A Spirituality of Exhaustion

This summer has been no different than any of the other summers experienced in the decade I’ve spent as a youth minister: campfire smoke, bug spray, a few thousand miles packed sardine-style inside rental vans, silly bands (this year both on the radio and on teenagers’ wrists), mandatory abuse reporting, saggy twin mattresses, sultry summer heat, teenage (and adult) drama, work gloves, water bottles, revelations of church happenings received via smartphone or email (or not received at all), and at least a hundred daily activities sandwiched between early-morning meditations and late-night giggly conversations.

Understandably, after three weeks of camp, a week-long youth mission trip, extra out-of-town meetings, a couple sermons and a few Sunday School classes squeezed in for good measure, I am exhausted.

Now that I am home and the summer whirlwind is mostly behind me, I see signs that some congregation members and friends are worried for me. While many don’t know exactly what I’ve been up to all summer, they do know that they haven’t seen much of me since mid-May – and between the weird tan lines, the post-mission trip acne flare up, the slight hitch in my giddy-up, and the bags under my eyes, they can tell that I’m worn out. That knowledge, plus the recent news stories about clergy burnout rates, has got some folks looking at me with a mixture of loving concern and fear.

I don’t blame them. A few times this week I have snuck a glance at myself in a mirror or store window and winced. I have certainly looked better, fresher, more well-rested… And there is definitely something important to be said for better self-care. So many of my colleagues care for themselves poorly at best, and there are certainly weeks when I am no better at it than they are. We could all use more days off, more well-planned (and well-taken) vacations, more time spent with mentors and colleagues as well as friends who have nothing to do with our vocations. We could all use more time spent exclusively in prayer and laughter and joy.

And yet, as I’ve probed around in my spirit this week, I’ve discovered that I’m not feeling all that badly. My body is truly pooped – which means I’ve been sleeping better and more soundly than I have in a while. My muscles are achy, but last week’s work on New Orleans homes has also left my arms and back feeling strong. My eyes are somehow simultaneously droopy, bleary and sore – and yet they have also seen more God-stuff in a month than they often see in a year. My ears currently crave silence, dreading the usual tapestry of sound woven by the day – but they are also more attentive to Spirit whispers and unspoken needs.

In other words, this is a good kind of exhaustion. A God kind of exhaustion.

Now, hear me. I’m not saying I don’t need rest and self-care after a summer as full as this one has been. I’m taking my day off each week, Chuck and I have a vacation planned that I look forward to enjoying, and there are many naps scheduled into my future. But what I am saying is that there are different types of exhaustion. I can be spiritually exhausted (which often leaves me teetering on the edge of burnout) or I can experience the spirituality of exhaustion: that quieter, heightened level of awareness that is simply easier to access when I’m too stinkin’ tired to be in control.

For example:

Today, my exhaustion keeps me from pushing God to the margins of my tightly-scheduled life.

Today, my exhaustion helps me to accept that I am not Superwoman, that I can’t accomplish everything on my own, and that I can’t be all things to all people.

Today, my exhaustion forces me to rely on God’s goodness and vitality – and helps me to know that God is present and active in my doings, my beings, my comings and my goings.

Today, I am further away from burnout than I have been in a very long time, precisely because I am practicing the spirituality of exhaustion.

And now, with that being said, I’m headed to bed.

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4 replies
  1. Maria
    Maria says:

    Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Well spoken, tired sister. But still – rest, and rest assured that you are doing God’s work in resting too.

  2. Pooped Pastor
    Pooped Pastor says:

    This is an important call to rest, and I’m glad to hear that your members are expressing concern and support. A constant frustration for me has been the lack of support I receive from the church about taking my (mandated from a higher governing body) vacation and continuing education time. I don’t know if former ministers simply didn’t take their time (which is likely), or if the members have forgotten (also likely), but getting approval to take the time that I am given is as painful as pulling teeth. Reminded members of upcoming, long-planned vacations brings the response, “You’re going out of town AGAIN?” How can we give ourselves permission to take time off when we aren’t given permission by our church?

  3. ann
    ann says:

    well, since divine details is a column aimed at practical advice, what are the 1-2-3s of caring for ourselves? and (yes, i’m starting a question with “and”) how do we know we’re not just kidding ourselves about what type of exhausted we are?

  4. Lara Blackwood Pickrel
    Lara Blackwood Pickrel says:

    Good questions, Ann. It sounds like a follow up article is in order, and if you know someone who can write it, please send her my direction. For now, I think step one is acknowledging the need for self care and taking time to listen to our bodies/minds/spirits. And because we really can kid ourselves about what type of exhaustion we are experiencing (and we can experience a mixture of types all at once), a good step two is to take your vacation or day off or reading-for-pleasure-time (or any other sabbath practice) anyway. Regardless of spiritual insight or benefit, exhaustion is still exhaustion and we need rest. My point in the article was to show that exhaustion does not have to lead to burnout – sometimes it can lead us away from it – but we still need a habitual practice of care and rest.


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