Four stages of burnout and recovery as the church year draws to a close.
Wherever Apollo really went, I suspect it was a place where nobody knew that he was a god or bothered him with their impossible questions. Everybody needs a season of rest.
Among Unitarian Universalists, summer is the season of rest, and by the time June rolls around a lot of us need it. Ministers, obviously. The human soul only holds so much wisdom and compassion, and by late May a lot of ministers start to look as if a bright light shining at precisely the right angle might pass straight through them.
But some years the rest of us aren’t doing much better. Someone had to chair all those committees, recruit all those volunteers, teach all those classes, make all that coffee, and do the million-and-one things that keep a church going. The new project that seemed so exciting in September always turns out to be more work than you pictured, the benefits are never as clear as you thought they would be by now, and besides, everyone is too tired to say, “Thank you.” The next time there’s some slack in my church’s budget, I’m going to suggest we hire somebody to wander around during the last two weeks of our church year, patting everyone on the back and saying, “Well done.” I’m sure it would be worth it.
For lay people, of course, the really insidious thing about church work is that we do it with our “free” time. Jobs, kids, and other worldly responsibilities don’t let up just because you’re organizing the canvass or chairing the building committee or leading your church’s board through an unexpected crisis. So if you need to steal hours from somewhere, the easiest activities to cut back are usually the self-nourishing ones: hobbies, exercise, and sleep.
But you can only do that for so long. So thank God my church, like a lot of UU churches, slows down in the summer and gives anyone who’s burnt out a chance to recover. If you can combine that break with a week or two off work, or lighten your responsibilities in some other way, you can do some serious recharging.
I’m not willing to admit exactly how many times I’ve been through the burnout-and-recovery process, but let’s just say I have the territory pretty well mapped by now. And I’ve noticed that I always pass through the same four stages, which I eventually named Paradox, Stasis, Silly Projects, and Reentry. By now I’ve talked through these stages with enough people that I suspect the pattern is fairly general. So to all this summer’s burnt-out UUs, I offer the following guide to the Stages of Rest.
When you get tired, rest is supposed to make you feel better, right? But if you’re really burnt out, rest makes you feel worse, at least for a while. During the first stage of rest you get more tired, not less. It doesn’t seem fair.
I’ve known people who gave up at this point. They tried resting; it didn’t help. If they’re going to be miserable anyway, they figure they might as well get something done.
But my advice is to stick with it. Keep doing as little as you can get away with, and give the rest-cure a chance. It may feel like you’re getting worse, but here’s what I think is really happening: During that final push that burnt you out, you had to repress your awareness of how tired you were. “I’m OK,” you said. “I can do this.” During the Paradox stage, you gradually let go of that denial and admit that you feel like day-old roadkill.
Trust me: Yesterday you actually felt worse than that—you were just telling yourself that you didn’t.
After you’ve let go of your denial, it’s possible to be genuinely happy in small doses—as long as nobody expects anything out of you. During Stasis, the burn-out is like a sprained ankle; it feels fine as long as you don’t put any weight on it. At this stage you can have a perfectly wonderful time reading a novel in a coffee shop or watching the tide roll in. You might even imagine that you’ve recovered. But let your cell phone start ringing and that illusion comes crashing down. Anxiety, despair, exasperation—it starts flooding back even before you know who’s calling. Why can’t they just leave you alone?
Keep resting. It gets better.
During Stasis you could be happy, but you had no ambition or curiosity. The only way to do anything was to force yourself, and if you did you risked sliding back into Paradox.
A silly project is the unmistakable sign that Stasis is over. It usually happens by accident. You look around and find yourself doing something—but not any of the things you’re supposed to be doing. As it says in Job: “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going.” That’s what ambition is like when it first comes back. You have absolutely no control over what that ambition wants to do.
A silly project has four defining characteristics:
You want to do it.
Nobody expects you to do it.
It’s a lot of work.
Its value is either intangible, uncapturable, or completely nonexistent.
My minister (the Rev. John Gibbons) once came back from sabbatical with a classic silly project story. He knew that our minister emeritus (the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn) had a brief baseball career many years ago. So John had spent a chunk of his sabbatical searching back issues of a small-town newspaper for a box score with Jack’s name in it. He found one.
During the Silly Projects stage you will happily work in other people’s gardens, but not your own. You’ll take exhausting unplanned bike rides, but rebel against a regular exercise program. Sometimes a silly project masquerades as something useful, but its impracticality gives it away: You needed to trim the hedge, but you didn’t need to make topiary out of it.
It’s tempting to cut your silly project short, to say: “If I have the energy for this, I ought to be able to do something useful.” Resist that temptation. A full recovery isn’t just about getting your energy back; it’s about regaining your faith that life can be fun.
One or two silly projects can make you smile, but a life made up of nothing but silly projects would be like a diet of cotton candy. Over the long haul, a good life (or even just an enjoyable life) needs to have some substance to it. Those things you did to burn yourself out—you didn’t just do them to make yourself miserable, you did them because you believed in something. You’ll know you’re ready to re-enter when the UU vision of a committed life starts to seem like an adventure again rather than a list of onerous obligations.
When I first started mapping the stages, I pictured Reentry as an event marking the end of the process, not as a stage of its own. But eventually I discovered that even after I felt like myself again, a successful Reentry needed to be more mindful than just plunging back in to the same commitments I had temporarily set aside.
If you keep your eyes open during Silly Projects, you can learn a lot about the mechanisms of your energy and ambition. Reentry is the time to apply that knowledge. As you reclaim your commitments in the fall, observe how they connect (or don’t connect) to your sources of inspiration. Maybe a different set of commitments would better express the person you really are. Maybe it’s time to leave the finance committee and teach a religious education class, or vice versa. Maybe it’s time to let somebody else be treasurer. Maybe you can let go of being a congregational leader and just be a congregant for a while.
Or it could go the other way. Once in a while, you’ll come back from the summer with a Big Idea, and then it’s particularly important to lay down your previous commitments. Otherwise you’re just setting yourself up to go through the cycle one more time.
When all the stages are over, the big temptation is to forget: It wasn’t that bad. You were never really burnt out. You goofed off a little during the summer and you’re fine now. But burn-out teaches a valuable lesson: You’re finite and vulnerable. If you push yourself too hard, you can break. That lesson may not be comfortable, but it’s worth remembering.
At Delphi, similar lessons about finiteness and limitation were carved into the temple: “know thyself,” “nothing in excess,” and several others. Legend says that these epigrams came from the Seven Sages of Greece, but I wonder if there might be another explanation: Maybe they sum up the things that Apollo learned during his time with the Hyperboreans.
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Doug Muder is a contributing editor and columnist for UU World. His articles have also appeared in Religious Humanism, The Humanist, and Public Eye. He blogs at The Weekly Sift and Free and Responsible Search, and is a member of First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts.