stories of shame, part 5: burnout & performance shame

This is part 5 of a 10-part series entitled, “stories of shame.” Read the rest here.

burnoutMinistry burnout (definition): when the lie of my indispensability has mixed with the practice of neglecting rest and the reality of a heavier-than-usual season of ministry burdens, resulting in emotional/spiritual/physical fatigue that necessitates an extreme break.

Have you been there? So many of us who are in ministry either full-time or part-time (is there such a thing as part-time ministry?), and/or are married to someone whose vocation is full-time ministry face burnout at some point and to various degrees. In my upcoming book on shame, I address the connection between burnout and performance shame.

Performance shame (definition): the belief that I am acceptable to the degree to which I am successful in life, work, and/or home

Add in performance shame with a vocational calling to ministry, and you can get some dangerous beliefs that you’re acceptance to God depends on the quality and quantity of your ministry to God’s people. Believe me, I know. I’ve been there. Two times, and most recently last fall. As a girl who grew up doing pretty well in school and towing the line at home and in church, I received a lot of recognition for my success. This isn’t inherently bad, of course, but unfortunately my heart bent on earning love and acceptance twisted this into an unhealthy algorithm that love = perfect performance.

Fast forward to adult life in my early 30s: I’m a pastor’s wife, counselor in our church, mom to twin daughters, leader/teacher in a few different ministry areas of our church. And when I felt like I needed a break, my impulse was to push that away and just keep on going. The needs of others always seemed more pressing than my own. And honestly, it was more rewarding to meet another’s need than to tend to my own needs of rest. Being able to rescue a friend in crisis earned instant approval, while I’d have to fight my own self-criticism (and possibly that of others) if I stepped down from ministry positions or took a break for a season. Not all of this is bad. I believe God’s gifted me to be calm and clear-headed in crises. I thrive in these places, and I enjoy being able to help – not merely for selfish reasons of feeling “approved” but out of a sense of doing what I was created to do and providing a real service to others.

The problem is that crises began to stack one on top of the other and were coming at me from many different directions: work, home, church, and friends. And I went into my default mode of showing up to be what was needed in the moment rather than stopping to take a break, ask for help, rest and tend to my own need for refreshment. I’ve learned/am learning the hard way that while you can’t ever prepare for a crisis – and crises are inevitable in life and ministry – you can recover from a crisis. And you must clear your schedule after an intense season of ministry in order to be able to continue to serve others well – and to disentangle the voices of others/self from the voice of Jesus. Jesus’ invitation is to come and rest, to abide in his love, and from there to go out and serve. The way my performance shame twists the voices of others is into a message of, “Meet my needs first, and then you can rest.”

How did I get recover from burnout and at the same time fight to be free of performance shame? I stopped and took a break.

Yes, it’s that simple and that hard. In January, I began a sabbatical from my counseling practice that isn’t over yet. In February, my husband took a 3-month sabbatical from his position as associate pastor at our church (thank you to our church who builds in a sabbatical for every 7 years of ministry). While he returned from his sabbatical a couple months ago, I am still taking a break from formal positions/places of ministry and service at our church. And to be honest, it feels a bit strange. I’m a little bored. But I’m committed to wait on the Lord for what’s next and when it’s time to jump back in – and how. In the meantime, I’m immersing myself in the message of freedom and healing from performance shame that’s found as I look at and rest in Jesus’ perfect performance on my behalf. The gospel of John is a great place to start, by the way. And writing a book on shame has opened doors for me to talk to many others about the freedom I’m experiencing and fighting for – the freedom found by resting in daily sufficient grace.

Unashamed w: Welch

What about you? What’s helped you recover from burnout? Or what’s helped prevent you from reaching burnout? Join the conversation by leaving a comment.

the value of the hidden work of love

“How do you do it all?” It’s a question I often hear in response to the oh-so-complex question of, “What do you do?” When I reply that I’m a mom to 4-year-old twins, pastor’s wife, part-time counselor at our church, and writing a book – it does sound quite “impressive” (or overwhelming). I often reply tongue-in-cheek – “Not very well!” – to the aforesaid question. Most people don’t believe me. Except for those closest to me.

Seth, my husband, sees the dishes and laundry piling up alongside my frustration to try to do it all. My daughters experience the always-weary mama who too often opts for screen time so that I can finish a writing project or just get a nap. (They’ve almost completely dropped their afternoon nap.) My parents and in-laws and siblings and siblings-in-law and nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and cousins don’t get as much “Heather time” as I wish I could give them. Life right now feels like a delicate balancing act that I can’t do too well.

loving lifeAnd, true, I need to learn to prioritize (and identify “posteriorities” as DeYoung describes in Crazy Busy). Yet I also need to learn to embrace the hidden work of love that is my life with a family of young kids. To see this as a grounding point of my life rather than a distraction from work/writing/etc. Enter the so-good and so-convicting words of Paul Miller in A Loving Life

We usually recoil from the cost of love, thinking it is an alien substance, but it is the essence of love. … True glory is almost always hidden – when you are enduring quietly with no cheering crowd. … We experience a strange and powerful presence of God during those moments of hidden love. When you hang in there on the journey of love, when you endure and don’t take the exits of distance and cynicism, God shows up.

The parts of my life that are public are quite frankly, the easiest parts of life right now. Sure, it takes time and thought and work to prepare a talk for women, or to write the next chapter of my book, or to teach Sunday school, but I always get affirmation in these public areas of service. Motherhood and marriage? Not so. If I am loving my daughters and husband well, there is not an adoring crowd to let me know. If I’m not loving them well, I can hide this from others or gloss over my failures as “hard days/weeks/stages.” For me, it is this hidden work of loving family that shows me where I most desperately need the grace of a Savior and the endurance of the Spirit. 

Miller talks about this in his own life, capturing it in this sentence that aptly describes the past few weeks after a great deal of public ministry:  “God was giving me a hidden work of love to balance out the public ministry of teaching.” He talks about this in the life of Ruth, saying that in relation to Naomi, she “cheerfully pursued the bondage of love.”

It is so counter-cultural and counter-self-actualization to love like this. Which is why I cannot love like this without Jesus’ life at work in me. As Jesus’ love takes deeper root in my heart, there will be more joy in the hidden work of love – which will have the happy effect of enriching the public ministries of love, too. I end with this description:

…if I love only when I feel like it, then I’ve really not understood love. … Love like this strips us of self-will and purifies our motivations. It is surprisingly liberating because we’re not trapped by either our feelings or the other person’s response. When neither preserving the relationship nor our feelings is central, we’re free to offer the other person a rich tapestry of love.