We Didn’t Start the Fire: Avoiding Burnout When the World is on Fire

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

I have a lot to process about the events of the last week or so. At some point in the near future, I’m going to write this down as part of my own processing, and maybe it will help you along the way as well. But, for today, I want to share some thoughts about burnout.

You don’t need me to tell you that the last few months have been some of the most stressful months in recent years — maybe some of the most stressful ever for some people.

We’ve faced so many unprecedented things that we’ve grown to despise the very word “unprecedented”. I, for one, would really like to get back to some more “precedented” things in the coming weeks and months.

When we reflect back on 2020, there’s so much that went so wrong that it’s hard to think that some of it was only a year ago. Remember about this time last year when there was news of a virus in China, but we didn’t concern ourselves with it all that much because fires were raging in Australia? Sure, we kept a slight eye on it, but there were other, more pressing matters at the time — at least, that’s what we thought.

Between the natural disasters, the summer of demonstrations (the worthy and the ridiculous), the non-stop political rancor and rhetoric, the contentious election, and the refusal to admit defeat in the aftermath, chaos seems to have gained an upper hand in the last year.

AND IT IS STRESSFUL!!!!

As a pastor, I have had to enter into the fray while trying to encourage and guide my congregation. If there are pastors who haven’t wrestled with insecurity and inadequacy before this year, they are now. I have been fortunate enough to be a pretty low-stress church, but others have not had the same fortune.

Pastors have to navigate this stress all while being a sounding board (for those who are worried) and a punching bag (for those who can’t seem to handle stress in healthy ways). There was no “Pastoring in a Pandemic” class in seminary to prepare leaders for what the last 12 months have held. You want to know a secret? None of us know what we are doing right now.

Remember that scene in Elf when Santa is trying to take off in Central Park, and Buddy is trying to fix the sleigh while it’s in the air? That’s what it’s like to be a pastor right now. We are all just trying to figure it out as we go, and it has been difficult.

I was talking with a funeral director the other day and he was telling me that how churches have been handling things right now runs the whole gamut. Churches (like mine) have been holding virtual worship for weeks or months. Others are packing people in with no social distancing and all kinds of singing. This pandemic is not going away any time soon, and if you want to know why, you can start by driving around on a Sunday morning and seeing which churches don’t seem to know we are in the midst of one.

I don’t want to criticize my colleagues, but it’s not easy. I’ve bitten my tongue so hard that I may have drawn some blood. But… I digress. I need to reel it in here before I start ranting.

The bottom line is that pastors are burning out at a higher rate than normal right now, and people in general are doing the same. So, how do we navigate these “unprecedented (there’s that stupid word again) times”?

Five Ways to Help Prevent Burnout

First off, remember this: you can’t polish a turd. You can try. But it’s still going to smell like poop, and then you’ll have shit all over your hands. (Yeah, I said it.)

Name this time for what it is. It sucks. It’s stressful. It’s difficult. Don’t try to sugarcoat things. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be optimistic, but let’s not lie about it either.

One of the things that has made this whole journey so much more difficult is the fact that we know (thanks to the Woodward tapes) that the president has been downplaying the pandemic from the very beginning. He knew it was going to be bad and made the intentional decision to not take it seriously.

Rather, he has referred to it as the next “Democratic hoax”. He has undercut the advice from professionals time and time again. He has downplayed it because he “didn’t want people to panic” — even though trying to cause a panic has been an essential component of his strategy surrounding the elections of 2016, 2018 and 2020.

Look, I’m not saying that the entire pandemic is the president’s fault. What I am saying is that speaking the truth into the situation would have made it a whole lot easier on everybody, and it would have eliminated some of the unnecessary stress we are experiencing right now.

Can you imagine what the last year would have looked like if President Trump simply said, “This has the potential to be really bad. We need everybody to take this seriously. Wash your hands. Wear a mask for the time being, and we’ll get it under control soon enough.”

It’s amazing what speaking even a little bit of truth could do.

Are you feeling stressed? Do you have somebody you can talk it out with?

As one who has a tendency to not share what’s going through my mind, I can attest to the fact that I know this is hard to do. We don’t want to feel like we are dumping our emotional baggage on somebody, and so we keep it in.

Don’t do that.

Find somebody and talk it out. If you don’t feel like you have any friends who would be willing to listen, try to find a counselor. People who go to counseling are not weak or crazy. They are paying attention to their mental health. If you tore your ACL, you’d go see an orthopedic specialist, wouldn’t you? So, go see a therapist to help you with your mental health.

I mean this quite literally: get offline.

You may not realize this, but you can actually turn off your television, your phone, your tablet and your computer all at the same time. Having 24/7 access to information can be a great thing, but that doesn’t mean we need it.

You may or may not remember the ancient world, back before the internet, back when people bought encyclopedias. Picture this: the year was 1996. I was in high school, and I didn’t have a phone or the internet. And I managed to survive. The world existed just fine without all these technological advances. You can go a day or two without them as well. (And, yes, I recognize the irony that you are probably reading this on a handheld device or computer with access to the internet.)

Again, I mean this quite literally. Go outside.

I know it’s January (at least it is while I’m writing this piece),and it may be cold where you are. If you can’t get outside, find a way to go somewhere (responsibly) where you can get a little bit of exercise. Even if it’s just an afternoon walk around Target or the local mall.

I know this is a bit hard to do right now with COVID raging through so many communities, but you need to find some way to get out of the house. Put on some long johns and a heavy coat, and just walk to the mailbox six or seven times.

Finally, slow down. Give yourself permission to do the dishes tomorrow instead of today. Let the laundry go for another day. You probably aren’t having people over anyway, so don’t bother running the vacuum this week. Extend those self-imposed deadlines. Show yourself some grace.

Sit on the couch and watch the extended editions of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Work your way through the entire Star Wars television/movie experience (don’t let the animation of the Clone Wars, Rebels and Resistance fool you, those are some of the best Star Wars stories out there).

Sometimes in life, we just need to hit the pause button for a while.

Conclusion

Burnout is a very real problem in our society. We are told that if we aren’t doing something, then we should be. It’s always, “Go, go, go!”

It shouldn’t be.

Take some time to rest. Recharge. If your phone needs recharging, what makes you think that you don’t?

The past 12 months have been stressful beyond belief. Show yourself some grace along the way, and you’ll be better for it.

Just some guy who is looking to make my pocket of the world a better place. Life is a journey; let’s walk together and help each other along the way.

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