Mitigating Burnout: A Biblical Model
The current pandemic and amount of information overload that it caused is affecting all of us. Added to that situation, acclimating to working across various virtual platforms has been shown to have less than favorable results.
Many have noted that there is a sense of working more, working longer hours, and feeling like one is on the job incessantly (e.g. in the case of working from home). This can easily give rise to generalized burnout, or digital burnout.
According to research, burnout usually follows moments of success or great achievement. This is evident in the life of the ancient biblical character Elijah, who became a victim of burnout after celebrating moments of great success on Mt. Carmel.
In a 2005 article on the subject by Jeffrey R. Funk, the former director of Healthcare Chaplains Ministry Association, the author notes that after Elijah’s mountaintop success (as recorded in 1 Kings 18), he experienced a feeling of dejection, which is symptomatic of the result of intense effort, and adds that burnout commonly occurs subsequent to extreme experiences.
Elijah’s experience is a case study that illustrates burnout for three major reasons: the intensity of his mission, the crisis attached to the circumstances, and performing a major task alone, coupled with others’ hatred directed toward him and his duties.
As a prophet of God, Elijah was fulfilling his calling on Mt. Carmel. His job was to represent God and call others to revere Him as the only true God. In his service to God’s people while performing his ministry, he became a victim of burnout.
It follows that his peak experiences all occurred on Mt. Carmel. The day was very exhausting spiritually, mentally, and physically. Even at the end of the day, Elijah is seen performing another overwhelming task—he ran before the king’s chariot.
In one single day on Mt. Carmel, Elijah’s job took a toll on him physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The effects became evident after this experience in the form of him exhibiting the signs of burnout shortly after the peak moments of achievements and exhaustion. Funk listed nine, stress-related characteristics that Elijah exhibited during this period:
1. Rejection (verse 2);
2. Detachment (he ran away from everyone, verse 3);
3. Exhaustion (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, verses 5, 6);
4. Suicidal thoughts (an advanced stage of depression and despair that results from burnout, verse 4);
5. Bitterness (he reminded God of how zealous he had been, verse 10);
6. Feelings of being indispensable (verse 10);
7. Feelings of being mistreated (verse 10);
8. Feelings of self-pity (verse 10); and
9. Feelings of persecution (he felt put upon and became increasingly suspicious of his environment).
In providing therapy to victims of burnout and compassion fatigue, the example of God attending to Elijah provides a perfect model. Funk listed four steps God used in ministering to Elijah:
1. God provided time for sufficient rest and proper nourishment (verses 5, 6);
2. God offered a quiet time for Elijah (verse 12);
3. God gave him an assignment that he was capable of fulfilling (verse 16); and
4. God provided a sense of companionship (verse 18).
As we continue to navigate the dynamics of the changing times, many stand on the fringes of burnout or have been experiencing the same. May God empower us to mirror His example in caring for ourselves, and others, just as He did in supporting and caring for Elijah.
David McKenzie is the director of the Youth, Young Adult, Pathfinder, and Adventurer ministries in the Atlantic Union Conference.