Dealing With Burnout In Public

Because if I'm going to go through this, it might as well be a help to others.

August 20, 2018Filed under Theology#burnout#depression#writingMarkdown source

For the last several months, I’ve been experiencing what I initially described as mild burnout. I’m not sure how mild it is at this point, but I’m definitely still experiencing it. As a result, I’m still thinking about how to mitigate it, minimize the length of it, and not least to walk through it well as a Christian.

One of my aims–we will see how this plays out, but it is an aim–is to walk through this experience of burnout as publicly as seems appropriate. My reason is basically the same as I noted at the end of the post where I first noted publicly my experience of burnout. Seeing that others have gone through this, and seeing what helped them, can sometimes be a help to us as we walk through things. My experience won’t totally generalize. Some of the things I conclude aren’t going to stick for others because they reject my priors–more on that in a moment. But nonetheless, having something of a public record of dealing with something like this seems to me to be a broadly good thing if it’s done well. I hope to do it well. (I also hope you’ll bear with me insofar as I don’t!)

I noted that one of my interests is in what it looks like to walk through burnout as a Christian, specifically. This seems to be an interesting and relatively open topic. Most of the literature I’ve bumped into on the subject is explicitly secular, and it uses language and approaches I find partial at best and outright wrong at worst. I have a good resource paper to work through from my pastor–who, in God’s providence, wrote an academic research paper on the question for part of his D. Min. work–and I expect to be leaning a fair bit on the things I find there and in further secondary resources.

At the same time, if my experience watching my wife walk through serious clinical depression over the last decade is any guide, there is a lot yet to be thought through and written about in this space. Nearly all the material I’ve encountered on depression in that time–not all, but nearly all–misses the boat in one way or another. On just one of the many poles: the approaches tend either to wholly medicalize depression, or to throw medical factors out the window. Both of these responses seem to me very specifically sub-Christian in their view of the human person.

So likewise does much of the literature I have found on burnout so far. The language of “self-care,” for example, is well-intentioned and much of the advice that comes with it is good. (I’ll try to unpack some of that at some point.) Yet I also think that framing does as much harm as good. My response to burnout is not merely a matter of taking care of myself as though my being happy and healthy is an end in and of itself. Rather, in a Christian frame, I ought to think in terms of wisely stewarding my body and mind–a very different thing. The language of “stewardship” implies the end of the things I choose to do and not to do: not merely my own well-being, but my being able to steadfastly and faithfully honor God and serve the church and love all those around me well (Christian and non-Christian alike!).

This is not merely a semantic game. The language we use, the way we choose to frame our lives, matters. Self-care is about me. Stewardship involves me but is not about me.

On the other hand, much of the Christian discussion of issues like depression or burnout seems (curiously) narrow in its understanding of how to treat these problems. They are very often reduced simply to a question of one’s faith: if one were only more intent on taking joy in salvation, this problem would go away. To which I say: have you read the Psalms? And more: have you read Genesis 3? And not least: have you read the gospels? When above I described what I have read as “sub-Christian,” I had these kinds of things in mind no less than the more “secular” advice. This kind of advice–to pray more and read one’s Bible more and repent of sin more–is not wrong, but it is desperately incomplete. When “seek joy more!” is all that is on offer, what is evidenced is an impoverished anthropology, a view of human nature that forgets our physicality or diminishes it to an ancillary to the real, spiritual self; and which fails to grasp the ways our brokenness is not merely a matter of our choices but also of the world we encounter and the bodies and minds we find ourselves bearing as their own kinds of crosses in this age.

My own thoughts here are still nascent in many ways, though already shaped in many ways by the experience of watching my wife bear up well under her own burdens these last ten years. But I hope that as I trace them out–and also simply explain how things are–that it will be helpful and encouraging to some other travelers along this particularly thorny way.