A Report From the Valley of the Shadow of Burnout

The last year has been really difficult for a number of reasons, most of which have to do with my work life and not with my personal life.

A couple of months ago, my attitude and overall emotional health hit a sort of “rock bottom.” I couldn’t put my finger on what the problem was, but I was more discouraged than I had ever been.

“Is it anxiety?” *Googles signs of anxiety* “Maybe…but not really.”

“Is it depression?” *Googles signs of depression* “Nope.”

“If it isn’t anxiety or depression,” I wondered, “What is going on? Why I do I feel frustrated and tired like I cannot make any progress in anything I do?”

“Ah!” A light bulb went off in my head. “I bet I’m experiencing burnout!”

“Is it burnout?” *Googles signs of burnout* “THAT’S IT!”

 

I couldn’t believe how happy I was to discover I was feeling burned out. It was the happiest I had been in weeks. The irony.

Eric Geiger, senior pastor of Mariners Church in Irvine, CA wrote back in 2015 about signs of burnout. When I was evaluating my feelings a couple months back, I checked every single one of these boxes:

  1. Frustration with people
  2. Difficulty focusing
  3. Physical signs of stress
  4. Feeling exhausted

When I finally recognized that burnout was what I was facing, I had been experiencing all of these symptoms in varying degrees of intensity for months. While I am still in the throes of burnout and have not yet exited the valley, identifying burnout as the culprit of my feelings was emancipating.

Like I said, I am still in the midst of feeling super burnt out. I feel better now than I did a month or so ago, but the feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and exhaustion still persist. However, some relief has come because of a few steps I’ve taken to find shelter in the valley of burnout. Below are a few ways I have fought and am currently fighting my burnout. I don’t know if they will all help you, but they have helped me.

I cling to the Scripture like never before.

Most of the time I have been a Christian, daily Bible reading has been difficult. Historically, if I get in God’s Word five times in a week it is a good week, and if I feel “refreshed” by it three of those five times, it feels “worth it.” Reading Scripture and praying each day has often felt burdensome to me in the past.

Since about this summer, though, when I started to really feel discouraged and spent, I have clung to my Bible reading like it is water in the desert. I have never felt like I need to read Scripture like I have the last six months or so.

Lately, reading Scripture in the morning has truly felt like inhaling as much oxygen as I can before I dive underwater for the day.

Being reminded of who God is and what he wants for me has been everything to me the last six months. It really puts the rest of my day into perspective and it reminds me that nothing that happens in a given day can make the truth of the Scripture untrue.

I had to take time off work.

Thankfully, Susie and I have had a vacation scheduled for the end of September since this summer because, if we hadn’t, I think I still would have found a way to take some time off. Spending last week in Southern California was refreshing. I’m typically not a big fan of the beach—sitting out in the sun for hours and sweating isn’t my idea of “relaxing”—but a few days of 75 degree temperatures with a good book on an empty beach was good.

One of the most important parts of the trip for me was abandoning my email for a week and reminding myself (and others) that life will go on if I cannot respond to emails for six days. It is good for us to be reminded often that our little worlds will continue to operate if we are absent from them.

I exercise almost every single day.

Last winter a Planet Fitness opened about a half mile away from my house and I usually go about five times a week. I also try to go for walks around my neighborhood regularly, especially if I can’t get to the gym on a particular day.

I start working about 6 AM most days and commuting at about 5 AM, so working out in the morning isn’t really practical for me. I prefer to work out around 3-4 PM if I can manage it as it is a nice transition from my typical work day to whatever ministry commitments I have in the evening.

Getting ready to go work out is a struggle every single time. It doesn’t really ever sound appealing. But it feels great to have worked out just about every time as well. It helps me reflect on the day and physically work out any built up frustration (of which there is plenty in my burnt out state) that I may have.

I voraciously protect and enjoy my Sabbath.

Susie and I try to keep Saturday as our Sabbath day. Obviously Monday through Friday don’t work as a Sabbath for us, and we have the high schoolers from our youth group over every Sunday for lunch after church, so Sunday usually isn’t very restful. We try to do as much housework, grocery shopping, and the like on Sundays or the weekdays, and we leave Saturday as open as we can, often hanging out with friends in the evening.

Christians have different ideas of what Sabbath should look like, but my Sabbath generally consists of spending plenty of time reading Scripture, praying, and enjoying the gifts God has given me. I try to eat a nice breakfast on Saturdays (like Cinnamon Toast Crunch), one I wouldn’t normally eat other days. I may make an extra cup of coffee. I read good books or play video games with friends. I just try to enjoy what the Lord has given me while praising him for what he’s given me at the same time.

I completely detach myself from my work on Saturday. Sometimes I mow the grass on Saturdays if I feel like it. Sometimes I’ll write a sermon for youth group. But most “chores” are usually left for Sunday if possible.

I remind myself that my value is not found in my work.

I try to do a good job at everything I do. Like most people, I often have unrealistic expectations for myself. I can be a critical person in general, and there is no one I criticize more than I criticize myself. I battle constant feelings of unworthiness, impostor syndrome, and the general feeling that I am not good enough to be where I am or doing what I am doing. It’s pretty torturous, honestly.

It is easy for me to try to find my value in my work—to be defined by my successes and my failures. This last year has been difficult not because I’ve failed, but because the success I’ve achieved has felt meaningless. Success hasn’t delivered value, and like with any idol, it has left me feeling empty.

So the last couple of months, through my time in the Scripture and in talking with friends, I have been reminded that my value, for good or for bad, is not found in my work. This has helped me fight my burnout a lot.

A Final Thought

Through all of this, what I have learned is that my burnout is not due to having too much work to do. Sure, I have plenty of work to do and sometimes it feels as though I will never be able to keep up with everything. But that isn’t what led to burnout. I think my burnout, and perhaps the burnout of many others, is not due to workload and overwork, but attitude and priorities.

The last year or so, I think I’ve cared too much about work. I’ve sought meaning and value in the wrong places, and my misplaced seeking has found exhaustion and frustration.

Don’t wallow in burnout. Fight it with truth and cling to God’s Word. Find your value in Christ’s finished work, not your unfinished work.

May 31, 2013

On May 31, 2013, Susan Roth and Chris Martin woke up as an unmarried couple for the last time. Little did they know what the day would hold.

We had graduated from college 13 days before and had been finishing final preparations for the wedding and our life after ever since.

I remember the Saturday before the wedding when the reality of “wedding week” punched me in the gut. The entire week leading up to our wedding I felt varying levels of nausea at all times.

When I woke up in the morning on Friday, May 31st, the feelings of nausea woke with me. I don’t remember all the details of the morning, but I think it was the typical lazy summer morning at my parents’ house: too many cups of coffee on the front porch, a walk with the dog, and some breakfast.

I remember checking the weather and thinking, “Nice! We may get some rain tonight, but tomorrow looks pretty clear.” A rainy wedding day puts a damper on things when you have lots of outdoor pictures planned.

Groomsmen were due to arrive around midday for the rehearsal dinner later that night. I think we had lunch plans to go to Coney Island, the New-York-style hot dog joint in downtown Fort Wayne. But honestly, I can’t remember for sure.

Why?

The Phone Call

Around midday, shortly after the groomsmen who were staying the night at my house arrived, I received a phone call from Luke Johnson. Luke was a volunteer leader in my high school youth group and continued to be a friend as I went through college.

I was confused why he was calling. Maybe to tell me he couldn’t attend the wedding because of an emergency?

“Chris, I’ve got some bad news,” he said.

“Yep,” I thought, “They can’t come. Bummer.”

“Phil is sick and has to have an emergency appendectomy today. He cannot perform your wedding tomorrow.”

*record scratch*

“Wait, what?” I’m sure I said, or at least something to that effect.

“Yeah he’s incredibly disappointed he can’t perform your wedding, but he won’t be able to do it.”

Phil Knuth was the youth pastor Susie and I grew up under as our relationship began and endured its early, rocky stages in high school. Phil was one of the few people attending the wedding who had had a bird’s eye view of our entire relationship.

To not have Phil perform our wedding was devastating news.

And now I had to call Susie.

Susie was busy getting manicures and pedicures with her bridesmaids across town. Eventually I got through to her and told her the news. She took it well on the phone, but it hit after she hung up.

It was a blow. It was sad news. But it would be OK as far as the wedding logistics were concerned. We had two other pastors reading Scripture and praying at the wedding, and we knew we could get one of them to do the ceremony on 24-hour notice. One of them had even done a lot of pre-marital counseling with us while we were at school. So we called him first.

“Hey Mark. I’ve got a favor to ask. It’s a big one.”

Thankfully, because he is an incredible man and pastor, Mark Biehl agreed to do more than just read Scripture at the wedding. He was already attending the rehearsal dinner that night, so it wasn’t a hassle for him to grab a marriage sermon and prep for the next day. He’s a pro.

A Typical Rehearsal Dinner

After the terrible news about the sick pastor around the middle of the afternoon, the rehearsal dinner went smoothly. Everyone who needed to be at the church was at the church. Mark did not seem too nervous about the fact that he had just been asked to perform a wedding for about 400 people about 24 hours before it was time.

We went to 816 Pint & Slice pizza for the dinner afterward. It looked like it was going to rain. But we didn’t care. It was a good time with some of my favorite people in the world, eating pizza, having some laughs, and trying to forget about the nerves that came along with remembering you’re getting married tomorrow.

The Rain

After the rehearsal dinner it was time to go home, try to get some sleep, and not freak out about getting married the next day. Susie and I said our goodbyes at dinner because we would not see one another, or try to talk to one another at all, until I saw her walking down the aisle.

It was about midnight. My family and the groomsmen staying at my house all went to bed, and I sat down at the card-table-turned-desk in my childhood bedroom and wrote the last of 16 letters I had written to Susie each month of our 16-month engagement (I know).

As I was finishing the letter, I got an emergency alert on my phone. You know the kind. The kind that somehow blares the most alarming beep you’ve ever heard and makes your phone vibrate out of its casing? Yeah that one. It scared me.

“FLASH FLOOD WARNING—ALLEN COUNTY, IN,” it read.

“Wow,” I thought, “I didn’t realize it was raining that hard.”

I wasn’t at all concerned, though. Flash flood warnings happened a lot in our home county because three big rivers meet in the middle of downtown Fort Wayne. They flood when it rains really hard. It was a common occurrence. Our house never flooded other than basement sump pump malfunctions.

I couldn’t see very well out my bedroom window, so I finished up my note and decided to tiptoe down the steps to the foyer to look out the front door to see how hard it was raining.

My stomach dropped.

My blood pressure skyrocketed.

I got that feeling you get when you’ve just been caught doing something you shouldn’t be doing.

“Oh my God,” I whispered to myself, “The road is shiny. I cannot see the wheels of the cars parked on the street.”

I had two immediate thoughts:

1) “I need to text someone at Susie’s house because if our street is this bad, Susie’s house is going to flood.” (Susie lived near one of the main rivers and her house had flooded before.)

2) “I need to check our basement.”

I texted Susie’s maid of honor and told her what I was seeing. She told me they knew it was bad and were monitoring it. I wanted her to keep Susie calm.

Then, I opened the door to the basement.

I flicked the light on.

I walked halfway down the steps.

I saw the sopping carpet.

My heart began to beat faster than it ever has and my feet stomped up the stairs in harmony.

I began yelling at the top of my lungs, “THE BASEMENT IS FLOODING. THE BASEMENT IS FLOODING. WHY DOES THIS HAVE TO BE HAPPENING RIGHT NOW?!”

My parents sprung awake and came downstairs, as did my groomsmen. (It should be noted my little brother slept through this ENTIRE ordeal.)

Dad and I began trying to bail water out of the basement, but it was no use.

The basement was flooded because the place the sump pump sends the water was flooded. No amount of work we could do was going to fix that.

My friends had cars in the street they had to try to get up into the driveway. One of them could not find his keys for at least an hour, but he eventually found them and was able to save his car.

At one point a truck drove down the street and the other cars parked there bobbed in the waves of its wake like buoys by the beach.

A neighbor two doors down from us was half naked, wading in the water with a beer in his hand, clearing leaves and other refuse out of the drain so the water had a place to go. It was like a scene out of Christmas Vacation.

All told, I believe we ended up having about a foot of standing water in our basement.

At Susie’s house, the scene was even more dramatic.

Eventually, they realized they had to leave the house. They grabbed the wedding gifts, Susie’s wedding dress, the other wedding items, loaded up into cars, and went across the street and up the hill to Susie’s grandmother’s house.

Susie’s house ended up with about a foot of standing water as well. It eventually led to her mom moving out of that house—the only house she had ever owned.

Susie didn’t sleep that night. It was about 3:30am before I went to sleep, so I got about three hours or so. I had trouble going to sleep because I was afraid the street was going to be so flooded we wouldn’t be able to leave in the morning, and I was afraid the church was going to be under water as well. It was only a couple of miles from my house.

You have to understand: I started liking Susie in the eighth grade. I wanted to date her throughout high school. I truly believed, even if just for a moment, that this rain was some cosmic force doing all it could to prevent us from being married.

A Happy Ending

In the end, it all worked out.

The rain was gone from the street by the time I woke up.

The church was not flooded.

Mark was able to do the wedding and he did a great job.

You forgot about the appendicitis thing, didn’t you?! That all happened BEFORE the flood.

We had a little bit of rain on the wedding day, but it was mainly overcast and perfect for pictures.

Other than Susie and I and our families having to put our best smiles on for 12 hours straight for the wedding despite having little-to-no sleep, it was a great day.

Praise God for adrenaline and caffeine.

As of tomorrow, Susie and I will be married for five years.

Neither one of us expected to be where we are right now.

But we could not be happier about it.

3 Thoughts Amidst a Busy Season of Life

I’ve had to dial back my work here on the blog the last week or so, and that trend will continue through May, because I am in one of the busiest two-month stretches of my life, if not the busiest two-month stretch of my life.

I am amidst the last two months of master’s work (I graduate in May, praise!); I have my day job; I am helping with church projects; I am doing a significant amount of contract work/writing; I am finishing a 30,000-word book manuscript; I am traveling a lot for work and for fun; people are visiting; we’re getting a dog.

Suffice to say, the blog is firmly placed on the back burner. I hope to get a post a week up here for the next couple of months.

Please don’t feel bad for me; that’s not my goal here. I am sure many of you reading this have much busier lives than I do, especially if you have kids. So, I am not looking for sympathy.

It just sort of hit me last week how busy the next couple of months are. I have had a few seasons in recent years like this, and it just requires me to flip the switch into a higher gear.

Here are three thoughts amidst a busy season of life about handling busy seasons of life:

1. Take time to have fun/rest each day (not including sleep).

This is perhaps the most important intentional step I have had to take in busy seasons like the one I’m currently in. I would be able to get a lot more work done if I made myself grind out work projects, school work, and blog posts for 12-15 hours per day. But, because a lot of the work I’m doing is “creative” and not punching numbers into a computer or other more rote tasks, the quality of my work really drops off if I push myself to “get more done.” While I may be able to get more work completed and more items checked off of lists, the quality of work is ultimately going to be subpar.

The quality of my work is much better if I take an hour or two to do something mindless—playing video games, working out, or reading a book unrelated to school work. Right now, I’m really into Overwatch and Stardew Valley on PS4.

If you’re in an extremely busy season, you may benefit from building in time to relax or disengage from your work. I definitely benefit from this.

2. Get into that next gear when at your desk.

Beside the fact that I don’t have kids, how am I able to make time to work out or play video games? It’s about throwing yourself into that next gear when you’re at your desk. You have to make the most of the time you have at your desk.

I am no productivity expert or guru or anything, and I haven’t read any of their books, but I know enough to know that we’re all distracted by stuff all day, every day. I work in social media and sort of have to keep an eye on social media every day as part of my job. This makes getting non-social media tasks done somewhat difficult.

When I am in seasons like I am right now, I spend much less time monitoring social media and much more time with my nose in whatever tasks I have to juggle. While monitoring social media is a significant part of my job, researching social media best practices and updates is also a big part of my job. In seasons such as this, I have to dial back the amount of research I do as well. I don’t like doing that, because I love researching and learning, but sometimes it needs to be paused for a bit.

In busy seasons, you would benefit from taking time to rest, and the way you’re able to do that is by making the most of the time you have at your desk.

3. Eat well and continue exercising.

This is a difficult discipline to maintain at any time, but in busy seasons especially. Busy seasons tempt us with quick, unhealthy food, and an hourlong workout doesn’t get any tasks checked off the to-do list, so it seems unnecessary.

Even amidst the current busy season I am in, I have managed to eat salads most days for lunch instead of fast food or other unhealthy options, and I have found a way to get on my treadmill at least three times per week.

I am by no means a nutritionist or a personal trainer, but I know that I am more productive and efficient when I am eating well and getting exercise on at least a semi-regular basis. It just makes me feel better and, I think, gives me more energy as the day goes on (though, I do often crash right at about 10pm on the days I workout).

I hope this has been helpful for you. I know any of my friends who have kids will read this and laugh at how much free time I have and at the fact that I think my life is busy. But, I am sometimes asked how I manage to get everything done that I need to get done, and these are the three basic rules I follow.