When passion and calling intersect with vocation, one unintentional byproduct is often burnout—the wear and tear that results from constantly working without allowing ourselves to rest. As we labor on behalf of others, helping other people rest and care for themselves, what happens when we forget to do the same? Here, Lindsay Anderson, a third-year MA in Counseling Psychology student, shares her story of near-burnout and learning to surrender her burdens.
In the fall of 2012, I found myself at a church near Seattle Pacific University sitting shoulder to shoulder with other folks who found their calling in Christian ministry, for yet another spiritually focused class/retreat/conference/seminar/workshop. As part of my job with a local college ministry, I had taken our newest crew of interns to explore the elusive art of Christian discernment. Fortunately, this was a great opportunity to expose emerging young adults to ideas about what it means to seek God during a unique season of choice and transformation. Unfortunately, it landed smack dab in the middle of our fall kick-off bender.
We were on day 15 of 21 without a true Sabbath.
Yet, in the midst of a vocational crossroads with my husband, an ordainable Presbyterian pastor looking for a call, I was intrigued by the topic at hand so I tried to make the most of it. However, exhaustion and mom guilt had taken over—I missed my family. The interns, understandably, expected to come away from the weekend having solved life’s biggest mysteries, including: “What Will I Do with My Expensive College Diploma?” and “Who Will I Marry?” It was Halloween weekend at that, and they were anxious to get home to blow off some steam (surely they hated me!). My fellow senior staffer, Seth, also with us, was deep into his first year of seminary while working full time and balancing married life.
To put it bluntly—despite our best intentions—no one in our weary bunch exactly wanted to be there. I even bribed the interns with teriyaki.
The weekend prior we had wrapped up the final big event of our school-year kick-off with a getaway to Leavenworth for three days of worship, teaching, and (of course) cribbage marathons, the requisite photo scavenger hunt, a Bavarian-Discotek dance party, and a blown head gasket on my 1998 Subaru Outback. On our way east, not long before our staff caravan reached camp, my car overheated. “Oh, that can’t be good,” I said as the temperature gauge shot all the way to the right and my Check Engine light came aglow. No, it wasn’t good, but highly trained in the art of quick thinking, our staff pressed forward.
My boss nursed the car to a local mechanic while I, as the retreat director, carried on with set-up as scheduled. Just keep going was my motto. Students were on their way. The show must go on. My problem can wait—the staff needs me, students need me, Jesus needs me…or so I thought.
My name is Lindsay and I am a thirty-something wife, mother, and graduate student. Since the age of 14, I have been a card-carrying minister in the church. My resume covers all the bases—youth worker, deacon, wedding coordinator, mission trip leader, Bible study facilitator, camp counselor, liturgist, greeter, evangelist, preacher’s wife, baby-rocker, potluck planner, Sunday school teacher, prayer partner, and blogger. Whew! During a particularly rough season in my family’s life when I was a teenager, the church was a place I found peace, hope, and belonging. Youth group was my home away from home, and the people in it rallied around me when I needed it most—and I knew that my life’s work would be to return the favor. A blown head gasket wasn’t going to stop me. A blown head gasket didn’t matter.
And, sure, that retreat in Leavenworth was filled with incredible moments where I got to be the hands and feet of Jesus, bringing light and life to a community of young adults who, like me, were grasping for grace in a chaotic world. Yet, as I reflect back on that time, I feel sad and kind of tired. Who was I and why did I believe I wasn’t allowed to stop and take care of my needs? Providentially perhaps, our speaker for the weekend, an old college friend, Scott Erickson, focused a good deal in his talks on Matthew 11:28, where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” I believed this on behalf of others, but I could not embrace it for myself.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I sat amidst the crowd of college students listening to Scott tell of his own struggle to trust God and rest in his care. He reminded us that Jesus is not calling us to a list of to-do’s, rules, or qualifications, but he is calling us to himself—to his actual presence. There I was, on the edge of burnout, still deeply connected to my calling, but coming to recognize how weary and heavy burdened I had become. In the past five years my family had experienced traumatic loss, job changes, two moves, and the addition of a second child, while I worked as a pastor in a time of great flux in the church. My car problems were a metaphor for something more—a big and obvious invitation from God to stop and receive care.
Just shy of breakin’ down
There’s a bend in the road that I have found
Called home. With his invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened—I will give you rest,” Jesus was calling me home. As it turned out the following weekend at the discernment workshop, the main message was not a checklist of best Christian practices for hearing God’s voice—it was not about ‘doing more, serving more, or giving more,’ but rather an invitation to simply be in the presence of the one who can make all things new. Not only was Jesus inviting me to himself, he was inviting me to come as myself: no need for a stellar resume, perfect report card, well-behaved children, or overflowing church pews.
And, I am willing to bet that this need for rest and presence is familiar to you. If you are reading this and you feel at times, despite being helpless on the side of the road, that you have to keep going, or if you are wondering whether Jesus’ invitation to receive rest is really all it’s cracked up to be, I want to be friends with you. You are not alone. Christian ministry is both beautiful and messy, exhilarating and exhausting, life-giving and, at times, life-sapping. But maybe there is a way beyond burnout.
Leave behind your Sunday best
You know we couldn’t care a less
Out here we’ve learned to leave the edges wild
And stories they get passed around
And laughter – it gets handed down
Read it in the lines around a smile
Our bodies’ motion comes to rest
When we are at last
We are all invited home to a clearing—a bend in the road where we can share stories, encourage one another and find new ways for rest, Sabbath, and sustainable ministry. As Jesus says, all we have to do is, “Come.”
On September 29, 7-9 p.m. at The Lettered Streets Coffeehouse in Bellingham, Lindsay is collaborating with friend and fellow Seattle School student, Seth Thomas (MDiv), to host “A Clearing: A 1-Night Seminar on Burnout, Rest, and Sustainable Ministry.” This evening is for anyone in ministry (volunteer or paid) who is wondering what it means to receive care while caring for others. You can read the story behind “A Clearing” here.