Julia Hathaway is the mother of seven children ages 4-21. She received a bachelor’s degree in Marriage, Family and Human Development from BYU and says she gets to use her degree every day! When not mothering, Julia enjoys reading, writing, hiking, playing pickleball, practicing yoga and watching romantic comedies. Always eager to learn, she is currently taking classes at BYU-Idaho, just for the fun of it. Service in the Church has included time in several presidencies and teaching gospel doctrine. She was recently released as Relief Society President in her Rexburg ward. Julia sporadically shares her life and thoughts at spirituallymindedmotherhood.com.
My seventh child was just 2 months old when I was called to be Relief Society President. Little did I know that would be the least overwhelming part of my calling. Four months later, changes in the Church began and never seemed to stop. Council meetings (sitting in circles?!), combined Elder and High Priest Quorums, ministering interviews, temple changes, two-hour church, Come Follow Me, Bishop as Young Men’s President, and more.
On the ward level, we experienced great loss. Eleven deaths within six months; the twenty-first death would take place the day before my release. One seasoned sister in the ward, empathizing with my burden, said, “I have never seen so many losses under one president.”
Amidst all of these church challenges, my personal life had its own — my father was dying of cancer, my oldest was graduating from high school and preparing for a mission, my husband was building a new program at BYU-Idaho, and I still had six other children and a home to manage.
Oh! And let’s throw a pandemic in there as well!
It’s no wonder I began a Google search on, “How to avoid burnout in a calling.” In my search, I stumbled upon a forum of disgruntled members and was astounded to learn that many had left the Church because of burnout. Honestly, I empathized with them because I was feeling similar emotions. Not wanting to go down that path, however, I stopped reading the forum and instead asked myself, “What is wrong with this picture?”
Living the gospel requires a little bit of sacrifice. Actually, a whole lot of sacrifice! From the age of 8 we make covenants to comfort those who stand in need of comfort, to mourn with those who mourn, and bear one another’s burdens. The scriptures are fraught with commandments to love one another, to give of our substance, to lose ourselves in service. We continue to make covenants, sacrificing all our gifts and talents to build up the Kingdom of God. And yet, we are also commanded to not run faster than is needful. From my experience, both as a member and as a Relief Society President, many Saints (especially women) seem to be racing to the Celestial Kingdom. Interestingly, those who are not racing feel some lack in themselves as if they are not measuring up. This perfectionism on both sides is another topic for another day, but ultimately, both can lead to burnout when trying to serve diligently in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
First, some thoughts on burnout — what it is and what it is not. Burnout does not mean “stressed out.” Stress is not bad. In all actuality, stress is good for us — it keeps us safe and propels us to move forward. As Elder Bednar has reminded us, we need some weight in the back of our trucks in order to succeed. It’s also not the amount of stress we have that’s unhealthy. What makes stress positive or negative in our lives is how we release it.
In their book, Burnout: Completing the Stress Cycle, Emily and Amelia Nagoski write,
“To be ‘well’ is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safe and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you (p. 27).”
Their research shows that stress is stored in our bodies with every stressor we encounter. When that stress builds up, our bodies react, leading to mental or physical illness. After two years of serving as Relief Society President, I broke down. I cried every day for six weeks straight! I was definitely burnt out.
Burnout vs. Empathic Fatigue
But I’m not sure I was experiencing burnout so much as empathic fatigue. Dr. Mario Martinez explains it this way,
“Interestingly, too much caretaking leads to a disorder called empathic fatigue. It has the same symptoms as burnout but a different cause. Without self-caring limits, the workaholic archetype leads to burnout, and the caretaking type leads to empathic fatigue.”
The Nagoskis would call this Human Giver Syndrome (pp 62-66).
Most humans have a desire to be good, to serve, to love others, and to help when there is a need. Author Henry Cloud writes, “Our ability to give and respond to love is our greatest gift. The heart that God has fashioned in his image is the center of our being (Boundaries: When To Say Yes, How to Say No).”
Not surprisingly, burnout is much more common among women. But why? One reason is that womanhood in and of itself is a state of “chronic, low-level stress” simply because of how our brains function. Our biology’s are different. Women will typically persist longer than men (i.e., suffer through the pain), and it takes twice as long for a woman’s brain to shift into helplessness than a man’s (Nagoski, p.84). So when a woman is told to stop doing so much or worry less, that is not how it works! If anything, that type of language only adds stress. Though we want men and women to be equal in the Church, there are some physical differences to which we must pay attention.
So, what can we do to minimize burnout in our time-intensive callings?
The term “boundaries” means more than just saying no and setting limits. Boundaries also refer to knowing where you end and another begins, emotionally. When we hear “lose yourself in service” we often believe we must be self-sacrificial to the point of exhaustion. We learn from our Savior this is not the case. Christ set boundaries. Some of these boundaries come by way of commandments, but even during his mortal life, Jesus was aware of his own boundaries. Here are some examples:
” And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.” Matthew 14:23 “23
“While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Luke 8:19-21; Matt. 12:46-50
Jesus knew when to help, when to rest, when to work, when to walk away. He knew His mission and who He was. He also called on others to help Him with His mission.
According to the Nagoski sisters, self-care isn’t so much about taking care of yourself but rather, knowing there are others who are caring for your needs as well. As Christ entered the garden of His sacrifice, He asked his disciples to stay awake with Him. Though they failed in the task, this shows the Savior’s need for support in fulfilling His calling.
While serving, one of the best things I did was to assign myself great ministering sisters. Oftentimes as leaders we think other people need ministering more than we do. As Relief Society President we are constantly giving of ourselves, it’s the least we can do to build our own support system. I remember the day my ministering sisters asked what they could do for me. In tears I said, “I just need prayers. I need to know there are two people in the ward thinking about and praying for me.” That changed our relationship drastically and it lifted my burdens exponentially.
My presidency members were also a source of strength for me. We took the time to build unity and love. Our meetings were long, but we enjoyed them simply because we enjoyed being with one another. My counselors and secretary were there to enhance my strengths, carry my burdens, and lift when I was down. One of the most tender moments for me was when I had to go down to Utah to take care of my parents. As I traveled home, I was wondering how I could possibly continue in my calling. At our next meeting, before I could even say a word, these sweet sisters told me, “We’ve already talked about it. You don’t need to be released. We can do it!” I felt more loved and supported in that moment, not only for my calling but in my personal life, than I ever had before. It still brings tears to my eyes.
“The steppingstone to joy is feeling like you are ‘enough,’ and feeling ‘not enough’ is a form of loneliness. We need other people to tell us that we are enough, not because we don’t know it already, but because the act of hearing it from someone else— and (equally) the act of taking the time to remind someone else they’re enough — is part of what makes us feel we’re enough. We give and we receive, and we are made whole (Nagoski, 214).”
I believe delegation is underused and misunderstood in the Church. In the General Handbook we read:
The Savior gave His disciples meaningful assignments and responsibilities. He also held them accountable by following up and asking them to report on the work they were assigned to do. (See Luke 10:1–17.).
Delegating also blesses others, helping them grow and receive the blessings that come from serving. Strive to engage all members in doing God’s work.
Do we emphasize enough what delegation does for those invited to serve or for the unity of a ward as a whole? Delegation — serving together — strengthens relationships, gives members a sense of belonging, and builds connections amongst a ward. President Gordon B. Hinckley once stated that every member needed a friend, a responsibility, and nourishment in the word of God. Delegation gives our members all three!
The Nagoskis write,
“Social connection is a form of nourishment, like food. Contact with another person is a basic biological need, loneliness is a form of starvation….We need each other! No one is complete without other people (133-135).”
Delegation is one of the best ways to form such a social connection.
We can’t talk about Relief Society and delegation without talking about ministering! For the past few years, Church leaders have been emphasizing the power of an invitation. In a regional training we were taught, “Ministering is inviting people to action.” Our members need to know they are needed in a way that they can give. In that same training, Elder Uchtdorf taught, “Invitation is the matter…Inviting others to help leads to feelings that they belong and are a part.” Leaders are often hesitant to invite because they don’t want to overburden the members. It’s easier to send out a mass email asking for volunteers. However, when people feel loved they will do anything. Likewise, when we invite our members to serve, they feel loved.
The last principle I believe helps with burnout is this: “You are the expert on you (Nagoski).”
I really struggled with being myself in the beginning. I wanted to obey my bishop. I wanted to listen to my counselors. I felt overwhelmed with how to manage a time-consuming calling and my responsibilities in the home. There were 165 women who needed me. This constant trying to please everyone caused a lot of mistakes in the beginning, some I wish I could reverse even to this day!
However, there were two things I did at the beginning that really helped me to stay true to myself. First, I read Daughters in my Kingdom. As I read, I took note of the few things that stood out to me concerning the purpose of Relief Society. Using these few points, I wrote a personal mission statement. This gave me purpose. Whenever I felt myself getting lost in the busy work, I would turn back to my mission statement and recenter myself.
Second, I knocked on every door within the first month or two. I wanted to know the sisters I was to serve. I had their names, but I wanted faces. I also wanted them to know me. You don’t reach out to someone you don’t know. And this was my greatest purpose, my greatest why — that every sister felt known, seen, and heard. At one point I was asked, “Does that really work?” My answer was, “Yes!” Because that is who I am — someone unafraid of knocking on a stranger’s door and saying, “I want to know you!”
Our bishop would frequently remind me, “You were called to be you.” When I allowed myself to shine, rather than trying too hard to please everyone else, I felt strengthened not burdened. I felt invigorated to do more rather than overwhelmed with what needed to be done. Don’t dim your light!
Burnout is real! I hate to admit this, but it has taken me several months since being released to feel the desire to serve again.
In his conference talk, “Lift Where You Stand,” Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught that
“every calling provides an opportunity to serve and to grow. The Lord organized the Church in a way that offers each member an opportunity for service, which, in turn, leads to personal spiritual growth.”
And boy have I grown!
Burnout is also avoidable! Sacrifice is a true and necessary principle of the gospel of Jesus Christ, yes; but we are also taught, “be not weary in well-doing (Thess. 3:13).” Rather than using this to put on a happy face, we can also interpret this to mean “don’t wear yourselves thin.” We can set boundaries in getting our own needs met, use the Lord’s pattern of delegation, and love our neighbors as ourselves. It is His strength that carries us if we believe in and utilize the tools which He has given — individually and collectively.