The Courage of Commitment, Part 2: Burnout and Perseverance

by David Norgard, Associate Faculty, MA in Organizational Management Program


Burning bright now, but... (photo by Sebastian Ritter via Wikimedia Commons)

As mentioned in my first article on courage of commitment, most leaders of faith-based and community and membership organizations genuinely want to make a positive difference. We want to have an impact – on individuals, on their communities, on the environment.

Sometimes the vision is even grander. We want to change our society, our world – or some aspect of it anyway. And this is all very good because we know that change doesn’t happen without people willing to step up as change agents.

Yet sooner or later, the road toward progress no longer invigorates us with exciting challenges and illuminating vistas and meetings with inspirational figures. On the contrary, the problems seem intractable. The views have long since become tedious. The individuals with whom we contend generate more stress than comfort. What we dared to call our mission, our calling, has become our burden, depleting us more than invigorating us.

The Road Too Long, the Summit Too High

We call it burnout and the metaphor is apt. It is as if, in serving as a light to our chosen corner of the world, we have not stopped to put more oil in our lamp and our flame has nearly gone out.

There are two kinds of burnout:

  • The road too long. In the first instance, we do not blame ourselves. We recognize that our efforts are sound, our motivations sincere. Yet the pace of progress seems agonizingly slow, the force of our impact distressingly minute. We have worked so very long and so very hard, yet the end is not in sight. And eventually, it is only sane to wonder: Is it worth it? Or, is it futile? This is the burnout of perceived hopelessness – hopelessness despite our best efforts.
  • The summit too high. In the second instance, we do blame ourselves. We come to the sinking realization that we were not the right person at the right time after all. We are not up to the challenge. We know how to empower volunteers, perhaps, but what is actually needed is a magic piper to elicit major gifts. We have skills and good intentions. But in the given context, we really don’t have what it takes. This is the burnout of perceived inadequacy, when our best is not good enough.

Avoiding Burnout

So how do we avoid these self-defeating interpretations of our situation? How do we avoid either turning back or just wandering away? The answer depends on whether the perceived challenge is a road too long or a summit too high.

In the first case, it is fundamentally a matter of perception of context. If we are engaged in one of the great historical struggles and wearied by the likely prospect that we will never see a battle won, let alone the final victory, then the hopelessness on the surface may be covering a deeper problem. Perhaps the real issue (yes, ironically) is hubris. In the great works – against war, against global warming, for peace, for a humanity in harmony with the rest of creation – even a moment’s reasoned reflection will remind us that our entire life-work is, after all, but a short leg in a long relay. When we are at our best, we are all team players, and to the team with the most courageous and persevering players goes the victory. In any profound struggle, there are but a few Mandelas and Salks and Churchills who are cheered as they cross the finish line. Most of us are here to ensure that the baton is passed to the next runner. Our hope and our satisfaction rightly come from ensuring – simply yet crucially – that the forward movement continues.

In the second case, there are two possibilities. Maybe we have been deceiving ourselves. Maybe we are in the wrong position or the right position for too long. If that is so, then the courageous thing to do is to step aside and let someone else step up.

But it could also be that we have simply not been good stewards of our strength. We have let ourselves get too tired, and with the exhaustion has come self-doubt.

Then, What To Do?

We take rest. We stop and reflect, even if the voice of duty keeps chirping, “There is still work to be done.” We rest anyway. We close the inbox. We step away from the conference room. We turn off the mobile phone… And we look back. We look on what has been done thus far, what has transpired to date because we have stayed true to our mission. In the words of Dag Hammarskjold, we say to ourselves, or perhaps a confidant, “For everything that has been, thanks.” …and most critically… ”For everything that will be, yes.”

And at the first stirring of renewed creativity, which is the signal of renewed hope, we proceed to act. We banish the hope and we act, with confidence

A Final, Personal Reflection

When the conflicts are waxing and the money is waning and the glow of accomplishment is growing dimmer rather than brighter, it is tempting sometimes to say, “Enough.” But a mission is there to be done, a calling is made to be answered. And so, if the call is indeed heard and the mission remains true, what can we do? We can go on. We may need to rest… but in the service of saying – again – “Yes.”

ImageIn addition to being an Associate Faculty member in the M.A. in Organizational Management Program of Antioch University Los Angeles, David Norgard is the founder of OD180, a consulting firm that develops strategies for nonprofit organizations. He has also held leadership roles on various nonprofit boards and committees. At present, he serves as the President of Integrity USA, the Episcopal Church’s LGBT advocacy group. A graduate of AULA’s M.A. in Organizational Management program, David currently serves as Chair of AULA’s Alumni & Community Advisory Board. He also holds a B.A. magna cum laude from Augsburg College and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, where he received a Dean’s Citation for Community Service and an Award of Distinction among Alumni.
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With nearly 6000 distinguished alumni, AULA has been honored to serve the diverse communities of the greater Los Angeles area for nearly 40 years. As once described by the LA Times, we offer “an unconventional education” where our “tradition of innovation and activism endures.” AULA is a dynamic, small, HLC accredited, non-profit institution that is passionate about our core values (social justice, service to community, life long learning) and how we learn (wedding theory to practice, with a strong emphasis on adult learners, small classes, and encouraging the full potential of each student).

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