Burned Out on God: The Secret Struggle of A Seminary Student

Working with students has been one of the deepest joys of my life. This month, I am pleased to feature guest blogger Katie Rawlston, who shares from the heart about her journey through student burnout.

“Katie, what do you do for fun?”

The blank expression on my face revealed that I had no immediate answer. In a meeting I had requested with Dr. Michelle Pokorny, assistant director for Spiritual Formation (at DTS), I had zero words. As a sixth-year student in the Th.M. program and still twenty-plus hours from graduating, I only knew I had a problem: burnout.

I also knew I needed help navigating the solution. I had neglected proper rest for so long, I did not know how to relax or have fun anymore. Everything I touched—whether in school, at work, or in relationships—felt like a broken form of risk-management. In my (failed) attempts to balance the demands of school, work, and life, I existed in a constant state of exhaustion. I could no longer problem solve or think straight. Activities that used to bring me joy simply fell flat. I no longer enjoyed exercise or catching up with friends. Going to a movie, or any social gathering, caused feelings of guilt, yet I still had a mile-long to-do list that never seemed to budge. And the thought of thriving seemed to elude me—it had become a distant dream with no real hopes of coming to fruition.

Seminary provides an excellent opportunity to learn about God, his Word, and the world. It also tends to attract over-achievers, and the magnitude of studying God happens at an intensity no one can truly prepare for. Often described as “drinking from a fire hydrant,” “keeping the plates spinning,” and “living in a pressure cooker,” seminary lives up to all the metaphors surrounding it. And like a pop quiz, the unwritten curriculum of life has a way of showing up when you least expect it: financial strain, budgeting, relationship troubles, medical issues, car trouble, more bills, familial strife, adulting, loneliness—and a seemingly distant God.

Before you know it, the pressure builds and the spinning plates start dropping.

My experience with burnout, like most, happened gradually over time. After years of unrest—in the name of “perseverance,” “pushing through,” and “denying myself”—fear, people-pleasing, and constant self-doubt set in. Anxiety and depression hit me hard (though I did not fully realize this until later). Negative self-talk raged within my mind, and feelings of purposelessness and near hopelessness hung over me like a dark cloud. I felt heavy. Though I would have occasional moments of clarity and lightheartedness, I could not seem to rise and stay above it this time. I finally realized I had entered burnout territory.

Dr. Pokorny researched burnout for her dissertation and explained to me in greater detail what others had tried to tell me: I had to learn how to manage stress. I had to learn how to rest. I had to learn Sabbath.

When burnout occurs, close examination will usually show three neglected areas: rest (both physical rest and soul-nourishing activities), people (consistently pouring yourself out without replenishing), and the means in which you connect to God (prayer, solitude, spiritual disciplines, etc.). We must attend to our needs for rest, people, and connecting with God, and create that space for rest and renewal so that we can continue in the good work God has for us! If we do not, burnout can occur. Stress has a way of beating us down. If we do not find ways to make time to nourish our souls, we will not survive. Sadly, this occurs quite often in seminaries and ministry settings, though it can happen to anyone at any time in any profession.

If, like me, you find yourself in a season of burnout, take heart: burnout signals a need for change in one or more areas of life. Good can come from it. Burnout forces you to take a long, hard look at what you think and believe about yourself and about God, and the hermeneutics under which you operate daily. I finally recognized my need for rest and began the process of creating boundaries with myself and in my relationships, to properly align everything under God’s goodness and grace.

Learn how to make time for rest and renewal. God’s good gift of Sabbath—a command, not a suggestion (Ex. 20:8-11, 31:11-18)—helps us to remember our finitude and directs us in proper worship. In your striving for excellence, remember to offer God your imperfections and weakness as an act of worship. Trust him with your work and rest.

God can redeem anything and anyone, even in a season of burnout, though sometimes it may take longer than we like. We must trust the process. Remember, God can handle our doubts, fears, insecurities, and pain. He is good, always. Trust him.

Katie Rawlston is a current Th.M. student hoping to graduate in 2020. Though she has a wide range of interests, she has finally submitted to God's divine design and is pursuing her calling in Media Arts. Her favorite pastimes include quality conversations (usually involving theology, the arts, and personality theory), lifting weights, and literally stopping to smell the roses. She is energized most by connecting with people, finds her sweet spot acting on stage, and will always pause to show off pictures of her Great Dane, Brooks.

Dr. Michelle Pokorny serves as an Adjunct Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, teaching D.Min classes on Spiritual Formation, Spiritual Disciplines, and Soul Care. Michelle developed a passion for women’s ministry during her college years while serving as a counselor at Pine Cove Christian Camps. Her desire to see women thrive in their gifting led her to DTS to gain a solid biblical and theological foundation. After receiving her MACE in Women’s Ministry, Dr. Pokorny began working with East-West Ministries, International, where she served in Human Resources and on the International Women’s Ministries Training Team. Michelle's doctoral work focused on burnout and soul-care among Christian leaders. Michelle is married to Mark and their favorite hobbies include traveling, exercising, and enjoying food and laughter with friends and family. They have one active toddler, Alexander.