Burnout is NOT Failure

When I was in my early twenties, I experienced a call to ministry. Believing that meant I needed to become a local church pastor, I took myself off to school and got a Master’s degree in Divinity. I fell in love, got engaged, and moved across the country to take a position as a pastor of an urban church just North of Chicago. By “just” north, I mean: less than 1/2 a mile from the city border. By “urban” I mean: a mixed income, mixed race, mixed politics, declining attendance, old building, deep faith, amazing community.

It was amazing and beautiful and rich.

It should have been a start of a life long commitment to church work. I envisioned my babies crawling around on the floor of my office, years spent in study and contemplation, preaching the Good Word, fighting the good fight for justice wherever necessary, sitting with people as they died, and eventually retiring with a life of service squarely behind me.

Even today, as I write that, the vision of that life sings to my soul I was so deeply committed to it.

I was educated, prepared, called, talented. I had tools and resources and support systems. I had everything going for me.

There was no reason for it not to work out.

But it didn’t.

Two years into my career, I burnt out. I left local church ministry with a profound sense of shame and failure. I refused to call it burnout, talking instead about “discerning that my call was leading me in another direction.” While not untrue (I truly believe I am not called to local church ministry) it was not the whole truth. It was many years before I was even able to see how burnt out I had been and more years before I was willing to admit to myself how bad it had been.

All I knew at the time was that my ability to love had disintegrated to nearly non-existent.

“Burnout” is a huge stigma in caring professions. If you do formal education around whatever your chosen caring field, you will inevitably have people talk to you about it. There will be classes and checklists and strategies for avoiding it. You will be told that “if you allow yourself to become burnt out, you won’t be able to help people.” You will be told that “you have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others.” You will be told that “you cannot pour from an empty glass.”

It will be made very clear to you that if you burn out, you have failed. Yourself, your community, your education, your mentors.

You have failed.

Let me tell you another story:

A couple weeks ago I was scheduled to run a 10k. My first 10k. I’ve run that far and further before, but I’ve never done a designated race of that distance. Something about doing a new distance is always intimidating to me.

I was mentally freaking out about it, and almost didn’t go. But this is my season of learning determination. I drug myself out of bed at 4:30 in the morning and drove the 1.5 hours to the run location. I got there, hit the bathroom, got my shoes on, and toed the line just in time to head out with the rest of the pack onto what was, from the first step, one of the most beautiful trail runs I’ve ever been on.

The weather was beautiful. The other runners were friendly. The mist was slowly rising off the lake and loons were flying overhead. It was idyllic.

I got maybe 1/2 a mile in before the pain started. The outside of my shins were on fire. It’s happened sporadically for years usually I just ignore it. It doesn’t happen when I am running, but my strategy for this course involved me doing a walk-run pattern because my aerobic capacity and mental stamina isn’t up to 6.2 miles of straight running yet.

Frustrated, I tried running more to alleviate the pain. I thought that if I got warmed up enough, got enough blood pumping, the lactic acid would move out of my legs and I would be good to go. I got maybe another 1/4 mile in, but when I paused to catch my breath, it was worse.

Worse than it has ever been.

I was nearly immobilized by the pain.

In that moment, as all the other runners on the course were powering past me, I had to make a decision: turn around now or push through.

This is my season of learning determination, I thought. I am LEARNING to push through. I had gotten to the start line that morning. I didn’t want to stop before the first mile was up – I know that that is where I start to break through my wall and hit my stride. I wanted to hit my stride and chalk up my first 10k.

Once more I lifted up on my toes and started to run.

I got maybe 100 yards.

I was less than a mile into what was going to be an amazingly beautiful 6 mile run. My soul sang with the vision of spending a couple hours on that course. My heart wanted to keep going. But I just couldn’t. Not without damaging myself, and I knew I didn’t want to do that.

As I turned around and walked back to the start, I ran through everything in my head. Nutrition, training, preparation, weight. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong that this problem just was getting worse not better.

Finally I figured it out when I stepped on a rock wrong – I looked down and realized the fault was with my shoes.

My shoes.

I felt like such a failure.

I’m not a highly accomplished runner, but I am not new. I’ve been running sporadically for over a decade. My biggest problem is not knowing what I’m doing, it’s sticking with it long enough to make significant strides. Shoes? Shoes are a head-problem, not a training problem. I should have had that dialed in, but I made a rookie mistake.

It was so simple: my shoes were worn out.

I should have known better.

I usually keep a rough count in my head of how many miles I’ve covered in a pair of runners before I retire them to walkers or donate them. You can get 200-300 miles out of a pair of runners before they’re too worn down to run in. With all my on-again, off-again running over the past few years I had lost track of the miles in these shoes. A rough mental estimate, some finger counting, and I realized that between walking in them and running in them, they were quite simply too worn.

My body had been telling me for a month or two – the pain in the outside of my legs when I walked. I’d been pushing through it because it didn’t hurt when I ran, but I should have known.

I walked back to the start, got in my car, drove to a good running store, got an evaluation of my foot strike and a new pair of shoes.

The foot strike revealed what I knew about my feet – I have high arches. When I land, if I don’t have enough or correct arch support, my ankles collapse inward. That doesn’t hurt anymore due to a switch to forward food strike pattern, but what I didn’t account for was the rebound. On the upward movement of my foot, the outside muscle of my leg (Peroneus longus I think) had to pull¬†hard to get my foot back into the correct position. It’s made to do that, but not as much as I was requiring it to. So it was fine while I was running, because it was in constant motion, but when I stopped to walk and it stopped being used, it seized up.

New shoes purchased. Pain gone. Running is fun again (ok, kinda, still working on building cardio and mental stamina – see “big picture goals). My pace has increased, my joy has multiplied and I realize that I had been running in slight pain from worn-down shoes for a while.

Walking away from that run was the correct thing.

My legs were literally burning out. If I had continued on, I would have caused damage to myself.

I felt like a failure.

I have to remind myself that I am not. This is as much a part of becoming a runner as anything.

Whether from a technical issue (shoes) or getting lost or boinking or a hundred other things, every runner DNF’s (did not finish) a run at some point. At some point you will be unable to keep going, you will burn out.

Here’s the thing that was never, not once, taught to me in school:

Burnout is not failure. 

This year marks a full decade since I left local church ministry. For the first time in my life I have spent more time working for non-church organizations that I have working in a church. I have worked in for-profit and non-profit companies. I have worked in caring professions, including professional ministry (and a few part-time gigs with churches), in that time. I have worked in the arts and I have worked in technology. I have worked for startups, huge companies and been self-employed. I have done a lot in a lot of different things in a lot of different places.

You know what?

I have seen people burn out in every single environment. In every single profession. In every single career field.

True, not everyone burns out, but a lot of people do. Why? Because burnout is not a failure, it is part of life.

A couple of weeks ago the Sailor and I hiked the Trail of the Phoenix in the Children’s forest (one of the trails featured in 57 Beginner Hikes in the Inland Empire! Get your copy today!). I’ve hiked this trail for most of my life, but I tried to hike it like I would if I was a first-time visitor this time. We stopped and read the signs and interpretive material, and to look closely at the things that it talks about. The Trail of the Phoenix is an interpretive trail that illustrates the way that a forest recovers from wildfire, and how fire is a natural part of the life cycle of the forest.

We talk a lot about burning bushes to describe the presence of God. We talk about the fire of passion to describe the presence of calling and importance of doing what inspires you. We know that being ‘on fire’ about something isn’t a bad thing.

When a forest burns, there is a period of several years where it seems that there is little to no growth. But small, incremental changes are being wrought below what you can see. Dead plants and animals are being decomposed and nourishing the soil. Things are changing. Plants whose seeds will not open without the presence of extreme heat are germinating.

Eventually growth that you can see. It looks nothing like the massive forest that existed before. Quick-growing things spring up that hold the soil in place, and help retain groundwater. This brings back the wildlife and provides nutrition for the small germinating plants. Next larger bushes and smaller trees grow to fill in the open area, providing habitats for returning wildlife and more protection for young trees. Eventually, those trees, sheltered by their smaller neighbors, grow and fill in the sky becoming giant pines and redwoods and the forest is renewed, though changes in landscape mean that it will never look the same.

In my experience, burning out sucks.

It feels like failure.

It is not failure, it is life.

And life? It’s got this way of renewal. Of rebuilding. Of rejuvenating. Of resurrecting.

By | 2017-06-30T11:20:26+00:00 June 30th, 2017|Uncategorized|4 Comments

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  1. Melinda Barron June 30, 2017 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    So much good stuff

    • Susan June 30, 2017 at 12:34 pm - Reply


  2. Allie July 3, 2017 at 6:53 am - Reply

    Love you.

    • Susan July 3, 2017 at 3:11 pm - Reply

      Love you too!

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