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Hope for Healing Burnout
Spirituality Column #28

By Rev. A. Stephen Pieters

April 1998

Some of you may have noticed I haven't written any new columns here for The Body in a few months. When my job as Director of AIDS Ministry for the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) ended, I decided to take a month off from doing anything AIDS-related, and it ended up being four months off. It just seemed like the right thing to do. After all, I had been doing AIDS work for 15 years. I developed church resources and programs. I served on a variety of AIDS service organizations' boards. I worked as a chaplain in hospices and hospitals. I often appeared in the media as a "poster boy" for AIDS survival. I traveled throughout the world, trying to inspire people to live fully with HIV and AIDS. I wrote pamphlets, articles, and a book on living with AIDS. I led grief workshops and healing circles. For over a decade, I buried countless friends and family in rapid succession. And I have lived with AIDS myself since the early 1980s, successfully battling numerous opportunistic infections, Kaposi's sarcoma, and lymphoma. By the end of my time at MCC, I was thoroughly exhausted, stressed out, angry, and frustrated.

Everything looked bleak.

So, I thought a month off would be just what I needed. I hadn't been able to find any work in the AIDS field, or in a local church. So, I went to work for publishing company in the entertainment world. ("And now, for something completely different --" as Rocky or Bullwinkle would say.) Of course, I haven't take any time off from my self-care as a person living with HIV: I continue my medications, doctors' appointments, and self-care program with great dedication. But I decided to stop reading every little tidbit about HIV on the Internet. I stopped writing for The Body. I avoided conversations about HIV/AIDS, and steered them away from the subject when it did come up. I chose not to watch or listen or read anything about HIV/AIDS in the media. Aside from self-care and safer sex, I acted as if there were no such thing as AIDS.

So here I am, writing again after 4 months off. I'll be answering your questions on my Q&A page again, and writing my monthly column here as well. Meanwhile, I've been reflecting on how my long vacation from AIDS ministry went ...

For one thing, I didn't realize how much I needed the break until I stopped working. A month's break turned into four months. My friends at The Body kindly allowed me to take this break, and one of them urged me to write about it when I finally did come back. There are no doubt many readers of The Body in my situation -- certainly burnout is a major issue for AIDS workers.

At first, I felt a certain resistance about stepping back from AIDS ministry. For a long while, it felt as if HIV were the only language I knew, and quickly, I had to learn a new language to be in the rest of the world. I could feel specific HIV issues pulling me back. There is such urgency about each HIV issue. It was tempting to spend my suddenly free time engaging in chat on the Internet about a variety of HIV-related issues, or to get involved with another organization doing AIDS work. It was difficult to turn down speaking engagements. AIDS ministry is my area of expertise. It is what I know I can do, and I had always felt such an urgent calling. That didn't stop just because I was tired and without a job.

Then there was the guilt. I had been given so much in my own recovery from AIDS. How could I abandon, even for a short while, my mission of giving people hope, understanding, and inspiration to live fully with HIV and AIDS?

Part of the guilt had to do with my old Protestant work ethic: did Jesus or the disciples take a leave of absence when they felt burned out? We certainly don't have any record of extended vacations in the Gospels. But on closer reading, Jesus did take time to go off by himself, and invited his disciples to do the same. In Mark 6:31, Jesus asks the disciples to "come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." (New Revised Standard Version). Unfortunately, the crowds follow, and Jesus teaches and feeds the crowd through the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Then Jesus sends everyone away, including the disciples, and goes up on the mountain by himself to pray (Mark 6:46). It is significant to me that Jesus told his followers to rest, and himself took time to reflect and pray away from the center of his ministry to the people.

As time passed during my break, it became easier to let go of the guilt, and the sense of urgency. What do you know, the AIDS world went on just fine without me! It was great. It felt wonderful. It felt so good, that it was tempting to keep this break going indefinitely. I could feel myself nurturing the thought that "I've done my time," and "It's time for a new generation to take over." I felt myself healing in emotional places I didn't know were wounded. Even with all the El Nino storms here in Southern California, it felt like the sun had finally come out after a long, gray winter. I took tremendous delight in not being an AIDS activist, for the first time in a decade and a half. I began to dread coming back to work in AIDS ministry. So, I took a little more time off. Gradually, I began to feel the genuine desire to get involved again.

Being a person of faith can be enormously demanding. When people believe strongly in God's loving presence and activity, a natural response is to take action: to do and be what God is calling you to do and be. That action may be in loving service to others. It may be pursuing a social activist agenda. It may be proclaiming the Good News, and giving hope to those who need it. Whatever the calling, the path is rarely easy. Self-care and rest is expected. It is OK to take a break even from an urgent calling. Every one of us needs renewal and healing from time to time.

In AIDS care giving, it is particularly important. How can we expect to give others hope, healing, inspiration, and comfort when we ourselves are despairing, wounded, empty, and frustrated?

One of the tricks seems to be in recognizing when we need good, long breaks from AIDS work. In spite of all my burnout symptoms, I didn't see the need in myself until I was forced to stop. It's important to remember that no one is so important that God can't spare her or him for a vacation every now and then.

Burnout is a very real phenomenon. But there is hope for healing! Vacations or sabbaticals are acceptable and effective ways of beginning to deal with burnout. Moving on to another field is permitted too! If you're feeling you just can't answer that telephone one more time, or that you can't respond lovingly to another person in crisis, you're not alone. This is hard work.

In one sense, I'm grateful that MCC decided to scale back their denominational AIDS Ministry. It forced me to take a break I didn't know I needed. Now, after four months of relaxation, reflection, and renewal, I feel eager to enter the fray again.

I highly recommend an extended leave from AIDS ministry or care giving! For me, the break was a Resurrection experience. As we celebrated Easter this month, I felt as if I were being raised from the dead right along with Jesus!

To paraphrase a line from "Amazing Grace," I was burned out, and now I'm re-lit! Thanks be to God. And on with the work at hand!

©1998 by the Rev. A. Stephen Pieters

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