I’m not one to underline, highlight, or otherwise mark up my books as I read (for reasons I won’t go into here), but every once in a while I have to do it when I come across something I want to remember. Such was the case yesterday as I was reading a chapter out of A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren, a book I’m reading as part of a study group I participate in.
It’s not that the section is particularly well-written or full of deep theological insight, but rather that Brian reminds me of something that I know but often forget—or just flat out ignore.
Through the years I have noticed that among the people most dedicated to missional activism, you find either (a) people burned out because of the difficulty of the task, or (b) people who have best learned to undergird their activism with contemplation, with quiet resting, with finding God in the center of normalcy—including the normalcy of struggle and hard work. Contemplation isn’t only for passive, withdrawn people, but also for active, involved ones.
There is a high burn-out factor in what are called the helping professions—nursing, social work, drug and alcohol counseling, etc.—and ministry. The problems are complex and never ending, there is a high failure rate, and the compensation is low. I’m not talking financially, although that is certainly true for the helping professions; but success in the helping professions is often not easily defined or measured, is too seldom seen, and even then it usually comes in small, incremental steps. And when a person does it as a volunteer, as many very dedicated people do, the burnout rate is extremely high.
I am writing this to a group of people that, by and large, are more committed to volunteer activism than the average citizen. I know many people in our congregation that give many hours to the ministries of this church, and I know a great number of people who give selflessly outside of the church, whether as a volunteer at Waverly, visiting nursing homes, teaching adults to read, or helping young couples build strong marriages.
You do great work, often unseen, with no compensation, and sometimes with little appreciation. You work with a child to help them to read, but your efforts are subverted by the child’s difficult home situation. Or an adult decides that learning to read is just too difficult, or takes too much time, or it’s just too late, and they stop showing up for appointments. You work with a young couple for a few months but in their youthful naiveté they don’t understand how difficult marriage is, and in a year or so they are separated. And sometimes, when people fail to live up to their expectations, they blame you. You didn’t help them enough. It’s your fault.
It happens all too often. And you wonder why you keep trying.
Burnout is usually treated just as McLaren suggests—you look to your relationship with God, you go deeper there, to find that your satisfaction is found in God, not in some ill-defined notion of success. And in deepening—or even rediscovering—your relationship with God, you find the peace, the satisfaction, and the appreciation you so desperately need.
The problem comes when you treat the practice of contemplation merely as a treatment for burnout, and most treatments end when the condition is cured. Contemplation takes time, but more than anything, at its core it is the ability to do nothing in the presence of God but enjoy His presence. And for active, get-something-accomplished people, that’s difficult to do. When the pain is severe enough they’ll do it, because they have little choice; but remove the pain, remove the urgency, and they fall back into their activist habits of go, go, go.
McLaren reminds me that the discipline of contemplation is not merely a treatment for a condition, but a necessary condition for anyone who gives—not so much of their time or their money, but of themselves. It is the discipline that helps you to find your joy in your relationship with God, and allows you to bring that joy into the difficult and often joyless conditions in which you feel called to serve.
It’s the difference between your serving driving you to seek a relationship with God, and your relationship with God driving you to serve.
The former leads to a continual pattern of burnout and relief, burnout and relief. The latter leads to a life in which joy is more a resident in your life than an occasional visitor.