5 Things I learned from a year of Pastoral Burnout

Burnout. Breakdown. Ministry overload. Mercy fatigue. I have heard it called a lot of things but studies have shown that 45% of pastors work themselves into physical, psychological and emotional turmoil at some point in their ministry career. Sometimes it’s the burdens placed on them by their congregation or the nature of their role. Sometimes its pressures of balancing family and ministry, both demand so much of one man. I read that on a monthly average 1500 North American Pastors never return to the ministry field in a vocational capacity. And what’s really stupid, I never thought we would experience it.

Isn’t that ridiculous? I thought we were gonna have a free pass through the landmines. That the crisis that burns so many good men to the ground would somehow pass over us. Not on my account mind you, and certainly not because I figured we were invincible. But I just never saw it in the plan I had for our lives. And even when it was knocking on our door, creeping itself in, I didn’t see the warning signs. Looking back on family photos taken in the weeks leading up to my husband’s breakdown I can see a change in the man I love. At the time it was incredibly frustrating, his lack of clarity and ability to focus. His forgetfulness. His exhaustion regardless of sleep. A vacancy in his eyes and a blank expression on his face.

I certainly learned that we are not immune. And I won’t begin to pretend I have all the answers now and can pass on my great wisdom with ministry wives everywhere. But I have learned. And what I have gleaned has changed our perspective and has redirected our efforts to shore up our family for times of ministry and life storms. And if what we have gone through can help anyone in vocational or lay leadership then I hope it can spread.

Healing doesn’t move in a straight line.

Some days it felt like victory was just around the corner. And other days I was ready to throw in the towel on ministry all together. My husband was hurting deeply. He couldn’t focus to read the Word much less study it. It took him weeks to read through an average sized book. Months to be able to focus well enough to be left alone with his children. But then there would be a breakthrough. Even small ones made me cling to hope that we were finally moving forward with predictable momentum. And then the inevitable two steps back. I have always known that God does not operate on my timeline. And in retrospect, when I see even the last 6 months that we have had, I can see God’s hand using Mike’s time off to not only restore him but our whole family.

Not your will but HIS.

Don’t just pray but firmly commit your prayer life as an integral part of the healing journey. I found myself praying, asking God for wisdom. Was this a sign that our family was not meant for ministry? Was this an indication that we needed to leave our current church for another kind of ministry opportunity or at least live in a city where the financial burden isn’t quite so onerous? As I continued to search for God’s leading hand I felt Him say, with undeserved patience, “Stop looking for ways to run from the clear calling I have put on you. Instead, ask me to carry you when you feel defeated, to correct you in ways that will shape your ministry where I have appointed you. Ask me to reveal myself to you, not so you can understand the reason behind your trial but so you can know Me, more intimately than ever before, and trust me as you have never had to before.” It was convicting.

True Colors

You will learn what your church is made of. I don’t mean that in an ominous way but a realistic one. I have heard horror stories about churches in my own community who seem more concerned with hours put in and program growth than the health and well being of their pastor. By the grace of God this is not our story. Once again our church has come alongside us and built into us, offering everything from meals to get through hard days and weeks when I couldn’t leave my four young children home alone with their dad to giving us five months off to heal. They did those things because there is a genuine love for us and a deep commitment to love God and serve others. And they know that begins in their own backyard. For some, their church’s reaction to it and their support during any kind of ministry burnout may show the cracks in the foundation. True colors come out under pressure in us all.

It’s not just about the Pastor.

Ministry life is unique. It’s not that lay families don’t suffer through burnout, especially those that tirelessly serve in a lay capacity on top of their careers and families. It’s a distinct role with often trying responsibilities that bleed into the family itself instead of just the man. It was a few months after Mike’s breakdown before I really grasped that it wasn’t just him that was in need of healing. We all did. Our entire family, right down to the twin toddlers, needed to work towards wellness in every area. What affects one affects all. It may not be obvious at first but it isn’t just about the patient. A good friend of mine, and a fellow wife in ministry, lovingly cautioned me to care for my husband and take over the responsibilities he needed a break from wearing for as long as I needed to but to be careful not to lose myself in the process. To guard my own spiritual journey, distinct from my husband’s, and strive towards healing a family of six and not just a man of one.

The enemy loves darkness

Never have I felt the presence of the evil one as much as I did when my husband began preparing to go back to work. It felt like he was celebrating that he sidelined us for a while and we went off his radar but planning to go back kicked the demons into high gear. I have always understood there is a battle going on around us but I rarely feel like I am in it. It’s a scary place to be, if I am honest. I would like to run away, pack up my kids and my man and go somewhere safe. So, in a sense, we did. But that somewhere safe wasn’t Nunavut, as I originally suggested to Mike, but rather the loving arms of a conquering King. Through words of encouragement from those that have heard his story and have appreciated his transparency since this began, we have seen the hand of God at work. He has caused my husband a limp. And it took me some time but I finally can see that it was for God’s glory. When Mike shared himself in his most fragile state, with our church family and our friends, he brought depression and anxiety, fatigue and exhaustion into the light. And if I know my Sunday school lessons, what does darkness HAVE to do when there is light??? It doesn’t mean the enemy isn’t gonna battle. It just means we don’t give him any foothold.

So those are five things I have learned. And I am sure there are more and will continue to be more. For the Glory of God.