I started to write this just before my birthday (2 weeks before Christmas). But it’s taken a while to decide if I wanted to post it or not. It's a bit 'personal' and was difficult to write. It's also quite long!
I’ve now adapted it as a New Year post - and write it as a warning to Christian workers on the brink of burnout.... or there already.
I looked back at last year’s post about the New Year ahead and what I said about ‘Hope and Stirring’. Hope has remained a key word for me. The 'stirring' part is another matter...
On my journeys to London, the train takes me past a rather ugly looking gravel processing plant, but on one of the tall structures is the word ‘Hope’, written in huge letters. It has been a good reminder for me to continue to hope and to be thankful for the God of Hope who has been my rock for as long as I can remember.
Last year I hinted at the turmoil within - I’d been through a tough year, but was looking forward to a new start, with a new role.
Consequently, this year has been a year of huge change for me. Many say that change is stressful, but for me it's been a blessing. It started with a nugget of hope within a state of distress and burnout, and has ended with peace.
Strangely, the peace has kind of crept up on me unannounced! Remember that as you read on :o)
Why peace, and why is it so significant?
Well, fear has been a major factor in my life, and the last few years have been lived in a state fluctuating between fear and abstract terror. My constant prayer has been for God to remove the fear.
I'm still not completely there on the recovery, but it's coming. I can choose to go back to that place of dark fear whenever I want to - especially when tired or in pain, but it’s getting easier not to.
I hadn't actually recognised this as a symptom of burnout, but after a few things pointed to me changing one role for another, I changed what I do, which also meant radically changing how I did things.
Do note here, I changed roles because I saw an opportunity to follow my vision, I didn't see the burnout for what it was until the pressure was lifted.
So what has this last year been like? (Written more as an explanation/apology to those who didn’t know).
Well, I haven’t done much of that ‘stirring’ I wrote about. I’ve either been too scared to speak up or assumed that no one really wants to know what I think. I’ve carried on, I’ve worked well (I think). But I’ve needed bucket loads of courage to keep going and find the path before me.
As I look back I can see the change in me. It's actually been reading the advent readings by Malcolm Duncan from Samaritan’s Purse that have helped me to realise that the ‘illogical fear’ has gone. I still get the normal healthy nerves about things (being a shy introvert, that's only natural) But a couple of days before my birthday I had that moment of “oh my goodness - it's gone!”
One of the symptoms of this burnout, and the overload of having been a pastor to so many people needing support for so many years has been the inability to cope with supporting more than one person at a time. I should be clear that at the time of my job change, I was supporting far more people than the average person would within their friendship group in a lifetime.
So, some of the messages where friends have asked for things, haven’t had my normal instant response. Even the smallest request has seemed like a mountain, especially whilst already trying to support one other friend in great need. I hadn’t stopped caring - I was just having to minimise the amount of care I could give
So to all those friends I have ignored pleas for help from - I am so sorry. If I have ignored you, it is because I knew you already had others around you who could support you. I would never have left you high and dry with no safety net.
So what have I learnt over this last year? A lot that probably others can learn from too… and before they reach burnout. Here’s just a few of the many things I’ve learnt:
I learnt I needed to take better care of myself!
When I have to get up at 5.30 am to make sure I'm at the station in time for an 8am London train (when you need assistance, you have be on the platform ready to go 30 mins before your train, and travel is tiring) I've learnt there is no shame in ducking out of a meeting an hour early - so that I can be in a fit state for the work I have to do in the rest of the week. In other words, I've learnt to balance work with available energy… and still do the job well - and probably better!
I’ve learnt that It's ok for a leader to say they need help.
It’s ok not to be ok. Well, I know that now! I've spent years putting on my metaphorical smile and uttering the biggest lie in the evangelical church…. “I'm fine”. My usual response to pain or stress is to withdraw from people and social media. But now, on very rare occasions I will say on social media when my pain levels are excessively high - not for sympathy, but for prayer. That’s a huge step for me!
I’ve learnt that I don't have to answer every message NOW. I know I've offended people with this one in the last few months. Unless the message is from family, or a life or death emergency, I won't answer messages sent late at night. And I don’t do emails on a Sunday! Even if It’s a work day for me. My phone goes into message sleep mode at 9.30pm and wakes up at 8am…..and only alerts me during that time if the message is from family. (The joy of technology!) My exception to this is, “will answering emails late help me out tomorrow and lighten a busy day?” If the answer is a genuine yes, then I will do a couple.
I’ve learnt to trust friends. It takes a long time for me to trust people - it’s a history thing! But I have been so grateful to the few friends I trusted with this, who have been there for me and listened without judging. I’ve also been thankful to those friends who didn’t know, but loved me anyway. Biggest thanks goes to my lovely Hubby who has loved me and guarded me like a pit bull dog over the last year.
(I learnt from pastoring others that it is best to only share with a few good friends - not everyone. Just take my word for that…)
I’ve learnt I can’t help everyone - and make sure I’m OK too. Many people quote the airplane safety notices about the oxygen masks - put your own on first before helping others, or else you won’t be fit enough to help.
So a warning to others on the path to burnout - check yourself and put on your oxygen.
My oxygen ran out, and I’ve spent the last year changing the cylinder. But in future I will be allowing myself the time to keep that oxygen topped up - that way it won’t take a year or more to change it in future!