A Little Honesty About Burnout



By Erin Betlej

Here we go. May I be authentic and transparent with you? I am burned out. Burned out on the church. Burned out on youth ministry. Honestly, this is probably the worst time of year to acknowledge this feeling as I all enter into a full summer of youth ministry travel (four week long mission experiences and two weekend retreats). My burnout is not a simple result of the long hours of ministry – and there have been many long days and weekend retreats so far this year. It is not a result of pastoral transitions. Our clergy team that began their ministry here just last July moved on at the end of April and as we await the arrival of our new clergy team, we have an interim for nine weeks. It is not a result of added ministry duties outside of my job description due to the resignation of three staff in the past nine months. I wish I could say that my feelings of burnout were due to all of those external things in combination. It isn’t. It is the result of something deeper, something more personal and internal. My burnout is because of me.

For almost a year now, a pendulum within my spirit has swung between passion and apathy. Between enthusiasm and boredom. Most days I struggled to find the motivation and would simply go through the motions of ministry. My mind is becoming stagnant (and unfortunately, parts of the youth ministry as a result). My frustration has grown as I felt forced to be satisfied with the status quo. I isolated myself from others on staff, and even some of my closest friends, and in the process stifled my ability to be creative and innovative. Burnout is real and part of youth ministry no matter how much we may love teenagers. The good news is that there is a way through it, and you can even grow from it.

In November of last year, I spent some time with a spiritual director who listened to my journey noticing the areas where boredom crept in and highlighting when my passion shined through my face and body language. She introduced me to a poem by Rumi called The Guesthouse:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

My spiritual director encouraged me to name the feeling I woke up with each morning without judgement. Invite in the passion. Invite in the boredom. Then, ask God what that feeling may have to teach me in that day. This simple practice of awareness has not eliminated these intense feelings. Instead what it has done is create an honest dialogue of discernment between myself and God. I notice what is going on around me to stimulate that pendulum swing. And here it is: the pendulum swings depending on whether or not I’m living into the values I’ve claimed for my life and ministry. That’s what I mean when I say my burnout is because of me. I value taking risk to push the envelope of the status quo, yet I’ve allowed myself to settle. I value the sharing of stories with one another to develop deep and meaningful relationships, yet I isolated myself from the many people I call family. I value collaboration with others because that is where creativity lives, moves, and breathes, yet I chose to work alone.

My burnout comes from attempting to live and be in ministry in a way that is not authentic to the core of who God created me to be. That is a hard pill to swallow. What does it mean? Do I stay where I am or do I move on? I do not know, yet each day that I live into my values I know I am a little closer to discovering the next step to move from ‘here’ to ‘there.’

Summer is upon us. Through tear stained cheeks we’ve beamed with pride and joy through Graduate Sundays and graduations. We’ve spent countless hours tracking down payments and paperwork for mission trips. We’ve prayed, written devotions, and planned all to create experiences and opportunities for our youth to have a meaningful, life-changing encounter with God. So as you begin the hard, fun work of summer, check in with yourself honestly. Are you burned out already? Are you living into your values? Invite into your own guesthouse what you are feeling. Acknowledge it and grow from it. Be grateful for it. Ask God to help you discern where it is leading you. You and your ministry will be healthier because of it. I know I am beginning to be.