There’s Hope After Burnout

“I feel like I have nothing to give.”

I’ve scribbled these words in my journal in more than one season.

The first time it scared me. I had been struggling through an intense period of personal and team stress, loss, confusion, and ministry barrenness. I was constantly irritated by situations and people around me, whether it was my teammate, the neighbors, the chickens that constantly came to roost in our plants, or the lack of running water in our home. I daily tried and failed to concentrate on language study—or on anything really—and even happy, beautiful things no longer stirred my heart. I felt numb.

At that time I didn’t know the symptoms of burnout, or her close companion, depression.

I knew something was wrong, and thankfully I was able to get some help. Inventories and conversations with a counselor helped me understand that the things I had been struggling with didn’t mean I was crazy or a failure. But, I couldn’t keep following the path I had been on.

In their book Expectations and Burnout, Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss said, “Burnout is a long-term, continual sense of exhaustion which affects a person so severely that she is often unable to carry on normal, day-to-day activities. A person might start to dislike others, feel apathetic and withdraw from ministry.”

I told my teammate one day that burnout felt like my car had run out of gas. But because I needed to keep going, I was pushing the car around, trying desperately not to let anything fall through the cracks, yet it all felt like a heavy burden.

Burnout wasn’t the end of my story, though, and it doesn’t have to be for you either.

My journey to healing was long and winding, with bumps and twists and no easy answers. But you know what? It was worth it.

This is what I want you to hear, sister. Healing is worth it, you are worth it. Make changes and pursue hope. People might not understand, and sometimes you might not even understand all that is happening.

When you don’t have the strength to fight for joy and healing, find someone who can fight for you and with you. Help people to recognize where you are and what you need.

It might mean getting away from your current situation for awhile, getting counseling or resting well. It might mean a more permanent change to find a healthier situation for you and your family. These are brave and hard decisions.  

For me, it meant a move to a new city with my teammate so we could have the support of other expats. It meant making changes in our budget to buy food that nourished our bodies and addressed areas of depletion. New rhythms needed to be created so that Sabbath was protected. We took a fresh and honest look at ministry boundaries, what was working and what wasn’t, and what fit with who God had created us to be.

One of the biggest changes was learning to give myself grace. I had a pretty strong mental picture of what the ideal overseas worker should look like, and felt I needed to fulfill that. I sensed the weight of ministry goals and organization expectations. When those expectations crashed and crumbled, I found myself stuck under the rubble. Getting honest about expectations—my own and my perception of others’—was an important step in finding freedom and healing.

If you are wondering if there’s hope after burnout, let me tell you, there is. Healing is possible. If you need someone to walk with you, reach out. Connect with me, connect with your leadership or a friend back home. There are valuable resources for Kingdom workers as well, like GRC. You are not alone.

What are some healthy rhythms you’ve put in place in your life and ministry?

Read these previous posts with words of hope for those dealing with burnout:

A Word to Our Weary Bones

Sleep in Peace

How Burnout Saved My Life

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

12 Comments

  1. Bayta Schwarz February 12, 2020

    Thanks so much for sharing, Sarah!

  2. Grace L February 12, 2020

    You are right on, Sarah. There is healing after burnout, or when you have been close to it. Last year I could feel myself getting weary and exhausted and being less and less interested in our work here in China. But it really came to a head when we did a whirlwind tour for 7 weeks in the states, culminating with attending a mission conference and a member care retreat. That put me over the edge and I knew I couldn’t keep on the way I had been. Fortunately our member care couple was there and I could process with them. They told me that I hadn’t yet fully reached burnout but I was dealing with stress exhaustion and that, if I didn’t make any changes, I would be in a major burnout. That caused me to take it seriously, and as soon as we got back home to China, I felt I had the “excuse” for not doing so much. I gave myself permission to lie down in the afternoon and read a novel. I let my husband do more of the business work and relegated myself to being more of a housewife. I knew my brain was not functioning fully which caused me to take this seriously.

    I was just getting pretty good at the “take it easy” role, and then in November, I had an accident and fell in the shower and fractured a vertebra in my back and found myself in a Chinese hospital. All I could do was surrender and trust God for His care and provision as I underwent surgery. And guess what? After returning to our home here, I had to rest even more! Three months have passed since the accident and I now have more energy and focus and my brain seems back to normal. Now, I don’t recommend breaking your back in order to get the extended rest if you are close to burnout. I suggest just giving yourself permission to do less and take more rest and spend more time with the Lord. There is hope after burnout, or stress exhaustion, but you have to admit you have a problem and be willing to take care of yourself.

    I am in my 70’s and we are planning on retiring within the next two years. But I want to retire with a feeling of satisfaction of finishing what we have started and leaving it well, and not being carried out of here on a “stretcher”. Most of you still have many more years that you can serve. But remember that God loves you and wants the best for you and He doesn’t want you to burn out. God keeps bringing me back to Matthew 11:28-30. “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Honestly, it’s taken me 20 years on the field to really be able to embrace and understand this verse.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann February 12, 2020

      Thank you so much for sharing your story, Grace! I love your wisdom and trust in the Father’s good care for you. I am sorry you broke your back, but thankful for the extra rest that recovery time provided! Praying you can finish well. 🙂

      1. Grace L February 13, 2020

        Yes, and now we are getting extra “rest” time seeing as we are into our 4th week going on 6 weeks of self-isolation because of the coronavirus epidemic here in China. Fortunately, our situation here is not stressful because we are living in an area that so far does not have any coronavirus cases, but we still have to self-isolate as does our whole city.

        1. Sarah Hilkemann February 13, 2020

          Grace, I’m glad it’s not as stressful where you are! And that you have the perspective you do of seeing it as an opportunity to rest. 🙂

  3. Theresa February 12, 2020

    Wow. Thanks for writing… what you’ve shared is so relatable (and I’m still mostly a newbie!). My husband and I have both gone through the pre-burnout stress exhaustion, and it seems like right when we forget to be resting enough we’re on the brink of burnout again. We’ve had to make similar changes to what you’ve mentioned… different housing, trying to cut out unnecessary ways we were spending our energy (even when that comes with some cultural adjustment), reevaluating our Sabbath rest rhythms again and again… it is definitely a regular concern around here. Thanks for your openness, Sarah.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann February 12, 2020

      Thanks, Theresa! It can be a hard cycle of constantly evaluating and making those changes, and then being on the brink again. Praying for you and your husband and family!

  4. Emily Jackson February 12, 2020

    Thank you for sharing this, Sarah. “Brave and hard decisions” – yes! And often decision that we thought we’d never ever be making. Having people around you to support you in the healing process is really important. It’s not something we can do alone.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann February 13, 2020

      Thanks, Emily! The enemy might want us to feel isolated and use shame for not being able to keep up the pace or do all the things we think we “should”- and that just makes things worse. We definitely cannot do this journey alone, or go through the process of healing alone either!

  5. Rachel February 18, 2020

    I’m reading through all these “burnout” blogs, catching up on VA after not reading on here for a long time, on a day where I was panicking all morning and my chest still feels tight. I didn’t even know what the topic was when I decided to read up!
    We came back from 2.5yrs of service in The Balkans almost 4 years ago now. We came back burned out. I talk about it all so freely now. I thought I learned all I needed to learn about burnout then. I thought I’d live differently now. And for a while I have lived very differently. Slow and low involvement in things.
    But today finds me Reading all your stories and seeing myself over and over again!
    I’m living in the states. I get to speak my native language. So these are differences.
    But I am living very disproportionately with what I need to do and with what is life-giving right now. I made 2 lists after reading one of these blogs – “ what I am doing“ and “How I’m refueling and resting“. And I am in shock over my first list and how long it is in comparison with my second list. This is quite the wake up call. I’m not sure how such a disproportionate life snuck up on me. On top of being in a part time school for ministry, parenting two young children and trying to wean myself off of a very strong medication that gives intense withdrawal symptoms, including insomnia( yes, I’m not sleeping!), my husband and I are also starting a house church in our neighborhood,I hold a part-time job and have two big speaking engagements on the calendar. HOW?!!
    And I think what is also messing with me, and that I’m hearing over and over from you women, is that serving God and walking in obedience to him and living for his kingdom is first and foremost. We all want to be faithful to our callings! You all have helped me realize, though, that perhaps He isn’t asking me to do all of these things! I’m doing these things because I think I’m a better person because I’m doing them. People will think more highly of me if I do them.
    Obviously I do not go about my day living with that as my goal! But these readings and a really good time with my spiritual director this morning revealed these things. Thank you for having this topic on VA. And I thank God for having me read them today.
    Please pray that the Lord would guide me in needed changes!

    1. Sarah Hilkemann February 19, 2020

      Rachel, thank you so much for sharing your story and your journey. I so wish burnout was a once-and-done type of thing! But I don’t think it is (well, it hasn’t been my experience anyway!). We get better at noticing the signs, and hopefully also give ourselves more grace when we find ourselves there again. And that’s my hope and prayer for you- that even as you look at how things might be out of balance and look for more intentional ways to be refreshed and fill your tank back up, you will give yourself grace for being right where you are right now. Praying for wisdom and strength to make changes if that’s what is needed!

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