Rethinking Capitol Hill's Burnout Culture


The great privilege of our time is that we get to tear up the script we’ve been handed and write a new story of freedom, even deeper than the American ideal. And because are writing a new story, we also have the privilege of rethinking Capitol Hill’s burnout culture.

What we need to see is that burnout isn’t actually burnout. What I mean is, it happens for a reason; it’s a symptom of much deeper and larger issues. In my experience with burnout—which I’m pulling on heavily for today’s journal—those issues were so expansive and exhaustive that they led to the creation of LIBERATUS. The short of it is that—as I have seen firsthand over the past decade—the unity of Truth and Beauty in politics is so rare that we need to begin building a framework to rethink how we engage, and we need to do so from the inside of American political culture because that’s where we need it the most, and that’s where the potential for impacting the culture at large is highest.

When I finally started writing out the outline for today’s journal, there were so many points that I decided to create a set of questions with supporting text, ideas, or explanation. So let’s jump into the deep end. If we rethink burnout on Capitol Hill and elsewhere by asking a set of tough questions, we’ll see that burnout isn’t actually burnout, but rather it’s a symptom of larger issues—which we have the privilege of restoring for ourselves and our culture at large.

1.    Is your work speaking order into chaos—or is it adding to the chaos and confusion of political culture?

For followers of Jesus, this point is the most critical of all, because seeing our work as an endeavor to bring order and healing is our calling and will re-order all of our priorities and shape our communication. Even though the American view of work both validates work for the sake of work, and creates a hierarchy for and status around different types of work, we need to see that all work that speaks order into chaos is valid. Defining “order into chaos” well would take a book, but all of the following ideas build on this idea and illustrate it.

We also need to see that work that does the opposite isn’t valid, and therefore we need to rigorously evaluate the way we engage in politics. A full list of what political work that adds chaos to chaos is would take another book, but I think we know it when we see it: speeches given just to grab attention or fundraise, work priorities ordered by the hottest topic of the day instead of long-term goals, and motivating the grassroots to call Congress out of fear created by strategists all fit the description.

We need to begin reimagining political engagement and what passes for work. In describing the visible community of those who follow Jesus and how they should view work, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way:

They sell and engage in commerce, but only to the extent their daily needs require. They do not heap up treasures and set their hearts on them. They work, for they are not allowed to be idle. But their work is certainly no end in itself. Work for work’s sake is not a New Testament notion. Everyone must support himself by his own labours, and have something to give away to his brethren. (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 268)

2.    Are you leading those around you, or are you managing, taking from, and using them?

The leadership structure of Congress is one of 535 offices (or pick your description: fiefdoms, organizations, startups, reality TV shows, businesses, etc), where the Member is the lead “celebrity” who has a staff in DC of up to ten on the House side, and fifty or more on the Senate side, following him or her around, writing his talking points, driving him around town, in some cases even taking care of his dry cleaning. In short, everything revolves around “the Member” and “the Member’s priorities”. The problem is, it creates a leadership culture where the higher you are on the ladder, the more you get to take from those beneath you—and eventually those beneath you have nothing left to give.

In an interview last November, I asked Marine Corps Officer Jeff Clement, author of The Lieutenant Don’t Know: One Marine’s Story of Warfare and Combat Logistics in Afghanistan, about the leadership culture of the Marine Corps. He put it this way:

As a leader, you are a servant first.  As a Marine Officer, your first responsibility is to the mission and your Marines—if you are more concerned about your own career or how something is going to make you look, you’re sure to shortchange your Marines.

Now, a quick disclaimer: I saw firsthand what it looks like to push back against the take-from-those-beneath-you culture intentionally and continually when I was on the Hill. But I think we can take this a step further, and not just fight against the culture but actually begin to reverse it—but it will require offices with clear vision and Members who break through the culture of Capitol Hill even more to see themselves not as the star of their own reality TV show, but as visionaries who empower the people around them to achieve the congressional-district-specific vision and mission. We can shift our focus away from “patching up” and “fighting back” towards human flourishing—thriving, even, which is not a word I have ever heard anyone use while describing America’s governing body. And to add to the first point, a clear vision and mission will help clarify whether or not you are speaking order into chaos or creating more chaos, which leads us to our next question.

3.    Is there a unifying and focused vision and mission?

As noted already, a clear vision is critical for strong leadership in politics or elsewhere. I think clear vision that’s also effective will require breaking through the usual political categories and seeing freedom itself at a deeper level. That’s what we will continually talk about here, and our core values are largely a stab at how we can reorient our thinking on the inside. I bring this up because after ten years of working in the “Conservative movement” (I’m still not sure anyone knows exactly what that means), I realized my vision was shifting and changing—that I was being led to something deeper and more life-giving, and once I realized that, staying put wasn’t an option because the vision demanded exclusive attention.

Clear vision is critical for energizing the work it takes to complete the day to day tasks: I never would have worked at a cookie factory (more on this below) if I didn’t have a vision for completing college in four years. In the introduction to his book Visioneering, Andy Stanley sets up the premise for why vision is so vital:

A clear vision, along with the courage to follow through, dramatically increases your chances of coming to the end of your life, looking back with a deep abiding satisfaction, and thinking, I did it. I succeeded. I finished well. My life counted.
Without a clear vision, odds are you will come to the end of your life and wonder. Wonder what you could have done—what you should have done. And like so many, you may wonder if your life really mattered at all.
Vision gives significance to the otherwise meaningless details of our lives. And let’s face it, much of what we do doesn’t appear to matter much when evaluated apart from some larger context or purpose.
But take the minutia of this very day, drop it into the cauldron of a God-ordained vision, stir them around, and suddenly there is purpose! Meaning! Adrenaline!
It is the difference between filling bags with dirt and building a dike in order to save a town. There’s nothing glamorous or fulfilling about filing bags with dirt. But saving a city is another thing altogether. Building a dike gives meaning to the chore of filling bags with dirt. And so it is with vision.
Too many times the routines of life begin to feel like shoveling dirt. But take those same routines, those same responsibilities, and view them through the lens of vision and everything looks different. Vision brings your world into focus. Vision brings order to chaos. A clear vision enables you to see everything differently. (p. 9).

All of this is not to say that having a clear vision will rend you forever happy and full of energy. As a vision is born, especially as it relates to following Jesus to bring restoration and demonstrate what his Kingdom of Truth and Beauty will look like even in our broken world, there will no doubt be a great deal of tension between what is and what could be—even to the point that people notice it affecting your countenance, and assume that you’re depressed, or have a bad attitude, or are emotionally unstable, or lack confidence, or have a poor self-image—incorrect assumptions that I have experienced. For a case study on this point, check out the story of Nehemiah in the Old Testament: distraught over the destruction of Jerusalem, he wept and mourned for days, and went into the presence of the king he served, who noticed it and asked him “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick?” The question brought on a great deal of fear, because of the potential consequences of being sad in front of the king, but Nehemiah turned the story around through vision and creativity and rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem—with the king’s help!

(Disclaimer: there is much talk of “rebuilding America” in our current culture. What exactly does that mean? America and the Kingdom are separate: governing wisely in a way that brings restoration is not the same thing as mistaking America for God’s chosen Kingdom—something I think we do too often.)

4.    Is creativity one of the defining characteristics of your work culture, and are you taking any critical steps necessary for creativity to thrive?

I’ve worked both in Congress and third shift on lines in a cookie factory. (To the person who once got a bag of mostly crushed Wheat Thins out of a vending machine somewhere, I am sorry—while counting out 75 bags at a time for an entire 8 hour shift in the middle of the night, I just couldn’t take it anymore.) Too often we turn Congress into a product line of talking points and Capitol tours, spitting out the same thing over and over without ever making great strides towards the creativity it will take to solve our nation’s problems. I think to really do this well we need to completely reimagine Congress from the inside, but that will also take time and careful thought. Until we get there, one of the most critical steps we can take for our day-to-day work and creativity is to value rest. In Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance, Jonathan Fields explains the importance of getting away from work:

It takes years to master a craft, from building a business to writing music. But craft alone doesn’t get you there.
Genius requires craft plus insight.
Insight rarely comes while you are constrained to the work and only the work. Indeed, it most often comes when you step away from your work, when you spend time with others in seemingly unrelated worlds. When you sit, walk, and breathe into stillness. When you meditate. Talk. Listen. Love. Live. Be.
Counterintuitive as it sounds, it’s the undoing that plants the seeds of the greatest doing. What I create in any one medium is made far richer by the fact that I spend considerable time outside that medium. It may mean my path to mastery takes longer. So be it. In the end, I create better businesses because I write. I write better books, essays, and posts because I relish my time as a dad, son, brother, husband, friend, yogi, student, and teacher. (pp. 165-166).

For followers of Jesus, the idea of not doing should be intuitive, because he spent so much time away from the cities to spend time praying in the mountains or elsewhere; we need to see the complete and total humanity of this! Admittedly, talking about “following Jesus” can seem weird, distant, and disconnected from reality and human experience. But think about it: who could argue that spending days walking the lifeless hallways of Rayburn, or dodging fellow pedestrians downtown doesn’t take something from you that a hike along Skyline Drive can restore? Even Jesus had to escape the crowds and spend time in prayer outside the city! 

Finally, beyond physical rest, are you taking in as much as you’re pouring out? Are you reading books, listening to podcasts, and growing mentally? The creation of LIBERATUS wouldn’t have happened without a good deal of reading and inspiration from other books. 

5.    Are you driven by motives that are life-giving?

I’ll leave the definition of ‘life-giving’ largely open-ended here, except for two points. For followers of Jesus, this should be a question that creates constant internal tension and self-examination, both of our wrong motives (for power, recognition, significance, etc) and of the fake identities we construct around our woundedness. Henri J. M. Nouwen experienced his own desert journey (A Desert Journey is our current theme), and published his journal during that time as a book titled The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. These are his thoughts as he processed his own circumstances, and what he says about burnout is compelling:

Give every part of your heart and your time to God and let God tell you what to do, where to go, when and how to respond. God does not want you to destroy yourself. Exhaustion, burnout, and depression are not signs that you are doing God’s will. God is gentle and loving. God desires to give you a deep sense of safety in God’s love. Once you have allowed yourself to experience that love fully, you will be better able to discern who you are being sent to in God’s name. (p. 106).

Second, there is much we could say about the idea of authenticity and “being yourself” when it comes to motives, but one of the ideas that helped me live in the tension of what you love vs where you are is that we should bring what we love to our work. We don’t necessarily have to go “chase our dreams” out there somewhere (although that isn’t necessarily a bad idea). But I know there is room to find honest, life-giving motives for work that drive us forward and allow us to offer our unique gifting and passions even if the specific circumstances aren’t exactly what we desire. 

6.    Are you staying fit and healthy and motivating those around you to do the same?

Each of these questions reveals something about our affections in different ways. Once, a friend of mine commented that he admired my “discipline” when I was eating a salad from Sweetgreen. I responded that it’s not discipline to eat what you love! When you get to the point where you are craving grilled chicken with avocado and tomato over a bed of mixed greens instead of fried junk, or a bowl of fresh fruit over a plate of cookies, a whole new world of life opens. And the thing of it is, eating better makes exercise more enjoyable because you’re giving your body what it needs to survive—the calories you’re taking in aren’t the enemy anymore, they become life-giving, literally!

There is of course a world of research that shows the benefits to exercise, but one of the more interesting articles I’ve read on this is from an interview with John Piper:

I know that I am prone to depression and discouragement, and I have simply discovered that if I go to the gym three times a week and hammer my body, I don’t get depressed as often. Now, I am sure there are physical reasons for that. But whatever it is, I know that it works. I know depression hurts my ministry, my marriage, and my parenting. So, for the sake of kingdom purposes I am off to the gym.

7.    Is your work culture and communication constructive or is it destructive? Put another way, are you pursuing Truth and Beauty in unison, or are you separating the two?

I’ll bring in three different ways of analyzing this final point. First, I don’t think you can fundamentally make great products or offer the world a great work of art if you’re not connecting Truth and Beauty together. Steve Jobs understood this idea in many ways, and it’s something we know intuitively: when you pick up an iPad, you know you’re picking up both a functional tablet and a work of art.

Consider this paragraph, then, from Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs:

In return for speaking at the retreat, Jobs got Murdoch to hear him out on Fox News, which he believed was destructive, harmful to the nation, and a blot on Murdoch’s reputation. “You’re blowing it with Fox News,” Jobs told him over dinner. “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you’ve cast your lot with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you’re not careful.” Jobs said he thought Murdoch did not really like how far Fox had gone. “Rupert’s a builder, not a tearer-downer,” he said. (p.508)

In the next paragraph, Isaacson notes that Murdoch thought Jobs had a “left-wing view on this”, and I know our readers will be split: you’re either cheering that quote, or you’re outraged. But without taking a stance on the day-to-day content on the channel, it’s worth examining the idea because it can help us evaluate our own work. Is what we’re up to in politics destructive? Does your communication, or the communication of the people around you—on TV or otherwise—give you hope, make you feel more alive, push your affections towards the Kingdom ruled by Truth and Beauty (if you’re a follower of Jesus) or does it push you towards despair, fear of what will happen to America, and a heightened restlessness or agitation towards people who think differently from you?

I think Jobs’ perspective is helpful if it drives us to take an honest look at our communication, but it would be unfair to write off an entire section of the country as “destructive”, because breaking complex issues down to good vs bad doesn’t drive us towards the unification of Truth and Beauty in all of our pursuits—which leads me to my second point.

When we focus exclusively on “Truth” we ultimately miss the Beauty of it, and then what we claim is “True” ends up not being a full picture of Truth setting us free at all! There is a strong spiritual element to this as noted below, but it also applies to policy debates. Take immigration and border security, for example. If you visit the border and listen to border patrol agents talk about the challenges of securing it, as I have, it's obvious that there are facts about what areas are not patrolled well, or who is coming across, that need to be part of the discussion. However it is one thing to argue for a safe and secure national border, but it is an entirely separate heart issue when we begin talking derogatorily about “anchor babies”, forgetting that the whole point of a safe border is to create a nation for human life to flourish! We could look at energy production and environmental care and how the two are often pitted against each other as if they are two ideas at war with each other, and really almost any other policy issue.

Turning to religion, in Jesus’ day, he spoke the most harshly with the Pharisees, because they upheld the “truth” of the law but completely missed grace—something I have also experienced in church and religion. If you’re not a follower, listen to how Richard Rohr begs us to revisit the gospel storyline (and see Jesus, the embodiment of perfect Truth and perfect Beauty) in Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality:

Only the theme of grace is prepared to move religion beyond this bad and tired novel of reward and punishment…. We need grace to reform religion and to recapture the gospel. As Marcus Borg says, in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, only the theme of grace can move us into religion beyond a list of “requirements” to a religion of real transformation of consciousness (Ephesians 4:23-24).
As long as we remain inside of a win-lose script, Christianity will continue to appeal to low-level and self-interested morality and never rise to the mystical banquet that Jesus really offered us. It will be duty instead of delight, “jars of purification” (John 2:6) instead of 150 gallons of intoxicating wine at the end of the party! (2:7-10). How did we avoid missing the clear message on that one?
We kept the basic storyline of all human history in place and simply laid the gospel on top of it, frosting on top of a non-cake, as it were. Jesus offered us a whole new cake—which by itself is its own frosting. Yet, except for those who experienced grace, Christianity has not been “a new mind” (Romans 12:2) or a “new self” (Ephesians 4:23-24) significantly different than the surrounding cultures it inhabited. It is the old, tired, win/lose scenario which seems to be in our hard drive, whereas the scenario of grace is much more imaginative and installs totally new programs, which most of the world has yet to recognize, like win/win!
We have largely mirrored culture instead of transforming it. Reward/punishment is the plot line of almost all novels, plays, operas, movies and the wars that define cultures. It is the only way that a dualistic mind, unrenewed by prayer, can read reality. (p. 159)

Finally, in order to have a constructive work culture or message in politics that sees beyond the win/lose scenario, we have to be able to constructively challenge the status quo, to reexamine what we’re doing. Andy Stanley writes about leadership and the status quo in Next Generation Leader: 

Accepting the status quo is the equivalent of accepting a death sentence. Where there’s no progress, there’s no growth. If there’s no growth, there’s no life. Environments void of change are eventually void of life. So leaders find themselves in the precarious and often career-jeopardizing position of being the one to draw attention to the need for change. Consequently, courage is a nonnegotiable quality for the next generation leader. (p. 50)

To wrap up today’s journal, I know there’s so much more that could be said and needs to be said on each of these points. Over time we will continue the conversation; we will continue building a framework for how Truth and Beauty can change our political culture from the inside. Join the conversation. Share this with a friend or comment below.

We must realize though that this list is not another moral code. If a checklist is all it becomes, the life will be taken out of it quickly, and even making changes in light of these ideas will add more chaos to what you’re already doing, leaving the people around you all the more disheartened and burned out. But it doesn’t have to be that way: our affections can move towards a full and abundant life, and the giver of life.

our affections can move towards a full and abundant life, and the giver of life.

If the vision of healing through freedom is starting to take root for you as it has for me, you’ll want to move forward changing up our culture wherever you can. And when you get there, jump in; move forward decisively, especially if you’re stuck in a burnout cycle. The decisiveness itself will help shake you out of it. As a friend recently told me, if you need to get away, make it happen. So this month I am setting aside five days and a stack of books and going to charge myself back up; making the decision has already rejuvenated my work this week.

Finally, the ideas here are radically different from the status quo. Live them with grit. I love what Louis Zamperini said in his book Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In:

This is the great lesson of my life: Never give up. If you want to be a champion you have to go after what you want tooth and nail. This requires perseverance. If you’re on the right track, stay on that path until you’ve finished. (p. 197)

I am confident that as we live our vision of healing through freedom with the grit and relentless tenacity it requires, and even in uncertainty, even in the journey through the proverbial desert it will take to bring truth and beauty into political culture, the pursuit will instill in us an inner peace: LIBERATUS—we are set free.


Which of the preceding questions stood out the most to you as you were reading? Think about your sphere of influence. How can you reset the culture in one or each of these areas to bring restoration and order to your work?

Photo Credits: Heather Gibbons