How to Avoid Burnout

Leslie Basham: When Shona Murray went through a time of depression and discouragement, her father shared some good insight. This wasn’t just a spiritual issue.

Dr. Shona Murray: There are spiritual consequences, but the primary problem is emotional and physical.

Leslie: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of The Quiet Place, for Monday, January 29, 2018.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: I’m going to read some words here, and you tell me if any of these describe you or if you recognize yourself in any of these words. Here we go: overwhelmed, exhausted, depressed, panicky, stressed, burned-out, broken, paralyzed, drowning, empty.

Does any of that feel familiar to you? Well, if so, you’re not alone. Those are some of the most common words that I hear today as I talk with women, and some words that I feel some days myself as I navigate my own schedule and my marriage with Robert.

So I was really encouraged to come across a recently released book that addresses some of these issues and how God can, with His grace, enable us to have a different kind of experience, one that would be more peaceful and calm and joyful and content. We’re going to talk about that today with the author, Shona Murray, and her husband, Dr. David Murray. So, welcome to Revive Our Hearts. Thank you so much for joining us for this conversation.

Dr. David Murray: Thank you, Nancy. It’s good to be here with you.

Shona: Thank you.

Nancy: We’ve now already identified you to be experts on how to have a peaceful, happy life, no problems. You’ve got that down. Right?

Shona: We’re learning still.

David: We’ve learned a lot, and we have a lot to learn.

Nancy: Let me just tell you a little bit about the Murrays.

David Murray is a professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Seminary in Grand Rapids. He’s also a pastor and a counselor. He and Shona, his wife, have been married over twenty-five years now. They have five children.

Shona has been in the past a medical doctor in family practice. She’s also an author and home educating their children.

These two are involved in a lot of ministry and a lot of practical ministry to people that I think is going to really relate to our listeners this week.

David, you wrote a book not long ago called Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burned-Out Culture. And now, Shona, you’ve written a book that’s targeted a little bit more toward women that’s called Refresh: Embracing a Grace-Paced Life in a World of Endless Demands.

I look at both of those covers, and I think, These were written for me! (laughter)

Shona: They were written for us, too. 

Nancy: And they were written out of your journey, in both cases. I love that. I so appreciate it.

David, you wrote about burnout, and you didn’t just write about it as a seminary prof or a theoretician. You wrote about it out of some experience you had.

David: Yes.

Nancy: And, Shona, you wrote your book out of some experience. So I’d like today, as we start this series, just to hear a little bit about your journey, maybe, David, starting with you and this whole subject of burnout. How did you come to know something about that?

David: Yes. I’m coming at this as a fellow learner, not so much as a superior teacher.

Nancy: And let me just say, by the way, as you’re talking, people can tell that you’re not originally from Grand Rapids.

David: That’s right. We’re from Texas, as you can tell. (laughter) We’re originally from Scotland.

Nancy: From Scotland, and immigrated here . . . ?

David: Ten years or so ago.

Nancy: Recently, you both became U.S. citizens.

David: That’s right. It was a wonderful day. We’re very thankful and feel very privileged and blessed to be U.S. citizens.

Shona: Yes.

Nancy: We love having U.S. citizens who can talk the way that you do. Thank you. I just wanted to insert that.

Now, go back to your burned-out life there.

David: I was involved in ministry for many years. I love ministry. That’s one of the problems of ministry—it’s so enjoyable. Nancy, I’m sure you identify with that.

Nancy: I get that!

David: You actually have to practice self-denial so that you actually preserve yourself and your relationships and your health. I wasn’t doing that, especially since I came over here. There was just a number of opportunities multiplied. And, over a number of years really, I had forgotten how to say “no” and said “yes” to actually everything. I still kept trying to keep a number of balls in the air—like my marriage, my family, my work. I was traveling to conferences and things like that.

God sent me a number of warnings that I hadn’t heeded. So, over maybe the course of a year or so, I had a number of health problems that should have made me pause and think, but I didn’t. So eventually, He really did stop me.

He actually allowed me to suffer with blood clots in my legs that went to my lungs in the form of pulmonary emboli—which is fatal for a lot of people. Thankfully, Shona persuaded me, against my judgment, to actually go to hospital and get checked out. That was really fun to say.

Nancy: I hear guys don’t like that.

David: No, we didn’t. My last words to her, going into the hospital, were, “I’m doing this for you, not for me.”

Nancy: Right. (laughter)

David: Nice guy. But I’m very thankful to have been there. They diagnosed blood clots all over my lungs, which have many causes. There was nothing genetic that was found. I believed, under reflection, it was stress and overwork and the hand of God. I changed after that, but not enough, and not for long enough.

I went back to my old habits, and within three years I was back in hospital with more blood clots in my lungs.

Nancy: Wow!

David: Most people don’t get one chance. I had two. And that time I thought, God is hunting me down, and I have to listen. And that's when the spiritual work really went deeper. I began to research and look into what causes this and what can I learn from this.

Then opportunities began to develop to actually minister to men, many of whom were in similar situations—many pastors. Over time, it developed into this system, you may call it, or method of preventing or recovering from burnout, which is really summarized in the book, Reset.

May I share one story? Many of these men’s stories, and how we all together have learned the wonderful provisions God has made to both prevent and recover from burnout and live a more grace-paced life, which has been such a joy for me and many others because many of us are just traveling along in misery.

Nancy: Yes—even doing good things.

David: That’s right. It’s all good, but too much good.

Nancy: I want to unpack, in a little bit, what you mean when you say “grace-paced.” But before that, Shona, you’ve got your own story and journey that you’ve been on that included the “D” word.

Shona: Yes.

Nancy: It’s not always easy for Christians to acknowledge the “D” word.

Shona: No. And it’s not easy for doctors who are Christians, especially, to acknowledge that word.

I lived my life—as a child and my teens—with the Scripture verse, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Eccl. 9:10). I brought that into every part of my life. I was enthusiastic. I always said “yes.” I loved sports. I loved my studies. I loved my family. I loved the Lord above all.

I finished medical school and then began working long hours. Everything seemed to go as normal—no ups, no downs. We got married. We had two children. David finished his studies. We had our first congregation. Everything seemed really settled, happy. Both our parents were alive, and I was enjoying motherhood. I was also working part-time as a family practitioner.

But during that time, our denomination went through some very tumultuous years and eventually split. As a consequence of that, David, and many other ministers, had to leave our denomination, which meant saying “good-bye” to our beloved congregation and move, because David, at that point, had no congregation to pick up from that point.

However, God’s providence, He brought us to a good place again. Within a year-and-a-half we had a lovely-sized congregation. Providentially, we ended up in the island that I had grown up on. And, again, I worked part-time.

Had a couple of more children, initially, two boys and two girls, but during my fourth pregnancy, not long after I got pregnant, I began to feel strange sensations of fear and anxiety. I began feeling incredibly overwhelmed.

I’d begun home education. We’d been through the church split. I was now feeling overwhelming responsibility for my children, my husband, our congregation, my aging parents, and wherever there was a need, I wanted to fulfill it.

If we had patients come in for surgery, I wanted to meet their needs and do a good job. At the same time, two marriages of people very close to me broke down. Both couples are Christian couples, and that was devastating to me—really devastating.

All these strange pressures began to drain away my resources. But I did not stop to take common sense, and what seemed like blows which I put behind me were chipping away at my mental health, my emotional well-being.

Nancy: And you just kept running.

Shona: I kept running because that’s what I always did. I used to love running and sports. Injured, you run away from it. You just don’t stop. And if you keep running fast enough and go hard enough, you will pressure it to the end.

And I really wanted to be burnt-out or spent in the Lord’s cause. I felt, “Everything I’m doing is for the Lord’s cause; therefore, He will give me strength, and I don’t have to look out for myself.”

Until, gradually, the physical symptoms began to develop, and I began to lose sleep. I couldn’t sleep. I was exhausted, but became wide awake through the night. I became very afraid, and then gradually became very afraid of God—God who was my closest friend. I felt like He was far, far away, and not only that, but that He was against me.

Nancy: Wow! Did you feel that as you read the Scripture?

Shona: Yes. And Scriptures that should have been a comfort to me, I turned against myself. If your heart condemns you, God is greater than your heart. Surely you condemn yourself; God is going to condemn you more.

My personality type tends to be overly-conscientious, so I could never satisfy my own conscience that I’d ever really done a good enough job. And I think I would translate that to what God is like. And for God, the grace extends into your everyday life as well as in your salvation from sin.

My Bible reading became so confused. I was so tired, I couldn’t concentrate. I lost my appetite. I lost my joy. I felt hopeless, dark, deep darkness, as if I’d lost my compass. My Bible now became like a strange book that I could not emotionally connect with. I couldn’t emotionally connect with God.

I was surrounded by people, like my husband and family, who loved me, and I loved them, but I felt nothing, just cold and numb.

The skies and the sea, everything around me I used to love just pondering over and seeing God’s loving, creating, power, that became like a black canvas with no connection.

I don’t know what divorce is like, but it almost felt what I’d imagine would be as if the love of your life literally walked out of your life and you never saw him again. I felt this is what had happened, that God had abandoned me.

One night in particular, as I was crying out to the Lord in tears and stress, I literally felt as if I was dropped off a cliff and there was nothing to catch me, and I was falling and falling and falling. The months that ensued were very distressing and very dark.

It was around that time I opened up to David and said, “My life is over. I feel like a ship smashed on the rocks. Whatever my life was about before, I can’t take another step forward. It’s over. There’s no point in it.”

But I was twelve weeks pregnant, and I had these children and a husband I was responsible for, and I did not know how to put one foot in front of the other. But God took me through these days, and in various ways, and it’s a miracle. I think so much of our lives are a miracle of God’s power and intervention—nd He did. That precious child today is my darling thirteen-year-old daughter.

Nancy: Wow! Well, I want to talk some of the means of grace that the Lord brought to both of you in these hard places. Just to get a little chronology here. David, was your burn-out experience prior to all of this?

David: No. Shona’s talking about a time in the early 2000 period—2002–2004—wasn’t it, Shona?

Shona: Yes, it was.

David: As for myself, 2013, onwards.

Nancy: So, you can be thankful these didn’t happen at the same time.

David/Shona: Yes.

David: Well, Nancy, listening to Shona, again, it was painful for me as a husband because I look back at these days . . . I was a pastor, and yet I was unable to help my wife. I failed. I’d been trained in seminary that something like depression, there must be a terrible sin in a Christian’s life for there to be depression in their life. And I knew my wife was more godly than I was, more spiritually conscientious. And I knew there was no major sin here, so it can’t be depression.

I would say to her things like, when there were tearful nights we spent together, me trying to lift her up. I’d say to her, “You’ve got a lovely home and a lovely church and lovely kids. Above all, you’ve got me! What else do you need?”

And she would say, “David, all these things are true, but I can’t stop crying. I can’t stop this anxiety.”

There was nothing rational; there was no logic to it. I was totally unequipped and unprepared to deal with this. It was at that point, really, I think Shona was very much on the verge of having to go into hospital.

Nancy: Did you feel like there were others you could talk to? Or did you feel like you pretty much needed to keep this to yourself?

David: Oh, no, no. We were afraid of talking. And, again, that was a big mistake, looking back. We felt if we admit to depression, the pastor’s wife admits to depression, the pastor’s ministry is over.

Shona: And I, too, was afraid that: What if people say it’s David’s fault? It’s irrational, but people are people. I had this fear. I was supposed to be a doctor, and I was supposed to know. I prescribed for patients, and I’d constantly see patients, but how come I can’t fix this?

Actually, to be honest with you, Nancy, at that point, I was convinced my problem was spiritual. I thought depression symptoms maybe, but this was a spiritual problem. That, for me, was the bull's-eye.

Nancy: I think a lot of people make that assumption. And the fact is, you can’t separate body, soul, and spirit. There are those components in everything. Everything is spiritual, and we are physical bodies, so you can’t separate all that out.

Shona: Yes. You cannot. And that’s been something that time has taught us. You can know that in theory, but you can’t . . . How often have you felt, I can’t understand myself? We’re so complex.

Nancy: Right.

Shona: Body, mind, soul, emotions.

Nancy: Much less trying to understand each other as husband and wife.

Shona: Yes. Exactly. But it’s good to have somebody alongside you who can step back and take a good, hard look at you and say, “I think this is what’s wrong with you.”

David: And that’s where your father came in, really.

Shona: Yes, my father. 

David: I was desperate. You were desperate. And this very experienced pastor came in and, really, put his finger on it straight away.

Nancy: Did you go to him?

David: We did. We called him in. And that was, really, a last gasp. Like, next day she was going into hospital if we are not helped here.

Nancy: So it was out of desperation.

David: It was.

Nancy: You just knew he was a wise man?

Shona: I’m close to both of my parents, but my father helped me a lot spiritually growing up. I was one of these kids who never had a “D” when I knew I was converted, so assurance was often a problem. I was always very introspective, so we had long talks. He counseled me a lot. We were very close. I knew he understood issues of the mind, the heart, the soul and could distinguish and direct.

I still remember that night. He’d been away. He was coming off the ferry on to the island. I called my mom, or David did. As soon as he heard, he came out to visit us, and he sat.

And one thing that sticks in my mind that he said was, “Shona, try to step outside of yourself. Try and look at this from a distance, as if you’re somebody else.”

Because he could see I was going around in circles within my own mind, and a broken mind cannot process and analyze the problem, and that was the issue.

I used to get bogged down reading books like, Grace Abounding to Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan, Christian and Complete Armor by William Gurnall. I was obsessional about these books, reading things all the time, and I would come away just in pieces. What should have helped me, I was turning against myself. It was all too much. It was too exhausting. And instead of helping myself, I was draining my emotions even more.

Until we got to a point where David basically said, “You’ve got to stop reading these books.” Literally.

David: I actually even stopped her praying at one point, Nancy, because I would go up to the room, and she would be praying. I’d come back fifteen minutes later and she was still praying, thirty minutes, she was still praying. I could see, it was almost like a torture. I said, “Shona, this isn’t helping you. Let’s just pray for one minute and walk away and leave your soul with the Lord.”

The exhaustion was only increasing with this intense focus on, “What’s the spiritual problem?” I think that’s where your dad, again . . . He had this phrase, “You are experiencing spiritual consequences, but it’s not a spiritual cause. The cause is mental, emotional, physical, and if you look into that, then I believe the spiritual blessings and comforts will return.”

Nancy: Was that a huge paradigm shift for you to think that way?

Shona: Yes and no. I believed that in theory, to a degree.

Nancy: Because you were a medical doctor?

Shona: Yes.

David: And you were treating people.

Shona: I knew my dad. I knew he was right. But there’s something about depression that’s almost delusional, and you gravitate toward the delusion. Your mind tricks you, convinces you, “Yes, that’s true, but it’s not true for me. There’s nobody in the world who understands this, and 99% of the people may recover, but I’m the 1% who’s not going to.” And that was the issue.

A lot of people will find, talking to depressed people, they can convince them up to a point, and then in two days later, they go back, and they’re back in this same world again. I’m having to revisit the same sort of thing.

Nancy: So, Shona, I’d love to hear you restate what David just said because I think this such a key observation that your dad made that, in your case, was really helpful. You thought this was all a spiritual issue.

Shona: Yes.

Nancy: And he said . . .

Shona: There are spiritual consequences, but the primary problem is emotional, physical problem, a burnout. And he and my mother had seen me in action for weeks, months, and had been worried that I was going to crash and burn. It wasn’t a complete surprise to him when this happened.

Nancy: Did that observation free you to begin to address the emotional and physical issues?

Shona: Yes. It did, temporarily, but not in a sustained way because, again, you’re dealing with something that is broken. So you can take a Band-Aid to a wound that is bleeding, and maybe for a minute or two it’s fixed. But you just wait for another five minutes, and blood is oozing out again.

That’s what it’s like, unless you deal with the underlying problem: What got you there? What can you do to remedy it? You’re traveling on along the same routes.

David: I think it was more a breakthrough for me. It was like a light-bulb moment—“Aha! Now I understand this!” Shona’s focus was on the spiritual. My focus was on the spiritual. And here a man comes in and says, “Yes, you’re feeling spiritual effects of this, but if you want to cure this, Shona, you’ve got to start looking at the physical and mental cognitive state of things and other lifestyle issues as well.”

So that gave me a framework and so the rest of the story, as I was learning what God has so graciously provided for His needy people who in these situations to provide a holistic approach to this rather than this very simplistic, one dimensional approach that we had been taking.

Nancy: And I think we have a lot of people listening right now who, as you’ve heard Shona’s story or David’s story, men or women listening, are saying, “You are describing some of the symptoms that I’m dealing with.” The details may be different, but you just really resonated. You said, “You put words to my story.”

And maybe you are, at this moment, feeling hopeless or helpless or drowning or overwhelmed. I don’t like to end a program on this note, because we haven’t moved into the grace place yet, but I want to just urge you to stay with us over these next few days because there is hope. And some of the means of grace that God brought into David and Shona’s life are going to be very encouraging to you over these next couple of days.

Maybe it’s just by starting with that breakthrough awakening that there are physical, mental, and emotional components to our lives that have spiritual consequences. Just ponder that. Think about that.

I want to encourage you to be sure and join us on the next Revive Our Hearts as we talk about Shona Murray’s new book, Refresh: Embracing a Grace-Paced Life in a World of Endless Demands.

Leslie: Thanks, Nancy.

To get a copy, call us with a donation of any amount and ask for the book, Refresh. The number is 1–800–569–5959, or you can visit ReviveOurHearts.com. Make your donation of any amount and request the book there.

Do you ever worry that God is always unhappy with you? Tomorrow Shona Murray will talk about the temptation of perfectionism. Please be back for Revive Our Hearts.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants you to be healthy in every way. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

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