Revisiting the burning out phenomenon, especially burning out in ministry.

If I could distill the answer to “how to live a meaningful life?” to something simple, based on my short life thus far, I think it would be the imperative of doing and being well. The two components have to always be present simultaneously, because losing one of them will result in the feeling of meaninglessness. They’re imperative in the sense that it’s the simple, unavoidable need of the soul.

There’s a deep need in every soul both to do and to be, and out of these two we glean a sense of meaning and fulfillment in life. It seems to me that burning out often is caused by the absence of either one of the two components; a person gets saturated with only one component and atrophies. The saturation points from doing and being too much look different though. (Yes, I do think that one can get saturated in “being.”) And again, I think I have been to both ends of this spectrum as well.

The Need to Do

What makes the last day of finals, graduation days, and deadlines so exciting? One word – accomplishment. Deadlines may be associated with much negative sentiments, but they are only scary when you’re looking forward to them. Once you’ve passed them, they are actually quite sweet, especially if you know that you’ve done well.

Accomplishments are exhilarating. There’s worth and value in working, expending tireless efforts towards a goal, and obtaining what you had set out to do. Nothing boosts the morale like getting something done.

The danger lies in going too far on this “doing” track that you derive self value and worth solely from what you do. I feel like living in America, this is often the case. One of the first questions people ask is, “What do you do?” We measure people’s worth by how productive they are and how hard-working they are. While this does reflect a certain aspect of people’s character, it’s not the end of the story.

Perhaps because I come from the Eastern part of the world, I used to find it strange when people answer the question “How was your day?” with “It was productive.” It took me a few years to get used to that, because somehow in my mind, productivity was not a measure of how good a day is. If someone had asked me that question in Indonesia (and I don’t know whether this is still true today or not) and if I had answered “It was productive”, the person would look at me and say, “So? Is that good or bad?” A busy and productive day is not necessarily a good day, since a vacation day when I don’t have to work would be better! Few people work for work itself; people work for vacation. Now things have changed quite a bit – I’ve grown to put value in productivity, and whether that’s good or bad is debatable.

Too much work and not enough “being” will cause bitterness, because you’ll feel that others only want you for what they can get out of you. If you work in any secular setting especially, this feels like your reality. The world doesn’t care about your soul, only your productivity. You get rewarded for your productivity. In most cases, you’re not entirely indispensable and you’re not irreplaceable either. It’s sad, I know (don’t get depressed just yet though).

It is impossible to get the highest level of fulfillment from this machinery model. Bitterness, or a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with work, is what I consider the saturation point in “doing.”

The Need to Be

If you’re at that first saturation point, it means that you need some time to rest, spend some time in quietness, and just …be. I don’t mean being in a vacuum, but being with God, the One who knows the purpose of your life and the true value of your personhood. Keep the Sabbath. It is a powerful cure to counter the grip of the world on your life, it will restore and replenish the drying well of the soul. No one should work nonstop at the expense of his soul.

Yet, the need to be is even deeper than this. We don’t need to rest because we’re tired; we need to rest because it’s part of thread in the fabric of humanity. The history of humankind begins with resting and being with God; man’s first day was the Sabbath day. They rested not because they were tired; it was purely to be with God, to experience wonder and to be awed by the glorious Creator. We need rest, a rest in God, because that’s just how we’re made to be.

I feel this need in a very real way. Even though I love what I do, especially in the context of ministry, I need to know that I’m appreciated as a human being, appreciated for who I am. It means that even if I bombed and completely failed in my work, it’s not like I’ve lost all reason to exist and someone can just exterminate me. This is why the Sabbath is glorious. God wants to spend time with me; He appreciates me for who I am.

In the book, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion by the ever so insightful Abraham Joshua Heschel, he writes:

Animals are content when their needs are satisfied; man insists not only on being satisfied but also on being able to satisfy, on being a need not only on having needs. Personal needs come and go, but one anxiety remains: Am I needed? There is no man who has not been moved by that anxiety.

That need to be needed is true not only in the realms of work, i.e., one is needed to fulfill a job, but also in the realms of being, i.e., one is needed just for his presence.

Yet, there is a saturation point for this too. “Being” too much = nothing gets done. It may be a cop-out for laziness, and while it may feel great at first, it will get boring after a while and you’ll feel useless. That feeling of uselessness is one of the most demoralizing things ever.

So…

When we work together, especially in ministry, I think we need to ensure the well-being and the well-doing of each other. It means that we cannot excuse laziness, because it is in a person’s best interest to actually accomplish things in his life. We need to motivate each other to do and find fulfillment in the tasks that pertain to ministry, but appreciate the personhood of each individual at the same time. How’s that to be done? Something to think about…

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