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Gospel burnout: 3 helpful solutions from a Latter-day Saint psychologist

COVID-19 has introduced major disruptions into our society, including into the Lord’s restored church. We can’t gather as we used to. Ministering efforts are now critical, but many still struggle to reach out to others. Local Church leaders have become overwhelmed with the unique trials faced by their members, for which there is no preexisting list of remedies. While burnout isn't a new phenomenon among Church members, it has certainly been on the rise as a result of the pandemic.

As an elders quorum president myself, I have felt the increased leadership burden that the pandemic has brought. And while general Church leaders often speak of the significant weight carried by women in the kingdom, providing guidance and support for how to manage the burnout they feel from the many essential roles they play, ranging from ministers to employees to caregivers and everything in between. Such counsel is critical and inspired. But I thought it might also be worthwhile to address my fellow brethren, whose exhaustion is perhaps overlooked a little more often, and discuss ways the men of the Church can avoid burnout from the pressure of their many responsibilities as husbands, fathers, priesthood holders and leaders, providers, and so on.

How could we define gospel burnout? Perhaps it is the emotional experience when we feel like we’ve reached the end of our motivation. Maybe there have been too many requests and not enough rewards. Sometimes we feel like we are constantly the ones providing help to others, but no one comes to check on us. These are real conditions that are felt by members of the Church everywhere. When we reach the end of our rope, we are tempted to ask, “What’s in this for me? Why do I keep doing this when it seems I’m getting nowhere?” I understand why we might ask such questions, but a deeper understanding of certain gospel principles can help us achieve the strength to carry on. Here are three ways to start decreasing your gospel burnout.

1. Acknowledge Your Eternal Identity

Moses had an amazing experience where he saw the Lord in vision. His body had to be temporarily enhanced in order to sustain the glorious presence of God. The Lord told Moses that he was His son and that He had a work for him to do. After the vision, Moses reflected on the heavenly majesty he had witnessed. Then came Satan, enticing him, stating, “Moses, son of man, worship me” (Moses 1:12). Lucifer immediately insulted Moses by questioning his divine heritage (“son of man”) and tempting him to alter his purpose (“worship me”). What did Moses do? Did he renounce his celestial birthright and correct course to become a follower of Satan? He did not. In fact, he rebuffed the adversary with strength and determination.

And it came to pass that Moses looked upon Satan and said: Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee? And again Moses said: I will not cease to call upon God, I have other things to inquire of him: for his glory has been upon me, wherefore I can judge between him and thee. Depart hence, Satan (Moses 1:13,18).

Moses knew who he was and what he was about. He was a son of God and had a divinely appointed purpose. He had no time for Satan’s deceptions, for there was work to do. So how does this apply to each of us?

Consider these questions. What is your identity and purpose? Are you truly a child of Father in Heaven with His divine DNA woven through your spirit, or are you just a man, inconsequential and unimportant? Have you been called of God to act in His name, serve His children, and consecrate your life to Him, or are you just depleting your energy and resources for fellow beings who cannot repay you? Are you part of the greatest work ever—the unfolding restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ—or are you blindly following some immense social experiment that takes too much time and energy from your own pursuits? Your answers to these questions are critical in maintaining the strength to carry on despite difficulty. For those who truly understand who they are and what they are called to do, motivation can be found even in the most challenging of times. Those who struggle with a sense of eternal identity and divine purpose may find that burnout comes quicker and more frequently.

2. Find Balance

Understanding the importance of gospel work is critical, but even those who have strong convictions can experience burnout if they don’t know their limits. In fact, there are those who are extremely convinced of the importance of gospel work, to the point where it eclipses all other responsibilities in life, including family, employment, socialization, and appropriate leisure. I believe this is what Jacob referred to as “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14).

Let’s look at another example from the life of Moses to help address this concept of appropriate balance. Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, joined the Israelite camp in the wilderness. He observed Moses spending the entire day acting as judge to resolve the squabbles of the children of Israel. I imagine some of the contentions were grand, but others were likely petty and of little consequence. I can imagine Moses heading back to his tent that evening, physically and emotionally exhausted, with Jethro observing. In my mind’s eye, I can also imagine stake presidents, bishops, and elders quorum presidents (to name a few) worldwide, exhausted and strained from the demands of their callings. Jethro’s counsel to Moses is applicable to all who carry similar burdens:

And Moses’ father in law said unto him, the thing that thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone (Exodus 18:17–18).

“Thou shalt surely wear away” sounds like the Old Testament version of burnout. Jethro then wisely directed Moses to delegate the work. He was to employ prudent servants who could handle lesser matters, with Moses taking those issues that his helpers could not manage.

As men with Church responsibilities, we need to follow the same counsel. Pride is a sticking point for many members of the Church, particularly the brethren. We somehow feel that doing it all without help is a mark of accomplishment and strength. Quite frankly, it is more accurately a mark of foolishness and shortsightedness. In most cases, we are unequal to the grand tasks before us. We need help and strength. Such assistance comes from the Lord, but also comes from those around us. As we share our burdens with others, many things are accomplished. We have more time to attend to other needful tasks. Others get experience in solving problems and managing challenges. We train the next generation of leaders by giving them leadership opportunities along the way, which means delegating meaningful tasks to them and providing appropriate training and oversight. Avoiding burnout involves not only knowing your limits but generously and judiciously sharing your responsibilities with others.  

3. Take Time to Rest

Knowing our purpose and our limits is essential in avoiding burnout, but still we are left with a finite set of resources to accomplish the work. Assets such as time and money are often budgeted with careful consideration. But what about emotional and physical energy? These are also limited assets that will be depleted if not refilled. Have you ever wondered why Jehovah and Michael rested on the seventh day from the work of creation? I don’t think it was because they were physically or emotionally drained. I believe it was because they were trying to set an example for us. They wanted to show that work is important, but rest is important as well. I’ve long noticed their ratio of work to rest; six out of seven means they worked about 86 percent of the time, leaving adequate but not excessive time for rest.

 King Benjamin counseled, 

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order (Mosiah 4:27). 

The advice is clear: don’t attempt to do more than you are able, but make sure you are doing all you can. Having appropriate time for physical and emotional rest is essential to avoid burnout. Most of us are good at finding time for physical rest. Fewer are good at finding time for emotional rest. We need to have time where we can disengage from work, enjoy relaxing moments, and recharge our energy stores. There is nothing sinful about turning off your phone for 30 minutes while you take time to refresh yourself emotionally. Make emotional and physical rest a priority in your life.

 In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20), the workers all got a penny’s worth of pay regardless of how long they worked during that day. To some, this seems like an inequitable reward. I’ve come to see it differently. The reward was not the penny. The reward was working alongside the Savior. Those who worked with Him for 12 hours received a reward that those who worked with Him for one hour did not, independent of their daily penny. The same is true for us. The reward is not just our eventual eternal outcome but being able to labor with the Lord each day of our lives. The longer we work beside Him, the greater the experience we’ll have and the more we will learn to become like Him. Doing the necessary things to avoid gospel burnout will help us have the strength to work longer and harder with the Savior, resulting in the unparalleled blessing to be His servants on a daily basis.

Lead image from Getty Images
David morgan

Dr. David T. Morgan, Contributor

Dr. Morgan is the author of My God Hath Been My Support: Seven Keys to Understanding and Enduring Personal Trials and several other books that can be viewed here. His writings contain insights and solutions to apply gospel principles to emotional challenges. You can see more content, connect with him on social media, or ask questions on his website, www.ldspsychologist.com.

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