By Arloa Sutter
I have been leading Breakthrough Urban Ministries in Chicago for eighteen years. We care for people who have become crippled by unemployment, homelessness and addiction in a neighborhood where poverty and crime make life stressful. Overwhelming brokenness and need carries with it the reality that there is always more I could do. People often ask what keeps me going. What keeps me from experiencing burnout?
Well, I have experienced burnout and it’s not pretty. When I was in my twenties I worked with kids who were referred to me by juvenile justice officers and school social workers. I met with groups of young girls who were in crisis. I loved taking them hiking, cross-country skiing and spelunking, but I was unaware of my own codependency tendencies. It felt good to be needed and I found myself pulled into the drama of their lives. I would get calls in the middle of the night to pick up a girl who had passed out drunk in an alley or to negotiate a family dispute. I once called 911 in desperation as a young woman overdosed on my living room floor. My work was compelling: girls in need, in pain, and in trouble, and they were looking for me to rescue them. But by the end of four years I was exhausted. I cringed every time the phone rang for fear of hearing about another suicide attempt.
I know now that much of my early energetic zeal was rooted in my own pride. I had entered ministry recognizing my need for a Savior, but then had begun to attempt to rescue and save others in my own strength on behalf of the Savior. The burnout I experienced as a result would forever change me as I learned the importance of waiting on God in contemplation before rushing in with my own agenda. I learned to be led by the Spirit instead of being driven by need.
Today I start each day in prayer. I ask God to orchestrate my day, to guide and direct me. I ask for Divine connections, for wisdom to know what to do and what not to do. I have learned there is always enough time to do what God wants me to do.
I also listen to my body. I have learned to recognize the difference between good stress that pushes me to my best, and bad stress that means I’m attempting to do something that is not mine to do. When my shoulders tense and my stomach knots, I do a “gut check” and ask myself if this really is my responsibility.
To be led by the Spirit rather than driven by need. That’s my goal. When the chaos mounts, I take a break. Even an hour of contemplation clears my mind and tells me which tasks need to be tossed to someone else and which are mine to juggle.
Arloa Sutter is the founder and Executive Director of Breakthrough Urban Ministries which provide services to homeless adults and runs a community youth program in an impoverished community on the west side of Chicago. She is the author of The Invisible: How the Church Can Find and Serve the Least of These.