What Burnout Really Is
I always thought of “burnout” as a rather banal way of communicating exhaustion from overwork. “Make sure you take a vacation,” one might say. “You don’t want to burn out.”
In his new book, The End of Burnout, though, Jonathan Malesic argues that burnout is something else entirely. It is instead “the experience of being pulled between expectations and reality at work.”
That’s very important. It’s similar to the comment I heard from an experienced pastor recently: “People don’t usually crash out of ministry because they are exhausted, but because they feel like they’ve failed.” Malesic uses the illustration of walking on stilts, which represents
the experience of holding both one’s ideals and the reality of one’s job together. When the two stilts are aligned, one can keep them together and move forward. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s possible for one to walk. However, when the stilts are misaligned—that is, when the ideal and the reality are radically different—people find different ways to cope, which can lead to a kind of burnout.
That cashes out in different ways, depending on the organisation. Some people “cling to their ideals while the reality swings away from them,” and eventually collapse in despair. For others, especially in the church,
the stilt walking falters when they ignore the reality and hold on to their ideals anyway. This is the sort of coping mechanism we see in those who wave away the current crisis in the church by saying, “Well, think of all the good things happening” or “Most people aren’t like that” or “The church was never meant to be made up of perfect people.”
Those things are easy to believe, because there’s a sense in which they are all true. But often, in times like these, what they really mean is “Don’t talk about these matters in public; we can handle them on our own in private, but we don’t want to give Jesus a bad reputation.” The problem is, Jesus never asked his church to protect his reputation, especially by covering up when something wrong or dangerous is done in his name.
And that can cause burnout:
If our moral ideals are strong but we reassure ourselves with a false version of reality, we will end up seeing through our own delusions—and others certainly will.
And when that happens, it results in a different kind of burnout—frustration. That is, we begin to despair that anything ever can or will eventually be done to fix things.