Ready or not, a new academic year is here! As soon as the calendar flips to August, my mind shifts from vacation to preparing for fall courses and setting goals for the new year. One goal on my list for 2023-2024 is spiritual wellness. Spiritual wellness is critical for my success as a Christian professor. When I am spiritually well, I am empowered to care for the students God places in my classes. I am also less likely to experience professional burnout.
Much has been written in the news over the past several years about teacher burnout. Research from the 2022 Gallup Poll1 on occupational burnout revealed that 44% of teachers in K-12 education in the United States said they very often or always felt burned out at work. This is the leading occupation for burnout among 14 professions listed in the data. While many are familiar with statistics about K-12 teacher burnout, what may not be as well-known are burnout rates for university employees. They rank second on the list with 35% always or very often feeling burned out at work. That equates to one in every three of us in higher education.
What is burnout and why are professors susceptible to it?
According to Blazer2, “Burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion resulting from chronic stress. It is characterized by feelings of alienation, indifference, and low self-regard, a loss of interest in work, and an inability to perform one’s day-to-day job duties” (1). Teaching, whether at the K-12 level or higher education, is a serving profession. It requires investing in students’ overall well-being in addition to students’ cognitive development. For those in Christian universities, we also invest in our students’ spiritual development, seeking to care for them as whole beings created in the image of God. This can become exhausting at times causing professors to burn out. The current cultural contexts have only exasperated faculty burnout. Chessman3 attributes higher levels of faculty burnout to the pandemic, race tensions, and the increase in student mental health issues.
As I ponder burnout and its potential impact on me as a Christian professor, I am reminded of the fascinating story of Elijah. Tucked away in 1 Kings 19, we find the prophet Elijah experienced burn out. He had witnessed God do an incredible miracle on Mount Carmel. Yet, when threatened by King Ahab’s wife Jezebel, he fled in fear. After running to the point of exhaustion, he sat down in the desert and asked God to take his life. Elijah went from a mountaintop experience to the valley of despair in days. James 5:17 reminds us that Elijah was a human being just like we are. As humans, we are limited by our own humanity. We have physical needs and emotional needs which we can’t ignore. Burnout is real, and we are susceptible to it. Like Elijah, we are quick to forget God’s promises and lose sight of His incredible plans for our lives when our needs are not met.
How do we combat burnout?
Three things helped Elijah overcome burnout. First, he rested. Second, the Lord sent an angel to care for his physical needs of food and water. Third, the Lord spoke to Elijah. After traveling forty days to a cave on Mount Horeb, the Lord told Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain for He was going to pass by. As the passage goes, there was a strong wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but the Lord was not in any of those. The Lord was in the sound of a low whisper. When Elijah experienced God’s presence, he was renewed and refocused on God’s plan for his life. Elijah overcame burnout by allowing the Lord to attend to his physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
Likewise, we can prevent burnout by attending to our needs. As Christian professors, caring for others can take priority over our own personal needs especially as we are called to love and consider the needs of others before our own (Philippians 2:3). Yet, we can’t neglect personal self-care. Just as our students are whole beings created in God’s image, so are we as faculty. Self-care includes physical, psychological, spiritual, and emotional wellness.4
What is spiritual wellness?
As I mentioned at the start, one of my goals this year is spiritual wellness. What I have found over the years is I do well in preparing physically by getting adequate rest and academically by studying materials prior to class, but I am not as diligent in preparing spiritually. When the semester gets busy, the papers to grade begin to pile up, and my PowerPoint needs to be updated for my next class session, I may resort to spending less quality time on my own spiritual nourishment. Yet, this time is the very thing that I need to be in tune with how God is working in the lives of my students and to ascertain how I can care for their academic, emotional, and spiritual needs. I must remain connected to the whisper that Elijah experienced on Mount Horeb. It made all the difference in his perspective and will for mine as well.
In researching spiritual wellness, I was surprised to discover that spiritual wellness is not only a concern for Christians but also for others. For example, The University of Arizona5 explains spiritual wellness is “your sense of connection to something larger than yourself, values, meaning, ethics, or faith.” The student health services at Georgetown University6 state that “spiritual wellness explores your sense of meaning and existence in life to then fulfill your purpose.” Geary7 promotes a variety of ways for people to expand their spiritual wellness ranging from looking for deeper meanings in life, to yoga, to travel, to positive thinking, or meditation. Interestingly, there have been some empirical studies on spiritual wellness. Pong8 found that higher levels of spiritual well-being and spiritual health have a significant correlation in the decrease of employee burnout. Another study by Ismail et al.9 found there was a significant negative direct effect between spiritual intelligence and burnout. Thus, the higher one’s score in spiritual intelligence, the lower the score on burnout.
What about Spiritual wellness for the Christian?
Strategies for spiritual wellness for the Christian are not rocket-science. However, in the busy pace of life, these fundamental disciplines of the faith are easily cast off. In the book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Comer10 names the busy, hurried life as the archenemy of spiritual wellness. He describes four principles for a spiritually well life. Others have written about these same principles, but I find Comer’s alliterated list short and concise. The principles are simple and straightforward to understand but can be more challenging to implement.
Comer’s first principle is silence and solitude. To remain spiritually well, we need to spend time with God every day. In solitude, we read the Bible, pray, and simply rest in God’s presence. Too often, we hurry through our devotions or our prayer list and leave little time to sit in silence to meditate or listen. Research on spiritual wellness conducted by Chiricio11 found that personal prayer was one way to prevent teacher burnout.
The second principle is practicing the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a gift from God. Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word ‘shabbat’ which means to stop. It is a day to pause our work and delight in the Lord and His creation. Comer explains, “The Sabbath is like a governor on the speed of life … All week long we work, we play, we cook, we clean, we shop, we exercise, we answer text messages, we inhabit the modern world, but finally we hit a limit. On the Sabbath, we slow down; more than that, we come to a full stop” (171). There are several studies that have been done on the benefits of Sabbath-keeping. For example, Cheng et al.12 studied the Sabbath-keeping practices of 1300 Christian school teachers in USA, Canada, Indonesia, and Paraguay and found a significant inverse relationship between Sabbath-keeping and burnout.
The third principle to spiritual wellness is simplicity. Keeping our lives simple is good for our souls. Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 6:6-8 (ESV) that “godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” We can be spiritually well by removing the distractions from our lives. Hebrews 12:1 (ESV) challenges us to “throw off everything that hinders us” from living a life devoted to the Lord.
The fourth principle is slowing. Slowing is built on the idea that if we slow down our pace, we will slow down our lives. Honestly, this is the hardest one for me. There is always one more email to answer, one more paper to grade, or one more meeting to attend. I thrive on a fast-paced life. I rush from one activity to the next filling each waking moment with activity. Yet, Jesus invites us to come to Him and experience rest (Matthew 11:28). Jonny Diaz’s song, Breathe13, captures this so well. He writes:
Ninety miles an hour going fast as I can
Trying to push a little harder trying to get the upper hand
So much to do in so little time, it’s a crazy life
It’s ready, set, go it’s another wild day
When the stress is on the rise in my heart I feel you say just
Breathe, just breathe
Come and rest at my feet
And be, just be
Chaos calls but all you really need
Is to take it in, fill your lungs
The peace of God that overcomes
Just breathe (just breathe)
let your weary spirit rest
Lay down what’s good and find what’s best
Just breathe (just breathe)
And so, as I begin the 2023-2024 academic year, I want to be spiritually well. I don’t want to be a tired, worn-out professor. I want to be refreshed and vibrant for my students. Comer’s four principles of Silence/Solitude, Sabbath, Simplicity, and Slowing are a path to spiritual wellness. I am ready to trade in the rush for rest. How about you? The whisper is calling….
- Marken, Stephanie, and Sangeeta Agrawal. “K-12 Workers Have Highest Burnout Rates in U.S,” Gallup Education, June 13, 2023, https://news.gallup.com/poll/393500/workers-highest-burnout-rate.aspx.
- Christine Blazer, “Teacher Burnout,” (ED536515, Eric, 2010), 1-22. https://files.eric.ed.gov/?id=ED536515
- Hollie M. Chessman, “Effective Strategies for Combating Faculty Burnout,” Higher Education Today, May, 18, 2023, https://www.higheredtoday.org/2023/05/18/effective-strategies-for-combating-faculty-burnout/
- Linda Monk, “4 Key Dimensions of Self-Care,” Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute, accessed August 28, 2023, https://ctrinstitute.com/blog/4-key-dimensions-self-care/
- “Spiritual Wellness,” The University of Arizona Counseling & Psych Services, accessed August 28, 2023, https://caps.arizona.edu/spiritual-wellness
- “HOYA Wellness Wheel: Spiritual Wellness,” Georgetown University Student Health Services, accessed August 28, 2023, https://studenthealth.georgetown.edu/hoya-wellness-wheel/spiritual/
- Ali Geary, “7 Ways to Improve Your Spiritual Wellness,” Illinois State University News, February 26, 2014, https://news.illinoisstate.edu/2014/02/7-ways-improve-spiritual-wellness/.
- Hok-Ko Pong, “The Correlation between Spiritual Well-Being and Burnout of Teachers,” Religions 13, no. 8 (2022): 760. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13080760.
- Abdul A. Ismail, Tajularipin Sulaiman, and Samsilah Roslan, “Models of Relationship Between Emotional, Spiritual, Physical and Social Intelligence, Resilience and Burnout Among High School Teachers,” Universal Journal of Educational Research 8, no. 1A (2020): 1-7, https://www.hrpub.org/journals/article_info.php?aid=8733.
- John M. Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (Waterbrook, 2019).
- Francesco Chirico, “Religious Belief and Mental Health in Lay and Consecrated Italian Teachers,” Journal of Religion and Health 56, no. 3 (2017): 839-851, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27179821/.
- Albert Cheng, Matthew H. Lee, and Rian Djita, “A Cross-Sectional Analysis of the Relationship Between Sabbath Practices and US, Canadian, Indonesian, and Paraguayan Teachers’ Burnout,” Journal of Religion and Health 62 (2023):1090–1113. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-022-01647-w
- Jonny Diaz, “Breathe,” recorded 2015, track 2 on Everything Is Changing, Centricity Music.