OF ALL THE DANGERS OF MINISTRY, one I have infrequently dealt with is burnout. I admire those who for whatever reason drive themselves so relentlessly that eventually they turn into a pile of warm ashes—if nothing else, for their dedication and work capacity. As much as I love to work, though, and as much as my romantic soul yearns for the heroic deed, I have never reached the point of near emotional extinction for the cause.
Instead, my downfall has been simply to become worn out to the point where I no longer care, somewhat like a tennis player who after several sets becomes so tired he loses the desire to win. Compared to the tragic drama of burnout, that is decidedly nonheroic.
Someone has said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." Let me rephrase that in more general terms: Physical exhaustion alters my emotional state. What I could handle when fresh I no longer feel up to. Difficulties that I first faced like a problem-solver full of faith now cause me to buckle at the knees. The challenges that once energized me now terrify me. While the presenting symptom on such occasions is emotional—depression or weakness—the real problem is physical: low energy.
When I am worn out, the words "I am so tired of …" fall easily from my lips. Tired of problems, tired of pressure, tired of sermon deadlines, tired of criticism, tired of working six or seven days a week, tired of difficult people, tired of having everything depend on me, tired of the same place and the same thing, tired of others letting me down. While I feel the problem is what comes at the end of the phrase, in reality the word "tired" is the true explanation for my urge to give in.
I have noticed several other characteristics of physical and emotional exhaustion and the desire to quit.
When I want to give up, I often consider more extreme measures than necessary to remedy my situation. When what I may really need is to work only six hours a day for a week to restore my battery, what I imagine I need is a several-week vacation, or a six-month sabbatical, or a new church.
According to the New York Times, in March 1997 the forty-nine-year-old CEO of the Luby's Cafeteria chain died of what the police concluded was a suicide. After praying with his wife before going to bed, he slipped out of his house, checked into a motel room, and there slit his own throat. Those who knew him said his actions were completely out of character, and they groped to understand his motives. He had risen through the ranks of the company and only months before had become CEO and president. He was facing his first shareholders meeting a few days hence. Company earnings had declined marginally from when he had taken over, but that was to be expected—so the company's financial picture was anything but disastrous.
Why the bloody suicide then?
As I read the New York Times article, I thought to myself that even if he were facing some secret personal disaster, there are better alternatives to suicide. Anything is better than that. I wondered if he was worn out, likely doing everything within his power to succeed and prove himself in his new responsibilities. Suicide (or sudden resignation or divorce) is the sort of desperate overreaction carried out by someone who has lost perspective due to emotional and physical exhaustion.
Another effect of wearing out, which I may not recognize as such, is being more easily tempted or provoked. It is as though my body, due to adrenaline or some other chemical stimulus, is in a state of heightened response. A suggestive billboard by the roadside that normally would not get more than a disinterested glance can now awaken a thoughtful look. A critical comment I would usually forbear now angers me. A setback at church or in my finances can quickly lead to despair and doubt. When I am physically and emotionally weak, temptation is strong. For this reason I am especially careful to get a good night's sleep on Saturday. Besides wanting to have maximum energy to preach and minister to people, I have found Sundays always have their share of negatives, whether it be low attendance, a weak sermon, or a fouled-up program. When I am tired, Sundays and Mondays can be devastating. The events of the days themselves do not make them so; my energy level does.