A Reader’s Question: Responding to Extreme Exhaustion in Others

I began this site with a series looking at five different themes I have experienced while shepherding cross-cultural workers.   One of them was titled Five Themes Facilitating Ill Health and Ineffectiveness Amongst Global Workers: Theme #2 Total Exhaustion

A few weeks ago a reader commented on this entry with a question:

“This. is. so. true. I wonder how you would respond to the question of what to do to address that total depletion, if things have gone that far?”

This is a great question. My response would be limited to my own personal experience. It would be extremely helpful if a number of readers would chime in on this question. There must be medical, psychological, emotional, physical, spiritual, and relational elements to be addressed here. What is your experience? Please leave a comment.

Here’s an initial thought of my own.


A Time of Disengagement?
Deep exhaustion that leads to break down is usually from an accumulation over years. A two week vacation is not going to rectify the issue. Prolonged disengagement from normal life activities is required. This might sound like a drastic suggestion. Most organizations do not even have this practice as a policy. Yet….

One of the ways forward I would explore with someone who manifests deep exhaustion is a sabbatical. A sabbatical is an extended time of disengagement from “normal” activities so that different activities can be engaged. This usually means an extended time away from work routines and roles and responsibilities to engage in activities that allow for healing, renewal, a healthier perspective on life and work, and an opportunity to reenter normal work responsibilities with different expectations and rhythms.

People seem to be able to handle the idea of a time frame of around 3 months for a sabbatical. My experience, however, is that it can take 6-8 weeks to regain a sense of equilibrium sufficient to allow for intake. If I have been driving hard for 20 years or more, what makes me think I can learn to cease driving hard in 2 weeks or a month? 4-6 months is usually a better starting framework. Step of faith? For sure. If I step away from my role will it be given to another? Possibly. Will supporters cease to support me? Maybe. But where did I get all those in the first place? God does provide. Period. The question is, will I trust him? And, is life in my work or is God my life?

If someone has been in ministry a few years, say 2-3 years, yet find themselves in such significant fatigue, a sabbatical would not be my first suggestion. Likely, a resident care center (Link Care, Alongside, etc.), might be a better option to explore how one got to this place so quickly. Then again, there are those working in traumatizing settings, such as human trafficking or refugee work that is another situation entirely. I have tended to some of these workers who are simply spent after 3 years of such harsh work. Trauma debriefing, rest and the design of a sustainable model would be an ideal conversation.

Of course,  there are too many potential variables to cover in such a brief article.

Please Comment
A sabbatical is merely one possible response to one who is manifesting deep exhaustion. Please add your thoughts to this discussion. Collectively we can come up with a rounded list of ideas and resources that could guide us as we engage those who are profoundly weary. Thank you in advance.





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10 Responses to A Reader’s Question: Responding to Extreme Exhaustion in Others

  1. Though I have not generally called it sabbatical, this is the exact recommendation I arrived at, though I have encounter strong resistance and/or outright refusal to consider it by some of those who need time and space the most. For myself personally, we return to our work on Tuesday after five months of deep rest. And we re-enter with self-permission to take it slow, and long-term strategies that will change what we do and how much we take on with a view towards sustainability for the long term. Much prayer and hope in all this. Thank you for responding to my question. It is a tough call to make.


    • Scott S says:

      Jeri – thank you for initiating this conversation. A sabbatical is merely one possible response to exhaustion. As you you reengage, I would love to learn from you what “strategies” you employ that prove helpful for maintaining a level of vibrancy as you give to others. Thank you. SS


  2. Patty Stallings says:

    I’m curious what part debriefing plays and at what point you’d recommend a formal debriefing in the process of recovery.


    • Scott S says:

      Patty – always good to hear from you. Yes, a debriefing would be an ideal element in healing and renewal. Thank you for bringing this one up. My short blog entries have to be limited in content. I would encourage anyone (everyone) to process there life experiences and the impact that life has had on them with someone trained in the skill. Thanks for chiming in. SS


  3. Lenice says:

    I will be looking forward to further comments, because I just have a question. Any suggestions for how to take a sabbatical when special needs kids are a significant factor in the exhaustion? We can’t take 6 months off from parenting. Thanks,


    • Scott S says:

      Lenice – thank you for your important and honest question. This is a real life situation for which there is no simple, trite answer. My wife and I raised three boys, one of which had some special needs. He was a joy and a source of deep fatigue for us too. What you said is true, we cannot take months off of parenting. No one can, whether one has a child with special needs or the more run-of-the-mill daily needs. So what does one do? The easy response is to kill hope and simply forget it. Yet, I find I am curious about creative responses. True, we cannot take time off from parenting, but we might disengage from other responsibilities for a season to make space for other means of renewal. I would also love to see community rally and help families with these types of needs – take the kids for a few hours a day or something. Please forgive me if these are too simplistic of responses. I am also mindful that if one lives and works in an isolated location, a lack of community can be yet another ache.

      I have no easy answers today. I will ponder on this some more. If others with similar situations reading this would respond, that could be helpful. May God guide your steps and encourage your heart, Lenice, as you tend to your children. SS


  4. Nairy Ohanian says:

    To add to Scott’s sabbatical proposal, I would recommend a season of “fasting” for those who would reply that a sabbatical is impossible. Perhaps the exhausted worker can review and temporarily purge from their schedule, agenda, responsibilities some activities and pursuits that are not essential. Like fasting, this is a period of denial and abstinence which is replaced by prayer and meditation. Not simply “more free time” though certainly it is a rest from one more activity but it is a time to reflect and hear from God about ones calling, goals, priorities, passions and a time to hear from God. What is God’s perspectives on why they are so exhausted and how to continue ministry? Start with one or two commitments to fast from. Let others know it is for a period of time. Most likely you will return to your commitment, or maybe not but certainly your will have a renewed, refreshed perspective and energy from God about that role and, probably other choices in your ministry service.


    • Scott S says:

      Nairy – great thoughts, very creative. Again, a sabbatical is not “time off.” Not a vacation. As I said in the entry, it is a time of disengagement from “normal” work engagements to make space to engage other activities that can allow for renewal, refreshment, growing in awareness of our own hearts and motives, etc. Love your thoughts!! You have listed some great reflective questions. Thank you! SS


  5. A sabbatical is not time off, not a vacation. I would also like to add that it’s not a traditional furlough, or home assignment, or whatever you want to call that. It seems to me that often to those who are a little outside the situation, it looks like “exhausted missionaries=they need furlough.” But for many (most?) that time of being in the passport country is utterly exhausting and would have to be completely reworked to provide any kind of relief. Sorry for stating the obvious, but I wanted to get that out there.


    • Scott S says:

      Phyllis Absolutely agreed. Well said, not sure I have anything to add to what you have said other than to affirm that furlough or home assignment is not the same as a sabbatical. Time back in the states fulfilling obligations with organization, support structures and sometime even family is anything but renewing.

      Thank you for your comments, most helpful. SS


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