7 Warning Signs You May be Suffering from Burnout

I never saw it coming. Just weeks earlier I was telling people, “I feel the best I have in years.” Our 2-year-old church plant had just moved into our first permanent space. As a result, we were seeing steady growth for the first time in our short history. We had just completed a 2-day strategic leadership retreat in which we developed a 5-year vision and strategic plan. We were completing construction of our new children’s ministry space and preparing for a big fall launch. There was a lot of excitement. It felt like we were really starting to click on all cylinders.

Then it happened.

It was like I was cruising down the highway on a beautiful sunny day with the top down – sun on my face, wind in my hair, my beautiful bride at my side… WHAM!! One-hundred-miles-per-hour into a brick wall. One moment I was happily cruising along with a bright future clearly in view and the next I was lying disillusioned and disoriented in the middle of the road with no sign of hope on the horizon.

It caught me completely off guard.

But as I started to rest and reflect, I noticed seven warning signs that had been flashing red like a “check engine” light.

Rest doesn’t refresh you

I place a high value on a weekly Sabbath and family vacations. It’s not like I was an extreme workaholic who never took a day off. Except for when I didn’t. And then I didn’t again. And again. And again.

“It’s just a busy season,” I would say.

Or, “I just really need to get this one thing done.”

It was always just one more thing.

In the weeks leading up to my crash it was one thing after another resulting in me working 30 consecutive days, averaging nearly 80 hours a week over that span. For some people that might not be that big of a deal. But it should be. It shouldn’t happen. Ever. Not even “just this one time” or “just this one thing.”

But the onset of burnout began long before that 30-day stretch in the fall.

It used to be that I couldn’t wait to get back from vacation and go back to work. I loved my ministry! I would come back from time off rested and refreshed for a new season of ministry.

But over the last several years something shifted. I started dreading going back to work after vacation. I didn’t feel rested, refreshed, or renewed. I just felt tired – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. A 12-week sabbatical didn’t even completely refresh me. I felt better. But I didn’t feel as good as I thought I should after a 3-month hiatus.

So, when a particularly hard, long stretch in September came, it was like piling tons of bricks on top of an already cracked foundation and the whole house came crashing down.

If you come back from a vacation, or even a Sabbatical, and you still don’t feel rested – you are likely just one hard month away from a crash.

Simple decisions overwhelm you

I remember the distinct moment it all came crashing in. My wife was asking me some simple questions regarding paint for our new children’s space. Her questions, innocent as they might be, were being poured into an already full cup and I couldn’t take another drop. I felt like I was going to collapse into a sobbing wet puddle on the floor.

From that moment on it seemed like every decision I faced was classified into one of two categories:

  1. I don’t know what to do!
  2. I know what to do, but I just can’t do it!

Leaders must make difficult decisions all the time. Sometimes the magnitude of those decisions can weigh on you. Sometimes you may wrestle with God in prayer about it and seek wise counsel. That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about,

“Hey honey, would you like Cheerios or Raisin Bran for breakfast?”

“I don’t know! Why are you burdening me with these decisions, woman? I can’t take the pressure!”

If you feel overwhelmed by making simple decisions or performing routine tasks — you are likely burning out.

You’re forgetting things you typically remember

Normally, I’m a human calendar. Sure, I have one, but I don’t really need it. I can typically go from appointment to appointment throughout the day without ever consulting my calendar for when, where, and who.

But in the weeks leading up to and after the burnout, I was missing appointment after appointment. Lunch meetings, doctor appointments, kid’s games, etc. They were all in my calendar (you know, the one I never really needed), but they were not on my radar. At all.

Then something scary started happening. First, I went through a stop sign while driving. Then another. Then a red light. Then another stop sign. In the span of 5 days, I went through four traffic stops without even noticing. Fortunately, the Lord protected me and others from my space travel.

If you start missing stuff that you don’t normally miss or forgetting things you typically remember – it might be time to stop for that stop sign.

Passion has been overtaken by complacency

I went from being passionate about ministry, hopeful for the future, and excited about the present to being completely apathetic about everything. The things that normally excited me (yes, even that), didn’t excite me anymore. In fact, not only did I not feel energized by them, I felt drained.

Preaching? Meh.

Exercise? Sigh.

Sex? Sounds like work.

People? I need a nap.

I pride myself on being authentic and transparent, but I was starting to feel like a phony. I had to act the part. Fake a smile. Get people excited about things I was no longer excited about.

If you feel depressed, apathetic, and no longer excited about exciting things – you may be burning out.

Little issues have become major irritants

Children not cleaning up their toys.

Volunteers dropping the ball.

Churches celebrating success. (How dare they!)

It was all really starting to get to me.

I’m not necessarily talking about angry outbursts – although I had my fair share of those. I’m talking more about the quiet cynicism that became the normal reaction to every volunteer who wanted a Sunday off, every pastor who was “bragging on God,” and nearly every word my wife spoke or action my children performed.

Every person, church, system, and situation were adding heat to my internal temperature. I knew I needed to take a break before I ended up breaking something. Or someone.

If things that didn’t bother you before, now irritate you. If you find yourself reacting cynically to every celebration. If you feel like you might explode like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, you should take a break before you break.

There is no “normal” to your routine

We all have our normal routines we follow day-in and day-out. Perhaps, it’s that we make coffee first thing in the morning before we do anything else. Maybe we always wash our hair before the rest of our body in the shower. We might have a daily “quiet time” or a workout schedule.

Our daily routines can act kind of like guardrails that keep us from veering too much to the left or the right. In the absence of routine, we can operate like a rudderless ship being directed by the daily current.

I have a normal routine. But when burnout was setting in, all assemblages of “normal” were barely recognizable.

Sleep? Occasionally.

Exercise? Nonexistent.

Spiritual disciplines? Too much work!

Healthy diet? Maybe next year.

I was floundering about from day-to-day just trying to keep my head above water.

If the only “normal” in your normal routine is how abnormal it is, you could be burning out.

You’re self-medicating

In the absence of a normal routine, we start grasping for anything that will help get us through the day. It could be food, alcohol, porn, sex, etc. Fortunately, I didn’t go too far down this road. But I wanted to.

I’ve seen pastors wreck their lives and ministries by making foolish choices. Suddenly, that didn’t seem so bad. At least it was a way out. I developed an empathy for those fallen leaders that I hadn’t experienced before. They were probably in the same boat I was. They felt trapped and they didn’t know how to get out. Extreme self-medicating isn’t the best way out. But it’s a way. A way that far too many choose, unfortunately.

Thankfully, God spared me from doing anything regrettable. But self-medicating can be subtle. A bowl of ice cream because it was a tough day. A drink or two in the evening to take the edge off. An emotional affair with a staff member because she “gets you.”

Self-medication over time leads to self-destruction.

If you find yourself self-medicating more and more often, you need to take a self-inventory and make some life-changes before you burnout and burn up.

If you find yourself suffering from any of these symptoms, you need to make some immediate changes.

If you are struggling with four or more of them, you need to take an immediate extended break.

Get help before it’s too late.

Up next: 6 Things to do When You’re Burned Out

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