I experienced deep burnout in 2012 and 2013. You can read more about it in The Year I Lost My Mind. This is what I did to get out of the deep depression of ministry burnout. Each step involved a lot of work but God is the one who was holding my rope. I climbed but he pulled me out. I feel like the Holy Spirit was leading each of my choices, even when I didn’t realize it. This is what I did, but God provided the results.
I asked myself, “Where am I and how did I get here?”
The first step to working out of burnout is to admit that you are burned out. It took me awhile to swallow my pride and admit that I couldn’t do this anymore. Something had to change. Only then was I able to look back and ask, “ What led to this problem?” Unfortunately, I had no answers. I admitted I needed help.
I learned from those who have been there.
Help came in the form of books written by pastors who had suffered burnout. This was the easiest place for me to start because I am a reader and learning is one of my core strengths. I started with Wayne Cordero’s book Leading on Empty ( also check out My Top 5 Books for Burned Out Pastors).
I took two weeks off.
Wayne Cordero made me realize that it would be impossible for me to recover if I didn’t take time to rest. His doctor had suggested that he take a full year off, but Wayne only took one week (to start). I know other pastors who had to take one or two years off in order to recover. I knew I could only afford to take two weeks. That time off made me realize two things:
- I needed to be more intentional about taking my day off and using all my vacation time.
- I couldn’t do this on my own; I needed friends to help.
I developed five key relationships to help keep me sane.
I started by reaching out to a local pastor who is completely different from me – different personality, different theology, different denomination. The only thing we had in common was that we were pastors in the same area. I chose him because I had a feeling that he would be willing to help. He patiently listened to my story while nodding his head. The best gift that he gave me was to show me that I was not alone. These experiences were normal. He even showed me that some of my anger was justified. It was refreshing to get it all off my chest. He invited me to go to the Moody Pastor’s Conference in Chicago (isn’t that ironic). He paid for the whole trip and took me to some of the best restaurants in the area. He gave me a week of stress-free rest and space to hear God again. I will forever be grateful for this gift of love.
Over the next few years, I found other relationships that helped me find myself again. My denomination paid most of the cost for several sessions with a Christian counselor. I reached out to several friends in ministry just for the pleasure of their friendship. I found another pastor that I could help. Recently, I’ve started seeing a spiritual director. Each of these relationships provided a safe place to share my pain and my shame. Soon, I started to think clearly again.
I rediscovered my calling.
I began reading books that my mentor recommended. Books about vision and calling in ministry. These books helped me to have hope again and to see that change was possible. Over a period of five years I remembered, clarified, and discovered new elements of my calling from God. I learned about myself and my limits. I learned that my weaknesses are gifts from God that allow me to say no. I learned that joy in ministry would come from focusing on my strengths, my spiritual gifts, and my passions. In short, I learned that I can’t let other people define my ministry for me. Ministry has to come from the way that God uniquely designed me.
I studied productivity.
I made it a habit to read books that would help me overcome my procrastination and the fears that it was rooted in. These books showed me that I was afraid of failure and success. I had to look these fears right in the eyes and push through them. Instead of my usual focus on big goals, I started to set very small achievable goals. These small wins provided big joy. I was getting energy and momentum back! I learned to use my best energy for the things that gave me the most joy. This gave me more energy for the joyless tasks. Now, instead of digging out of an emotional hole, I was coming down off a hill. Everything became easier.
I learned how to really pray.
Through the works of Daniel Henderson, Paul Miller, Peter Scazzero, and many contemplative and mystical Christians I learned spiritual disciplines. These taught me how to pray in a way that filled me with love instead of draining me. I learned that prayer is less about what I say to God than what God says to me. My job in prayer became to simply become aware of God’s presence and to sit in reverence and silence before him. If God chose to speak, I would listen (and verify it by searching the scriptures to ensure that I wasn’t just hearing my own voice). Mostly, God tells me how much he loves me. Occasionally he inspires me to do something. I find my heart is transformed by the presence of God. I am now able to see him at work more clearly and to follow his lead more easily.
I read the Bible for pleasure again.
I started reading large portions of the Bible. I read until my mind was completely focused on scripture and the Holy Spirit spoke to me through the text. Sometimes this meant I would read for more than an hour. Most of the time is was about 30 minutes. I wasn’t reading to interpret scripture or to get anything for my sermons. I was just reading to enjoy God’s Word and to hear from God. I learned to use other ways of reading scripture too (e.g., Lectio Divina and praying the Psalms).
I am learning to live God’s presence.
The most important part of my recovery from burnout was to learn to notice God’s presence more and more every day. The Ignatian practice of Examen gave me an opportunity to see God at work in even the small details of life. Soon, I began to see him at work in everything. Ministry is now about being my truest self in the presence of God. He is my ministry leader; all I have to do is follow the Good Shepherd.
If you have recovered from ministry burnout, how did God lead you out? Please, leave a comment below to encourage others.
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© Sean Nemecek, 2018. All rights reserved. Request permission.
Sean Nemecek, (M.Div. Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is the director of The Pastor’s Soul, and pastor at First Baptist Church in Tustin, Michigan since 2001. A third-generation pastor, he grew up listening to pastors and their families talk about the realities of ministry. Now he wants to use this knowledge to bless the church. Sean is married to Amy, a poet and freelance book editor. Together, they have a 17-year-old son.