The Gospel is Not Self-Care: Overcoming Burnout

A Chaplain Returns From the Brink of Exhaustion in an Unexpected Way

Matt Metevelis / 2.12.21

Talk of burnout usually unfolds in statistics. There are percentages and fractions. A high percentage of people in a given profession feel “emotionally unequipped” for their job. One in five members of another profession report a major health problem attributed to their work. A low but statistically significant percentage of people in the same profession reported extreme stresses on their families. A lower but terrifyingly high number report something worse. We hear these statistics in seminars we attend for our employers or central church offices. Maybe we read them in some clickbait that floated onto our social media page. But wherever they land, these stories are meant to warn us. Care for yourself or else.

“Burnout” statistics attempt to use hard data to quantify the immeasurable abyss that so many experience. We place so much value in our work. We usually love it. Love of work like love of other people always carries with it the threat of disappointment, fear, and loss. When the rubber band breaks, it breaks hard. The weariness, exhaustion, and overwhelming bleakness that extend themselves over us like a choking, damp blanket at times defy description. Even the term “burnout” seems like a clinical euphemism wrapping around this feeling like a logical chemical reaction.

Almost to reinforce this “burnout,” numbers do not only diagnose the scope of the problem; numbers cure. Those same seminars and articles often close with lists. There are steps you can take. There are things you need to do. Breathing exercises. Mental affirmations. Physical activities. Mindful pre-planning. I’ve used and greatly benefitted from many of them. But a great unease lies here at the root. In presenting statistical problems with technical solutions, a great concession is being made to our hopeful expectations and deepest wishes. The sheer number of books, websites, programs, and articles written about this indicates that we struggle to care for ourselves. It also testifies to the depth of the wound that requires such a colossal amount of medicine.

Put theologically, our usual hope is that “burnout” is some kind of transgression against the law that more of the law can solve. If I can somehow better manage myself by subtracting something here or adding another thing there, then life and health will flow as sure as a differential equation. “Burnout” and work weariness become less a natural condition of human labor (“the sweat of our brows”) and more an error to be corrected by prioritization and optimization. Care becomes another corporate strategic plan for the self. Worn from work? Work harder to take care of yourself! The law can’t seem to try and fix things without doubling down. It can’t address failure without first piling on an extra serving of guilt.

The gospel is not “self-care.” The gospel is care, period. The gospel is healing, freedom, life, and hope. And we all have trouble perceiving our need for it, asking for it, and accepting it. As creatures, we are incapable of caring for ourselves. Only when an outside word comes to us and acknowledges our weakness can we even begin the journey of restoration. “Burnt out” candles do not relight themselves.

I learned all this from a priest. Not my personal priest. I was supposed to minister to him. I’m a hospice chaplain in Las Vegas. A few years ago I was working on a spiritual care staff of about a half-dozen chaplains spread out doing home-care throughout the Las Vegas valley. It was Friday. On top of my own patients I had to see patients for another chaplain who was out of town. He happened to be one of her new patients that I needed to see before the weekend. Time is a thin and precious resource when you deal with end-of-life care.

That day was especially tough. I laugh about it now because it was before I had kids. But my wife and I were running full-go like a young ministry couple. I worked part time at a local church and was getting ready to preach that Sunday. My wife, the youth minister, was having a lock-in at church that night. Dealing with a mountain of patients and trying to figure out how I could both make a dent in my sermon work and spend time with the youth group at my desk, I was trying to buckle down for a busy day.

Then my phone rang. The family member of a patient who had recently died requested a chaplain for a memorial service. “No problem,” I said. “When’s the service?”

“Tonight at 6.” Trying to pawn it off I called the rest of the team frantically. Nobody was available. Reluctantly I agreed to be there on the other side of town to do a funeral for a person I never met with truly no time to prepare. My heart raced and my spirit sank. Now looking at an unplanned twelve-hour day I was in anguish about getting the energy to write a sermon that night. Throughout that day my stress was at a high pitch. My mind kept churning. I couldn’t focus. I honked and screamed at traffic. Then I came to meet the priest.

He lived in an apartment very near the strip with a friend who cared for him. She introduced me to him and told me that he had been a Catholic priest for a long time. Suffering from brain cancer, the priest talked very slowly and deliberately. The caretaker would often finish his sentences and ideas. To my delight I learned that he was from Cleveland, which I proudly consider my hometown. We commiserated about the Browns, talked about landmarks, and traded some notes about ministry. I learned that he worked on many retreats helping in spiritual direction and discernment, and, like me, he felt more at home in one-on-one work than in the parish.

The slower conversation about shared places and interests would have been enough to give me a little peace. Then I asked to pray before I left. Before praying for members of the clergy I try to use a little professional courtesy. I asked what I could pray for.

He looked at me for a bit and then formed the words perfectly.

“I still want to serve Him.”

I burst into tears. At first it was because of this immense wave of guilt that flowed over me. I had forgotten that I worked for Christ. Here I was all day feeling tired, stressed out, and sorry for myself. My stress made it all about me. Look at this man of God, dying, who would gladly trade places with me. Luckily, I was too tired and tearful to put these recriminations into words.

The priest just grabbed my face. Slowly and deliberately he prayed for me and blessed me. Fumbling for words I prayed and blessed him back. Sitting at that bedside was the collapse I needed. As I said goodbye I thanked him and felt free. Those tears were my confession. That prayer intention and blessing were his absolution. We were more than priest and pastor at that moment. We were just two sinners, broken in different ways, crushed by our own burdens, but both just stopping at the foot of the cross.

It took years for me to realize that the very moment I shared with him was the answer to his prayer. He still got to serve Jesus in his final days. While he didn’t inspire my vocation, he picked up the pieces of it and put them back at the feet of Jesus where they belonged. I can’t do it alone, and that one who is more worthy than me came to bear the burden for me. Inspired by that visit I saw the rest of the patients on my slate that day. I listened to stories, said prayers, and ate great barbecue at a home funeral that evening. I felt like myself. Rather than picking at a sermon, I rested on the couch and read comic books that night. The stressful day had subsided into a weary gratitude.

We often reflect in hospice the strange and beautiful ways that our patients end up caring for us. I can never stop talking about the way that a priest in one sentence invited Christ to care for both of us. Whether clergy or not, none of us are masters. We are only servants of what we’ve been given. We don’t live by the bread of our work alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. We are not enough. But his burden is easy and his yoke is light after all. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. Hard to “burnout” when you listen and watch with the light of the world.

Best of all, I still want to serve him, too.


6 responses to “The Gospel is Not Self-Care: Overcoming Burnout”

  1. Ian Olson says:

    My heart aches with how lovely this is. Thank you for such a revivifying reflection!

  2. Trey Bounds says:

    I can’t say it better than Ian has above — I feel the very same way. Thank you.

  3. I spent too many years trying to fit the Gospel into therapy. This article is wonderful . Thank you!

  4. What a truly beautiful piece. Thank you, Matt.

  5. ginger says:

    Thank you! This is beautiful!

  6. Patti says:

    This really moved me. It cleansed my heart of debris and moved my eyes up to Him. Yes, what I love is to serve Him.

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