Burnout: A Retrospect

My husband Lowell and I served for thirteen years as a couple in South Asia. We labored hard and long. We poured out our lives. We took up our cross. We put our hands to the plow. None of the New Testament metaphors were lost on us. We did them all—whole-heartedly, without abandon. And somewhere in all of that laboring, pouring, taking up, laying down, putting to, somewhere in all of that, we came to our end. We burned out. We were hard pressed, crushed, perplexed and in despair. We felt abandoned and struck down. We felt destroyed.

To this day, when I look back on it, I’m not entirely sure where we went wrong. Lowell is a visionary and an activist. He changes the world. Deliberately. Passionately. I want everyone in the world to be okay—the world Lowell’s changing-and in my own little world too. I take responsibility for people. I want them to be happy. I do whatever that takes. We were aware, even then, how disastrous that combination might be so we planned and executed regular days off. We took vacations seriously. Lowell and I both counseled many to be rigorous in their self and soul care and we took it to heart ourselves.

Somewhere in all of that cross-culturaling I think it was actually our theology that killed us. We had role confusion. We took on jobs that are God’s. Lowell was committed to building Christ’s church and the gates of Hell would not prevail against him. Not if Lowell had anything to say about it. And I, bless my heart, I was inviting people to come to me if they were burdened and heavy laden and I would do my darndest to give them rest. I would look after them. I would make it all better.

It’s a recipe for burnout for sure. It’s also heresy.

In 2007 we returned to Kansas for an extended furlough. We took a Sabbatical. During that time we prayed for a fresh calling. Lowell began to hear from God something that turned my world upside down. I was sure he wasn’t hearing properly. Lowell needed spiritual hearing aids. Perhaps I could help him. Of course God wanted us back in India. I had my people to care for. Our marriage got messy. Our hearts hardened a little toward one another. We started saying hurtful, hateful things.

Looking back on it now, I can honestly say that burnout is the best thing that ever happened to me. Through burnout (and the counseling that ensued and the healing that came slowly) I came to recognize the fundamental fact: I am not God. I am not responsible for the world. I can’t be. I’m too small, too weak, too frail, too human. Burnout taught me that God loves me too. I matter to him. My pain matters to him. He sees the sacrifices I’ve made and they signify.

Don’t misunderstand, burnout was not an entirely pleasant experience! It also humbled me. I felt demoted. We went from On-The-Field-Front-Lines-Creative-Access-Living-In-An-Intense-City-For-The-Sake-Of-The-Kingdom lives to quiet Little (Trailer) House on the Prairie lives. It was shocking. It was disconcerting. It was embarrassing and humiliating.

Burnout changed me. It burned out some of my “fuses”. In South Asia we hosted countless guests: both the pop in for tea variety and the settle into our guest room for seven weeks kind. I loved it. Some days we had up to 35 people in and out of our home. Burnout robbed me of hospitality. For the first seven years we were back we hosted only a scattering of friends for meals and even fewer overnight guests. I just couldn’t do it any more.

Recently the desire and joy in hosting friends for a meal has returned. It was gone for so long I feared it would never return. Having it back seems like a miracle of unusual size! It signifies healing and restoration of my self. I’m slowly coming home to me!

I don’t necessarily recommend burnout. It’s certainly not the path I would have chosen for Lowell and me. However, neither was it the end of the world. Burnout is part of our story but it’s not enmeshed in who we are. Burnout didn’t change our identities. In fact, in some ways, burnout helped us see who we really were all the time: beloved and fragile children of the Most High God!

Where has your theology been shown to be a bit faulty and in need of being changed? How have you experienced healing and growth in your theology?

*****

Want to hear more of Robynn’s story?  Join us for book club as we dive into the book Robynn co-authored, “Expectations & Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission.”  We start with easy-to-read chapters 1-2 tomorrow.

Photo Credit: Anton Strogonoff via Magdeleine (CC BY 4.0)

12 Comments

  1. Danielle Wheeler March 8, 2015

    Robynn, I read this verse today in 2 Cor 1:3-4.  It so perfectly describes what you went through and then what you were to me through your book.

    “All praise to the God and Father of our Master, Jesus the Messiah! Father of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us. We have plenty of hard times that come from following the Messiah, but no more so than the good times of his healing comfort—we get a full measure of that, too.”

    I just want to say thank you.  Thank you for opening up your vulnerable story.  It was clear even within the pages of your book how hard that was to do.  But in doing so, you came alongside me, helping me find healing and change.  I’m so looking forward to reading the book again in community here at VA.

    And I love, love today’s post for the powerful truth it brings.

  2. Dave March 8, 2015

    Thank you so much, Robynn. What a graphic reminder of God’s commitment to our transformation. So many burned out overseas workers, who expect to be “on the shelf” for the rest of their days, need this encouraging reminder of His ability to redeem all things. May He continue to use your story, your life, to bless others.

  3. Kay Bruner March 8, 2015

    I think the greatest gift of burnout is the inability to put your life back the way it was.  I’m grateful for this, every. single. day.  That my life is brand-new.  And major depression is what God used to get it this way.  Now, on the hard days, I think, well, God is keeping me soft, he’s doing something new.  And there’s a hope that I never had before, when I was the star of a fabulous life and being so awesome all the time.

    1. T March 10, 2015

      Love your last sentence, Kay!  And it is special (for lack of a better word in this moment) to me that you are still hanging out here on VA, even after we finished your book–it is like we got to know you thru the study, and you didn’t move away!

  4. Ellie March 9, 2015

    Thanks for this Robynn. I have been reflecting on similar themes recently. Our lives here have been on the edge of burnout for some time and I’m working on taking holiday time, days off etc. But I can identify with some of the symptoms you describe – at the moment one of the things is that I’m usually someone with a lot of energy but I feel like I can’t invest any more, can’t “start again” in one more relationship. Can’t decide, again, what to have for dinner, or what we’re doing tomorrow.

    It’s not depression. (Been there before and know to keep a watch for it.) But it is “been doing too much for too long and trying to please some of the wrong people” (i.e. perhaps anyone other than God)

    And the hospitality thing I totally get. I love having people over but “oh, it’s too much” – and the idea of somebody staying in my house just wipes me out. And that’s okay for this season. Getting some help. Belonging to a connection group. Booked a retreat. Talking with my husband about separating our roles (we work too much together so it’s difficult to “get away” from it)

    Hooray for healing, step by step, and not having to be God!

     

     

  5. Ruth March 9, 2015

    Oh yes, not having to be God!  Thank you for pointing so clearly to the issue!  I think sometimes it is not what I do as much as the weight of responsibility I put upon myself, taking on burdens that are God’s not mine.  Thinking I Must do this and that, trying to prove I am indispensible.

    I discovered recently that the Shorter Catechism says, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  To which I thought, What??  If I were honest I would have said something more like ‘The chief end of man is to work really hard for God and prove himself incredibly useful before the time runs out.”  Suddenly, the burden becomes so much lighter.  I’m not God. I’m not supposed to be God.  (duh)  Obviously we know that, but why is it so hard to act that way?

    1. T March 10, 2015

      I like your honesty!  Have you read any John Piper about Jonathan Edwards?  In general, it is all about Jonathan Edwards really realizing and understanding that part of the catechism.  And then that really influenced Piper and became his major theme.  Edwards was a workhorse, none-the-less, but he seemed to be doing it from the right place…the right understanding of God’s place and ours, and that very full enjoyment of being with God all the time…when he was studying the Bible or praying or going for his daily exercise.   (just a resource note for anybody:  almost all Piper books are free for download (in pdf as well as kindle) at desiringgod.org.)  Anyway, I’m reading about Edwards now, and your comment reminded me of it!

  6. Elizabeth March 10, 2015

    Robynn, I really appreciate your being able to look back now, several years later, and identify your theology as flawed and as contributing to the burnout. You’ve been able to express it so clearly here. I suspect many of us have these same theological underpinnings, but haven’t quite put them in words, so we haven’t realized how dangerous (and heretical) they are. It’s very helpful for you to say what you did about letting people come to you, burdened, and you would be their rest. I’m just so glad you put it in words. It’s easier to identify those beliefs in ourselves when somebody lines them out first. Love you!

  7. S March 10, 2015

    Robin I loved reading this article and am excited that VA is doing your book for book club too!  Your and Lowells story is a beautiful one….thank you for sharing it with us!

  8. Monica March 12, 2015

    THank you for sharing!  Can’t wait to read your book!

     

     

  9. Elisa Groth March 12, 2015

    Robynn, Thank you so very much for sharing your burnout story as well as the hope that followed.  I’m a recent recovering burnout-er and it was so very encouraging to read your article.  It gives me hope and excitement for what He has planned for me moving forward.

  10. nicole March 20, 2015

    Robynn,  I have been married to Matt for over 21 years now and if I were to describe the two of us- it would be very much like how you described Lowell and yourself-  visionary, passionate, driven, first-born husband/ equally passionate, first born, need to make-everyone-okay wife.  And while it wasn’t Asia, our story happened on the edge of the Sahara in West Africa with 4 kiddos in tow.  That lowest of lows was 5 years ago now.  And I would say that the process of discovering who we really are (hear- a year of intense counseling, limbo living in the States, coupled with a crazy amount of uncertainty about our future) is one of the very best things in our story to date.  Horribly difficult, but led us discover how to use those precious gifts of passion and drive and taking care of everyone not only for God’s glory but for our good.  We did end up back in Africa for awhile but as VERY different people with a VERY different marriage.  Now I work from Eastern Europe for our organization, desiring to come alongside women with God’s story in my life just as you are- to encourage continued transformation by times of sitting at the feet of Jesus, to encounter ourselves, others and God in new ways, and to root our identities in the Father.  Thank you for sharing your story as it gives words to mine and so many others I have met.

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