How To Combat Burnout

Do you have a purpose?

A sense of purpose is absolutely essential to any great endeavor. People will stretch the limits of endurance and sacrifice for a purpose in which they believe.

I’d like to look a bit deeper at the notion of Tending The Flame. You can read the entire story by clicking the link, but the cliff-notes version involves an ancient Olympic torch-carrier who’s so intent on running fast that he allows the flame to die. He completes the run anyway, and is disappointed when his record-setting feat isn’t acknowledged.

He was so busy running the race that he forgot to tend the flame.


I’ve known people like this. Long hours at work, impossibly high expectations, striving to be the best parent, best spouse, best leader, best employee or employer, best, best, …

Then one day they realize that the flame’s gone. The passion that inspired them at the beginning of the journey has died. Their entire purpose, their sense of meaning, has disappeared.

But they keep running, because running is all they know. But the running no longer has purpose. The flame’s dead, which is why it’s called burnout.

I’ve seen tragic results—marriages and families lost, careers destroyed, integrity compromised. Many times there’s a sense of disillusionment—after all I did, this is how they thank me?

As a teacher, I watched colleagues literally run themselves into the ground. They wanted to save every troubled kid, reach every reluctant learner. And that’s a good thing; that’s the flame that drives dedicated, passionate teachers.

But somewhere along the line it becomes about the assignments and the work and the grades rather than the kids. They drive themselves harder, run faster, and begin to resent the ungrateful students, administrators, and parents who don’t seem to appreciate their sacrifice. The passion dies, replaced by bitterness, but they keep running. Ever encountered a teacher (or pastor or boss) like that?

Even been like that? I have.

A Few Principles

So what can we learn from this?

You need to identify the flame. It’s the reason at the center of everything that matters to you, the passion that inspires you, the core values that make the race worthwhile.

Some of us might need to look back a ways to identify it. We’ve been running so long, and we need to stop and remember why we chose this particular race.

You may discover that you’re running without a reason. You may discover that it’s time to choose a different race.

You are responsible for your part of the flame. Nobody else will care for it if you don’t. Others can extinguish it if you allow them, but no one else can tend it for you.

You have to know what fuels the flame. Even the greatest passion will die without fuel. You must identify ways to re-fill the tank and then take time to do it.

And if you say there’s no time, remember that the flame is the core, the reason beneath all else. It’s not a priority—it’s the highest priority.

You have to monitor the flame. When you notice a flicker, you must slow down or even stop. That’s counter-intuitive, especially if the flicker happens when other demands press from all sides.

But if you keep running full speed, you risk reaching the destination without the flame. All of your effort and sacrifice will be wasted. And you’ll wonder how you could run so well and end up so empty.

Flame-tending isn’t the purpose, either. You can’t be so concerned with nurturing the flame that you completely stop running. A torch-carrier sitting by the road, afraid to move, is as useless as one who arrives with an extinguished torch.

You don’t own the flame, and it will continue to burn without you. This is a tough one. But thinking of the Olympic torch-carrier, the flame still burns at its source. Essential flames are like that.

It’s not your program or organization. They’re not your students—they’re not even your children. You don’t own the flame. You’re responsible for nurturing the part of it that’s placed in your care, but it belongs to something bigger than any individual.

It’s not your ministry or your church. You do your best to contribute, care for, and fuel the flame, but you’re a steward. The flame belongs to God.

Imagine the torch-carrier who became so attached to his flame that he refused to allow anyone else to touch it. He might get it to the stadium, but it’s useless if he keeps it to himself.

My Take

Personally, I’m thinking of this metaphor in the context of Relentless Grace. You don’t move from thirty-five years teaching math to writing and publishing a book without a significant sense of purpose. When I began this journey I was clear about the passion that inspired me to take such a huge risk.

But writing and speaking can easily become a race in which running becomes the focus.

I wish more people would read and listen, so I become immersed in attracting bigger numbers. I want people to hear the book’s message, so I get concerned with book sales. Even worse, I experience a bit of success. I like the feedback, and I seek more.

And suddenly it’s all about numbers and sales and more.

Those things aren’t the flame. Sharing a story of God’s grace, serving others, expressing gratitude—those are the flame that inspires all of this.

Most importantly, I never want to forget that Relentless Grace is not my story. My experiences create background or context, but the story belongs to God. I’m only a steward.

I want to be a good steward, so I do want to run the race well. After all, the flame’s useless unless it eventually reaches its destination. So I do want to sell books and bring more people into the circle. But those aren’t the flame.

You’re the flame. You’re the fuel. You’re the reason for this race.

How about you? What’s your biggest challenge in tending your flame?

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Copyright 2010 by Rich Dixon, All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.

Rich is an author and speaker. He is the author of:

Relentless Grace: God’s Invitation To Give Hope Another Chance. Visit his web site

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