On 10 October 2020, our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long addressed the World Health Organization for World Mental Health Day* saying that health authorities around the world must not only fight COVID-19 but also manage its impact on mental health due to "stresses, pressures and disruptions".
I am sure many of us have experienced the above in some big or small way. For some of us, Covid-19 could have impacted our jobs or businesses. Some may have lost loved ones. And for the majority of us, dealing with the constant disruptions to our routines, working from home then back to the office and now back to working from home, dealing with uncertainties, being in constant high alert, and so on, have indeed thrown a whole lot more stress into our lives than ever before. It is the long drawn nature of this battle with no clear end of the tunnel that gets to us. This is when we need to be careful about mental stress and the possibility of burnout.
How do we recognise the symptoms?
The thing to note is that when you are in it you may not realise it – it has a sort of numbing effect and you stop thinking and you just do, do, do. A ‘warning light’ could be flashing when our loved ones start complaining that you are at home but seem to be far away, lost in thought. You get the feeling that everything you do is just going through the motions, even ministry feels dry and lacking in joy. Basically, you could be trying to fly an aircraft on an empty tank and if you do not land the plane soon, you may be in danger of a disastrous crash!
Recently I picked up Wayne Cordeiro’s book, “Leading on Empty” at a book sale. Just reading the first few pages of the book I could identify with what Wayne, a well-loved pastor of more than 20 years, much sought-after conference speaker, and prolific author, had gone through. You may be wondering how a pastor on one of the beautiful islands of Hawaii could even get a burnout – but he did! Wayne described in his book how he was so completely burnt out – to the point when he was out jogging one day, just before a speaking engagement at a big Christian conference and he just had to stop. He felt he could not take another step and he just sat on the curb and wept uncontrollably. He was not just suffering a mental burnout, but he was actually diagnosed as being physically depleted of serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical like an endorphin – a natural feel-good hormone that is replenished during rest. When serotonin is depleted, the body substitutes it with adrenaline which, if left unchecked, will throw the body into crisis mode raising blood pressure, increasing heartbeat, increasing wear and tear resulting in ulcers, anxiety attacks, heart disease and depression. Wayne went on to describe how God had to deal with him and revamp his life and get him back to his feet again.
I would like to share with you some of the key learning points I took away from the book with the hope that perhaps it might encourage those of you who may be heading towards a burnout as well.
First, we need to take some time to identify the all-important 5% of the things we do. Wayne found that 85% of what we do, anyone can do – but these are what keeps us busy all the time! Another 10% of what we do, someone of similar capability and some training should be able to do. Then there is 5% of what we do, only we can do – this is the epicentre of our lives!
My all-important 5% are as follows:
Personal walk with God – daily prayer life, feeding from the Word, living in obedience, keeping Sabbath
Family time – with wife, children and aging mother
Ministry to young adults
Personal time – rest, regular exercise, long walks in nature
I would call these my non-negotiables.
Perhaps you may want to take out a pen and a piece of paper to write down your own all-important 5% during your next quiet time? After that, you may also want to think about the 85% part of your life which keeps you too busy and consider how you might want to reduce those activities.
The second thing I learnt was to consider life like a fuel tank. We must know what fills the tank and what drains it. The secret is to do more of those things that fill compared to things that drain! My personal “fillers” include spending personal time, going for long walks, family time, ministry, travelling, teaching and watching good movies! Interestingly I found that some of these actually overlap with my 5% list! This means that potentially I could recharge while doing the essential things! Now for things that “drain” me - these include overwhelming work pressures, unreasonable boss and his demands, working with people who cannot “take the ball and run”, managing instead of leading and unreasonable deadlines. What are your tank “fillers” and “drainers”?
The third thing I learnt was that there are four life courses: a life of reaction (plodding along life until something forces us to change direction), a life of conformity (living according to the view of the crowd, floating along with the current of popular opinion), a life of independence (perhaps the other extreme of conformity – being different for the sake of being different) and finally a life of intentionality (the restructured life). Wayne advocates that we should live a life of intentionality. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 it says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (ESV). That is living a life of intentionality!
On this thought, I am going through, together with my young adult ministry leaders, the book by Stephen Macchia, titled “Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to a Well-Ordered Way”. This book takes us through a process of framing, forming and then fulfilling our personal rule of life. I think it is a good book for anyone trying to bring back some ‘law and order’ into their lives.
Brothers, as we all enter into the heightened alert situation, and as we try to adapt to the new normal for the long haul, may I encourage you to pause and take some time out to review your life again? Perhaps you urgently need to land your plane for an overhaul and refuelling. If so, do not put it off any more. Perhaps God could show you areas in your life that you may need to re-order. Today is a good time! The days ahead may get even more challenging, but if you have put in place your “life rules” – living a life of intentionality and are clear where the “non-negotiables” are in your life so that you do not fly on an empty tank, I think the journey ahead will be more manageable!