If you haven't experienced burnout, check your pulse. Anyone who is invested in a cause for a significant length of time eventually faces stretches of discouragement, low energy, and lack of motivation.
So if you secretly recognize, even if you've told no one, that you are on the edge of burnout right now, you're not alone.
By some reports, you're in such grand company it is almost depressing. Recent studies have claimed 32% of church planters go under during their first four years, 3 out of 4 start up businesses fail, and roughly 30,000 to 60,000 non-profits disappear from the IRS's files each year for unspecified reasons.
Faith-based non-profits, charities, humanitarian organizations and even pastors, it turns out, are not exempt.
Burnout victims could be piled up in masses.
So how do we avoid burnout? Or, at least, if it is inevitable, how do we get on track to move beyond it?
1. Expect burnout.
When you're experiencing spiritual or missional highs, be grateful and celebrate, but also gently remind yourself that not all moments will feel as emotionally warm and fuzzy as the one at hand.
Internalize that the nature of existence always includes suffering and that those who work toward peace, the good of society, or spiritual health aren't exempt.
Expecting hard times takes the edge off them because part of what makes burnout so powerful is that it often takes us by surprise. We just cannot believe that whatever faith community or noble cause we've been investing in has somehow brought pain or exhaustion to our lives.
2. Don't panic.
When you first feel your motivation sinking, don't panic. Take control of how you're emotionally processing the frustration at hand. Remind yourself that although it is tempting to see disappointment or low energy as a reason to quit, this is not your only option. There are other steps you can take to help manage your energy and emotions and to provide yourself with care and relief that do not necessarily require abandoning your ministry or cause. Consider cutting back, taking a break, or asking for help, for instance.
3. Know the caution signs.
Before you hit burnout, some red flags will probably surface in your life and work. For example, you may notice you are working so hard that you are allowing your house or car to be overrun with clutter, that you're letting laundry pile up, that you're neglecting personal care tasks like hair cuts or checkups, or that you're failing to respond to emails or calls from even those you care about.
Review your previous experiences in your mind and try to notice the kinds of priorities that began to slip BEFORE you crashed into burnout. Then, try to be aware enough to notice when similar patterns of behavior emerge down the road. You may want to set aside a few minutes--once a month, for example--where you review your workload and assess whether signs of workaholism or exhaustion are present.
4. Be careful how you measure success.
In current culture, "overnight" success stories are often flaunted by the media. We read that Seth Godin, for example, gave away thousands of copies of his book and that this great idea rocketed him to best-seller status as well as instant fame and success. But stories like this don't serve us well because they prompt us to believe that if we come up with one great idea, we too will land on the cover of all the major newspapers and magazines. So when our great ideas don't result in the media banging down our door, we feel like it wasn't worth our effort. It didn't create the buzz or growth we'd hoped for.
The truth is though that Seth Godin's success didn't happen overnight. He worked hard, reading and observing and learning from others, for years and years before his moment in the spotlight came. Most "overnight successes" were a lifetime in the making. Giving your ministry or cause space to grow over a long period of time may help you avoid unhelpful bouts of self-doubt and false feelings of failure.
5. Protect from critics by refusing to give disproportionate weight to public opinion.
It can be tempting to let our willpower and energy levels soar when someone compliments us on a great presentation we've just delivered or when we get hundreds of likes on an article we wrote, but public opinion is a cheap and unreliable source of motivation. Good feelings derived from affirmation too often unravel at the first sign of disapproval, in the moments when no one claps, when the room falls silent, when others attack, interrupt, or dismiss us.
The way to dis-empower critics is to not draw your worth from their commentary to begin with. After all they probably only know the surfacey, on-stage, or social-media version of "you" to begin with and couldn't begin to describe the depth of your love for your family or other central pieces of your identity.
6. View progress realistically.
You probably have giant goals for the people you work with. Maybe you hope they will be inspired to take up a humanitarian cause full time or that they will become some sort of armchair theologians, thoroughly schooled in the Bible or faith. And if you have these hopes, congratulations for projecting such good dreams onto those you love!
But when people fail to achieve these goals while they are in your circles, you must not let it derail you. Are they a little further ahead than when you met them? Do they know more about a cause than they did before? Have they read their Bible more? It is unrealistic for us to expect that we would be able to positively transform every aspect of their lives, in every way, shape, and form. Sometimes we need a gentle reminder that we are not the Savior in this narrative. We are not responsible for every outcome of their lives. We are just responsible for giving what we can when we have opportunity to do so.
7. Remember happiness is not synonymous with your goal.
It is easy for driven, ambitious, hopeful people to become so devoted to their causes or ministries that they slowly begin to see achieving their organizational goal as synonymous with happiness. Thoughts like "I can only be happy if we raise this much money..." or "I can only be happy if we gain 50 new volunteers..." begin to creep in. As follows, in the moments we fall short of our goals, we struggle with feelings of dissatisfaction and discontentment.
But think about the kind of God we claim to serve. Is he the sort of being who is saying, "I will only give you happiness if you get 200 people baptized by the end of the year" ? Or "I'll only let you have a good life if you feed 1,100 homeless people by March 15th?" Of course not. God desires for us to learn to be content regardless of our circumstances. So go ahead. I give you permission to believe in a God who wants you to be happy whether you achieve your goals today or not.
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This piece was modified from content found in Sarah Cunningham's new book, The Well Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good (Moody, October 2013).
The Well Balanced World Changer is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold. You can also find great shareable content like the graphic below at her book's Pinterest page. And you can contribute your own life lessons to an online collection of wisdom using the hashtag #worldchangerbook.