The Way Out of “Burnout”
By: Nancy Wilson
I’m sure most women know what I mean by the phrase burned out. Burnout is what happens to us when we take on too much, and we simply hit the wall. Those duties you once enjoyed have piled up way too high, and now you don’t feel like carrying them anymore. They are heavy. They are hard. They are too many. And you are tired. The duties themselves have not changed — you have.
The commitments and responsibilities are probably very good. Maybe you have been volunteering, teaching, homeschooling, counseling, hosting, helping, cooking, nursing, cleaning, organizing, car pooling, and then you are doing it all over again day after day. You can’t see an end in sight and you feel absolutely fried. Spent. Worn out. Drained. I want to throw you a rope and haul you in out of the water and back on board.
Address Your Sin
It is not a sin to be tired. In fact, it’s a good sign that we are working hard and not frittering our time away being idle. Fatigue is not sin, it is simply a symptom of our finitude. We are not made of iron. We are flesh and blood, and we run out of energy. We need a Sabbath, and we need it every single week. We should be working six days, sleeping soundly because we’ve been working hard, and then resting on the Lord’s Day so we can be refueled to start over again on Monday morning. This is God’s creation design, and it is good. Though this physical feeling of fatigue is not sin, it can, of course, be accompanied by sinful attitudes.
When we are tired, we can be tempted to think we didn’t get much accomplished. We may feel discouraged or trapped and worry that there is no one to help us or take over for us. We may think our work is all in vain because we’re going to have to do it all over again tomorrow. Or we might be disappointed because we didn’t finish everything on our list. And then there’s that friend who is vacationing in Hawaii. How does she get off so easily?
So by all means, deal with any sinful attitudes before trying to solve the issue of burnout. Self-pity never helps us or equips us when we have work to do, and it will not be our aid in dealing with this. But once we have set aside any sin by confessing it to God, let’s turn to consider the burnout itself. How did we get here in the first place?
Know When to Say “No”
We can divide our duties into two general categories: mandatory and voluntary. Mandatory duties are those bestowed on us directly by the hand of our good and gracious God. Childbearing and childrearing certainly fall in this category. If God has given you a quiver full of children, then you are called to do the good work of bringing them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The work and worth of homemaking and home keeping, childbearing and childrearing are grievously underestimated by most of us. It is work (lots of it), and it is good work. But there are other kinds of work in this category as well. If you are called to work outside the home to provide for yourself or your family, this is also in the mandatory category. You can’t just decide it’s too hard and fail to show up for work.
A second category of duties and responsibilities I would call “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Women often see a vacuum and move in to fill it before counting the cost of what it is going to take. Other times they feel manipulated, pressured, or guilted into volunteering to do something that is going to put other responsibilities at risk. You said you would host the Bible study at your home on Wednesday night, you raised your hand when the cry went out for volunteers to make three pies for the potluck, and you certainly didn’t look at the floor when they said they needed someone to organize the wedding reception. Not only that, but you volunteered to be a chaperone for the field trip. But now all these things have piled up on your calendar in rapid succession and have thrown you into a tailspin. Because now, not only do you need to prepare for the field trip, but you also must find someone to take the kids to their music lessons.
When it comes to the non-negotiable duties, these are the priority. If we are not handling them well, then we should not be taking on more duties to add to the pile. We want our homes running on all cylinders or our duties at work to be fulfilled before we look elsewhere for good things to do. “They made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!” (Song of Solomon 1:6). Your own vineyard is your first priority.
You Are Not Irreplaceable
What about mercy ministry? The Good Samaritan didn’t exactly have the guy in the ditch written in his daily planner. Of course, we must be prepared to act instantly when confronted with drastic needs. But sometimes we go out beating the bushes, and there might be a person more equipped than you are to help. If you are busy administering first aid when there is a nurse standing behind you, then by all means, defer to her. Let her take over.
Consider the work of counseling. We should all be able to help with basic Bible knowledge to encourage one another. But if more is needed, there is nothing wrong with finding someone else who is more equipped to step in to help. Not every situation is an emergency. You may have to keep your conversation short. Or if you are too burdened to help anymore, you might pray for God’s replacement. A fresh replacement might be far more effective than you are. Remember, we are not irreplaceable.
Don’t Break Promises
But what if you don’t have any extra duties at all, yet you still feel burned out? In that case, it is time to sit down and run an inventory. Ask God to help you evaluate your situation clearly. What are your basic duties? What is keeping you from getting them done? Is it possible to get help? Can you organize your time better? Can you cut something out without shirking an important duty?
It’s also very important to keep your perspective. Remember that these deadlines and due dates will pass. My husband and I have called times like this “hunker down” times. We just hunker down and plow through. Sooner or later we will get through this tunnel and come out on the other side. When we have bigger commitments and responsibilities than we have strength, then this is a perfect time to call out to God for help.
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:12–13)
Determine never to flake. That is being unloving to your neighbor. If you said you would make those stupid pies, you can’t bail out now and show up with a bag of chips. If you said you would help with the reception, you can’t be a no-show. We are Christians! We keep our promises. You may not call an hour before the field trip and say, “Sorry, something has come up, and it’s just not going to work.”
One of the ways we learn to be wise rather than hasty in our commitments is by sticking to them. If we stay up late making those pies, we will think twice before we over-commit again. And we will find out that it is not a sin to say no. It’s not a sin to let someone else volunteer. Someone wisely said, “The need is not the call.”
So ride this part out. Finish your commitments by the grace of God. Do not lose heart. Ask God for strength. And then don’t put anything extra on your calendar for a while. Take a breather and pray for spiritual refreshment.