Early Christians “burned with energy, but did not burn out.”
My minister said that in his Pentecost Sunday sermon and, oh, did that strike me. I am certain I’m not the only one out there who’s gotten burned out from church work.
I’ve cried on the way to church, telling God that he had to take over and make that day’s children’s worship go well because I had nothing left in me to give — and had to do that for months on end. I’ve yelled at my kids because I was so stressed out about how much I had to do at church that morning. I’ve resented the very things that I loved doing and either railed at or withheld myself from people I loved because my burdens felt way too heavy.
After a year of soldiering on during a particularly rough patch, I blew up at someone who didn’t deserve it. It couldn’t have been clearer that, however I was trying to handle my situation, I was struggling. Nope. Not struggling. Failing.
I was like Winnie the Pooh, who hadn’t paid attention to what he was doing while he ate all of Rabbit’s honey until he got so big that he got stuck in the door hole:*
Bear began to sigh, and then found he couldn’t because he was so tightly stuck; and a tear rolled down his eye, as he said: “Then would you read a Sustaining Book, such as would help and comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?”
I was a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness and I saw no way to move myself forward or backward. So I met with a spiritual director, whose gentle yet firm direction was exactly what I needed. One of the things she said to me was that God was promising me rest. Which made me cry. I was so overwhelmed. Rest was just what I needed.
But how could I rest? I was the mother of two young elementary-aged children, I was looking for work outside the home for the first time in several years, I was still in charge of both the children’s worship program as well as any dances that happened at church, and the year-long project I’d helmed wasn’t truly over yet, since we hadn’t spent all the money. Where was the opportunity for rest?
So for a week Christopher Robin read that sort of book at the North end of Pooh, and Rabbit hung his washing on the South end. . . and in between Bear felt himself getting slenderer and slenderer. And at the end of the week Christopher Robin said, “Now!”
So he took hold of Pooh’s front paws and Rabbit took hold of Christopher Robin, and all Rabbit’s friends and relations took hold of Rabbit, and they all pulled together….
And for a long time Pooh only said”Ow!” . . .
And “Oh!” . . .
And then, all of a sudden, he said”Pop!” just as if a cork were coming out of bottle.
And Christopher Robin and Rabbit and all Rabbit’s friends and relations went head-over-heels backwards. . . and on the top of them came Winnie-the-Pooh–free!
It certainly took longer than a week, but somewhere along the way of my spiritual direction time, God unstuck me with what felt like an audible “Pop!” Discussions with the spiritual director and the practices she guided me to released me from guilt and stress over both long-ago and more recent pain. New volunteers stepped forward to help lead children’s worship. I found a job with the exact schedule I needed. And my co-leader of children’s worship said one little thing in conversation that led me to embrace my role as “the kid lady,” instead of resent it.
None of the responsibilities went away. None. But the Holy Spirit came — it was already there, of course, helping me when I’d cry out in desperation, but I was so twisted up in myself that I couldn’t make myself available to it most of the time.
After The Great Unsticking, I burned with energy but didn’t burn out. I had rest. Not rest from work or responsibility, but rest from emotional strife about that work and responsibility. There were some hiccups after that, but it has remained more true than not.
Sometimes, rest does mean the opportunity to step back. We had that as a family for several weeks this summer when we were between churches. We drove to church together, sat together for the entire service, and rode home together. I heard my husband singing, not through the P.A., but right next to me. It was a glorious gift and I reveled in it.
That was a very brief season. Now we’re back to normal. And it still feels like rest, at least for me, both because I’m not in charge of any of the ministries I participate in at the new church, and because of the lack of emotional twistedness about my role in the church. Neither of those will likely last.
So I’m going to start praying this now, in anticipation: “help me burn with energy, with Holy Spirit energy that won’t burn out.”
Anyone else out there battled church burn-out? How did you get through it?
*Please note that I totally stole this comparison of myself and Winnie the Pooh as a Stuck Bear from a Facebook post of Anne LaMott in March of this year. She, in turn, heard it from her pastor Veronica.