Stray Sheep, Good Shepherds, and Burning the Paschal Candle at Both Ends

The other day I went to a clergy gathering and the topic of conversation was recognizing burnout. We all face the possibility of this no matter what sort of work we do. Jobs or vocations that start out so exciting have the potential to consume our every waking moment. Even the most wonderful job in the world can become overwhelming. Expectations and workloads can become unrealistic. If we happen to be really good at what we do, others might criticize when we’re no longer able to maintain the usual snappy pace. Recognizing the signs of burnout is important – not just for the person experiencing it, but for everyone in that person’s community as well.

We also discussed how burnout can happen to our parishioners in the pews. We’ve all heard stories of long-time, faithful parishioners who suddenly stop attending, and no one knows why. Pastoral calls either go unanswered, or our inquiries are met with reluctance or even disgust. It hurts the community as a whole when this happens. While the individual may get the relief he or she needs by getting away from the church, everyone else is left off-balance. As long as there is no conversation about the situation, nothing can be done to fix it.

Not everyone is good at being direct with their feelings, or articulating their burdens. I offer the list of the signs of burnout that we used in our discussion. It’s geared toward work life, but you can see how it could be directed toward parish life.

Do you find yourself becoming more cynical, critical and sarcastic at work?
Have you lost the ability to experience joy?
Do you have to drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
Have you become irritable and less patient with co-workers, customers or clients?
Do you feel you face insurmountable barriers at work?
Do you feel that you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
Do you no longer feel satisfaction from your achievements?
Do you have a hard time laughing at yourself?
Are you tired of other people asking if you’re OK?
Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
Are you self-medicating using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
Have your sleep habits or appetite changes?
Are you troubled by headaches, neck pain, or back pain?

I might add things like feeling overused at the parish, or unheard. Do you need to hear more variety in the sermons to find the Good News? Are there things going at home that make parish life more like another job than a place to be uplifted, loved and supported?

Instead of walking away and thinking the priest and the parish know perfectly well what’s wrong – tell someone. Neither the priest nor the Vestry can read minds or are so empathic that we intuitively know what you’re feeling. There may be things we can do or change or fix – but only if we’re aware of them.

The story of the Goocandled Shepherd, who seems to know when and why a sheep has gone astray, is a hard act to follow. God has placed many shepherds among us to help move the flock forward, but none of us is the Good Shepherd. We need a little input from the flock to know when we need to be extra attentive. The best communities are ones where health and wellness are important features of our lives – places where we encourage each other toward full maturity in faith. Church should be a place where being the light of Christ in the world doesn’t involve burning the Paschal Candle at both ends. We can all end up being shepherds to one another.

If you can answer yes to any of the criteria above, either at work or at church, tell somebody. Being burned out is nothing that any of us should have to experience. We become a stronger body of Christ in the world when we’re healthy in body, mind and spirit.

Sshhh.

Last night a huge storm passed through my area. It got dark very quickly, and when it rained, intermittent downpours were blown sideways by the wind. The Extreme Weather Alert chime on my phone even went off. It’s never done that before. I unplugged my computer when the lightning started flashing. When it grew more intense I went ahead and shut off the lights, and anything else I could reach to unplug. I finished my supper by candle light. It was quite nice actually.

prayer by candelightIt reminded me of a similar storm that blew through town when I was in seminary. We often lost power for no reason at all, so it was no surprise when the power went out for an actual reason. I kept my power-outage supplies in a handy place. When all went dark and quiet, I set myself up to work on a sermon using whatever light came through the window and a couple small candles, and a pad of lined paper and pen.

One first imagines how the world got along without the internet. Penmanship is a lost art. I can’t tell you how many times I caught myself automatically pressing my fingers down on the desk surface where the Control and Save keys are. It made me chuckle every time. But then there was the quietness and the flicker of the candle, and amusement was consumed by the sound of breathing and heartbeat. Thunder punctuated the sheer simplicity of the moment.

“There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?'” (1 Kgs 19:11-13)

I have often thought it would be a good idea to have a voluntary brown-out every day. All ancillary electrical devices would be unplugged for a couple hours. It would be refreshing to body, mind, and spirit – not to mention a little less burdensome on our aging power grid – to silence the noise of technology so as to better hear the still, small voice of God. When the computer is shut down and the cell phone is off; when ear buds are stowed and lights are out; when the TV is unplugged along with the wireless router; and when the stove is given the night off and the microwave isn’t even a clock for a while, it’s amazing how quiet it can get. It’s so quiet you can hear yourself think. It’s so quiet you might want to wrap your face in a mantle and stand at the entrance of the cave.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) It’s pretty easy to find a cacophony of words and images for God on-line. Do you remember how to listen for God from within yourself? Would you be willing to shut off the noise of the world for even 15 minutes if it meant you could hear God whispering to you?