arrows aimed at us. Psalm 38 is a song of the cross, cried by Jesus so that we don’t need to. We are never alone in this.

There are heaps of excellent resources on burn-out on the internet. Articles specific to children’s ministry include these:

Psalm 38: The Burn-out Psalm (Silvia's version)

I am utterly spent, everything I had has been poured out
I have nothing left
I am crushed, all my best efforts have been wasted
nothing to show for all that work!
I was flat out but now I am flat on the floor
can’t move, can’t think
buried under too many pointless tasks 

O Lord, all my longing is known to you
all my sighs, all my frustration, all my tears 

I am battered and bruised from constant criticism
I can’t take a step without being snared in a gin trap
My words get twisted and used against me
My best intentions fall in ruins and are crushed underfoot
No one cares about me! 

My heart aches, my strength is gone
my body is wracked with pain
my eyes no longer shine with your passion
my ears can’t bear to hear any more need
my mouth is mute, nothing left to say 

O Lord, I know it’s my own stupid fault
my own sin and pride to try so hard
I confess my failure to you
Nothing left to do except wait for you

Do not leave me, O Lord!
I have nothing now but you
Be close, O Lord.

Rev Silvia Purdie is the minister of Milsom Combined Church in Palmerston North.  She is a wonderful Kids Friendly champion and advocate.  Silvia is married to Rev Chris Purdie and has three sons.


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