I never thought ministry burnout would happen to me.
But a year ago I resigned my church and relocated my family of five (soon to be six) back home in order to recover from just that.
I carried with me more than my belongings. The Uhaul of my life was groaning beneath the weight of deep hurt, confusion, and a very real fear that I might not make it back spiritually to the person I once was.
It’s been over a year now and I’m doing so much better. By the grace of God, I’m on the road to recovery. I’m a better father, husband, and Christian than I was a year ago.
God is also reigniting my passion and re-framing my calling. I’ve got a way to go but I’m headed pointed and headed in the right direction. I’m excited about what God has in my future. Which is something I couldn’t say a year ago.
During a round of golf recently I relayed a portion of my ministry burnout story to a friend. His response is the inspiration behind this post. He said “I’m so sorry I didn’t offer to help you during that time. I had no idea you were that bad off.”
I’ve known this guy since we were kids but I don’t see him very often. Although our friendship isn’t intimate, he sincerely did regret not helping me. He really did hurt for me – a sentiment which touched me deeply.
I thanked him for his empathy and relayed to him why I never gave him (or anyone else for that matter) a chance to step in and pull me out of my ever-worsening predicament. He could have. And I know he would have. But I never asked him to. Why not?
I didn’t ask for help because I didn’t know how bad off I was until it was too late.
I was the proverbial frog in the kettle.
How Ministry Burnout Sneaks Up On You
If you’re not familiar with The Frog in the Kettle , here’s the Wikipedia synopsis:
The boiling frog is an anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of threats that occur gradually.
When I planted LifePoint Church in 2008, the water was fine. By about year three, however, the water started to heat up.
How the Heat Turns Up
Here are a few things that incrementally turned up the flame
First – FAILURE
Over about a two-year span, there was a slow but sure trickle of people out the door and not many came in. Especially in the way of conversions.
Second – FINANCIAL PRESSURE
Due to the loss of people, we began to struggle financially.
Third – GROWING FAMILY
It goes without saying that our children are an unspeakable blessing. The amount of financial, physical, and emotional demand that raising them brings cannot be ignored, however. We had three bundles of joy during this time span.
Fourth – GOING BI-VOCATIONAL
Due to the financial pressure, I added teaching public school to pastoring. There were many things I loved about teaching but it was an emotional and physical drain every single day. Not to mention a major diversion of my focus on ministry.
Fifth – SICK CHILD
My oldest son began having terrible seizures at four years old. He almost died during one of them. It was hard to not be on edge constantly, wondering when the next one would hit. His medication had challenging side effects as well…it basically made him a wild child…I mean a really, really, wild child!
Sixth – MORE FINANCIAL PRESSURE
Birthing children. Neurological appointments. MRI’s. Seizure Meds. Ambulance Rides. Diapers. Wipes. Repeat. (That stuff ain’t cheap)
THE NET INCREASE OF STRESS OVER TIME
In a vacuum, the list above could appear to be just a normal progression of life. So let me pause here and say three things:
- First, I’m very blessed. Many people face things so much more challenging than I. My point in writing this list is not to whine about my plight but point out the mechanics of how stress escalates.
- Second, I’m not advocating that you run for hills at the first, second, or third sign of adversity in your life. I believe in resilience, work ethic, and flexibility. I also believe, of course, that a faith response to our trials makes us stronger.
- Third, there are lots of positives on this list. Having and raising children is a joy. Teaching school alleviated financial pressure, provided ministry opportunity daily, and brought a sense of achievement. I pastored a great bunch of people who loved me and I them.
The problem with the list is that there was a significant net increase in stress over the course of several years.
For every extra pressure that was piled onto my plate, there wasn’t enough taken off to maintain a semblance of balance. And before I knew it, the water was boiling. I was battling depression. My heart was hard. I couldn’t connect with God.
In other words, I had a severe case of ministry burnout.
Escaping Ministry Burnout at All Costs
Although the decision to stand up in front of the flock that I shared such a beautiful bond with for 7.5 years was the hardest one I’ve ever made, it also saved my life.
Yes, I prayed about taking less radical options such as taking a sabbatical or bringing in another minister to fill the pulpit while I caught my breath.
The extreme measure of stepping away from pastoral ministry, uprooting my life, and returning home wound up being my only course of action, however. Why?
Because I let the water get too hot. I was too far gone emotionally, physically, and spiritually for a minor course correction to suffice. I had to make a radical change to survive.
WHY I DIDN’T ASK FOR HELP
So why didn’t I ask for help earlier in the process? Perhaps doing so could have prevented many sleepless nights. I probably could have avoided being pulled down into the black hole of depression for days at a time if I had just cried out. Maybe my wife’s hair would not have fallen out like it did if I had said something.
So why didn’t I? What didn’t I just ask for help?
Sure, I have the male ego thing, I have the independent streak thing, and a bunch of other things that played some role into me not getting help.
But the main reason I didn’t ask for help is that I didn’t know just how hot the water was becoming.
Are You Currently a Risk for Burnout?
My hope in writing this post is to help someone jump out of the kettle long before I did.
I can’t tell you when to jump ship.
I can’t tell you when a minor course correction is all you need. But then, I don’t need to. An honest audit of your heart will tell you all you need to know. And that’s what you need to get serious about.
My plea for you today is to wake up and do a painfully precise temperature check of your life. Everyone’s situation is different. Everyone’s threshold for pain is different. Everyone’s calling is different.
But the boiling point of water is no respecter of person. It’s always 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
What’s your temperature?
I would love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment below.
Get unstuck by believing the TRUTH about yourself.