Good Boundaries Won’t Save You From Burnout

Good Boundaries Won’t Save You From Burnout

I almost didn’t make it. A season of extended rest–a 12 week sabbatical–awaited me in September 2015. But as my church prepared for this sabbatical a year prior (yes, it takes several months of planning), I discussed a provisional plan with my senior warden and vestry. I was so tired that I might need to begin the sabbatical before September.

This was cumulative fatigue, not acute distress. There was no acute conflict or difficulty in our parish during these months. In fact, I felt this strange juxtaposition of excitement about our church’s future and having zero energy to lead us into that future. I wasn’t doubting my call as the church’s rector. I was exhausted from eleven years of pastoral ministry and I couldn’t make it beyond eleven years without extended rest. Thanks be to God that I serve a church that provides a sabbatical for her rector, even for a priest in his 30s.

Not the Usual Reasons

So what led me to the brink of burnout? It’s not what you may think. I wasn’t averaging 60 hours or more a week. Sure, there were long days and long weeks, but I have a good understanding with my vestry about taking comp time–taking more personal time when pastoral ministry becomes especially demanding. When I worked long hours, I took more personal time to reconnect with my wife and kids.

I observed sabbath and family time every Friday. I know that many pastors answer phone calls and emails even on their days off. Not me, not as a rule. On seldom occasions I broke that rule, especially for pastoral emergencies. But normally I unplug from email for one or two days so I can be fully present to my wife and kids. It’s been my pattern over the years to have a date night with my wife and outings with my kids. I’ve worked hard to establish good boundaries for myself and our family so that we live in integrity and harmony with one another at home. I’ve practiced living with a rule of life over the years, too. In fact, the final ministry event I led before my sabbatical began was a rule of life workshop for pastors in our diocese.

If good boundaries with calendars and schedules couldn’t prevent burnout, surely I needed more emotional support, right? By the grace of God, I’ve never lacked for pastoral and emotional support. The same pastor who married my wife and me has been my pastor for the past 10 years. When I’ve needed a more clinical voice in my life, I’ve been blessed by the care of one of the finest Christian counselors in our city. Senior wardens and our parish vestry have given me tremendous support throughout my tenure at Apostles. Friends in the priesthood and diocesan leaders have walked with me through difficult times and seasons. Ministry can be lonely no matter how many friends you have, but I’ve never felt abandoned when I needed emotional or spiritual support.

Even with good boundaries and tremendous support, I still faced exhaustion from pastoral ministry in 2015. By the mercy of God, I made it to September 2015 and the 12 weeks of sabbatical I desperately needed.

My Dimly Burning Wick

I was ordained to the priesthood on my 30th birthday, which helped me see that as I aged, I would need good boundaries to serve Christ with “a long obedience in the same direction.” I heeded the warnings of pastoral sages like Eugene Peterson who called his fellow pastors to care for their souls, lest they experience shipwreck in ministry. I read the alarming statistics of pastoral burnout, knowing that this vocation is hazardous, as Peterson says. To quote one of my favorite collects, I “read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested” these warnings, stories, and statistics. Which made me so puzzled in September 2015 that my soul was “a dimly burning wick.”

Somewhere within my mind I reduced the problem of burnout to a kind of spiritual-mathematical formula. If pastors would simply follow this formula, surely they wouldn’t face burnout:

Good boundaries+a rule of life+spiritual disciplines+soul care+sabbath+emotional support=a vibrant pastoral heart.

If only the solution was that simple. It’s like believing that you can avoid lung cancer if you never smoke a single cigarette in your life. And yet, sadly, those diagnoses happen everyday. If my experience taught me anything, it’s that pastoral exhaustion is much more complex than the statistics say. There’s no foolproof formula to avoid burnout.

I suspect there are many faithful pastors, committed to spiritual disciplines, soul care, and good boundaries, who would still admit that their soul is “a dimly burning wick.”

Learning the Difference Between Servant and Savior

So what does a pastor do after everything he does still doesn’t prevent exhaustion from ministry? There’s no textbook answer here. That answer would vary from pastor to pastor because each servant of God is a beautiful, wonderful mystery.

But here’s what I learned in my experience, what I would have told myself two years ago if I could: allow God to break you under his mercy. Trust the promise of God on the brink of burnout–“a bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” (Isaiah 42.3)

In his wisdom, God permitted me to come to this broken place. Only in this place could I see a difficult truth about myself as a priest: I cared too much. Yes, sometimes priests and deacons care too much. I took too much responsibility as rector for the ministry of our church. I confused the difference between servant and savior. Christ alone is Savior; I am simply his servant. Confusing the two will wear you out. I can give a witness. This confusion dimmed the flame in my soul. No rector, no priest, no deacon can carry what Christ alone can save.

In one of my final conversations with parish leaders before my sabbatical began, I said, “there’s too much of me in this place.” I had no notion how true that statement was before my sabbatical began. When I returned from sabbatical, renewed and restored by the Spirit’s presence in my heart, I believed those words with even greater conviction.

Henri Nouwen said, “One can best detect the meaning of time in the emptiness of the desert.” I detected the meaning of my service as a rector in the desert place of a 12-week sabbatical. I learned there that if you love anything with all your heart–a person, a place, a people–you will guide them to freedom. When I release my desire to control or save, I guide those I love to the only Savior, the only Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ.

Learning Dependence Under the Easy Yolk

Nearly two years after my sabbatical, I’m still learning how to release control in ministry, how to take the posture of a servant rather than a savior. In many ways, I’ve been meditating on Jesus’ invitation to discipleship for the past few years:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11.28–30, ESV)

Is there a better refrain for priests who place a stole around their necks every Sunday? It is a profound mystery that Jesus’ yoke is easy, for many days it feels unbearably heavy. Yet the burden lightens when I take the posture of a servant, releasing my fears, my need to control, my impulse to save. When I wear “the yoke of obedience” I pray I will ever remind myself of the obedience required of a servant, not a savior.

In the prayer room of my home sits this icon of Christ the Good Shepherd, painted by a faithful departed saint who believed life was best lived “resting in the Lord.” I pause before this icon, praying Psalm 31.5 more often these days: “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.” When I must bear burdens; when I can do nothing but wait; when I cannot see the answer to a great problem, I must learn dependence under Jesus’ easy yoke. So I’m learning to adapt Psalm 31.5 as a priest: “Into your hand I commit ___________.” Any situation, any person can be spoken in that space. Many days I repeat the psalm as written (“my spirit”). But I release into the Savior’s hands any situation that distresses or perplexes me. As I do, I find that the flame of my soul burns stronger, brighter. The burden becomes lighter. I’m strengthened to walk another day in “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Thank God he brought me to the brink of burnout. There’s no better place to renew the fire of ministry for the days and years ahead.

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