When pastors struggle with depression, burnout, or other ways that ministry can wear us down, we may feel that something is wrong with us– like we are damaged goods. In response to my article A High-Risk Profession: Pastors and PTSD, Jim wrote,
“I’ve been through depression and burnout as a pastor. I found that if you tell leaders your struggles you get labeled “damaged goods” and no denominational leader wants to touch that with a ten foot pole. Forget about getting another church and forget about them offering to help. You are a casualty. There is a lot of truth in the saying that we shoot our wounded.”
This is a valid response and one that I hear quite often. What can we do with the shame of feeling dismissed or unworthy? If you feel like damaged goods, here are a few things to remember.
Everyone is damaged by sin
You are not alone. Everyone feels broken. Everyone is broken. We are broken in our bodies, we are broken in our desires, and we are broken in our minds. Read Romans 1:18-32, where the apostle Paul outlines how sin has broken all of us. It’s a human reality that we are all broken by sin, and this makes us uncomfortable.
Leaders often respond to the brokenness of depression and burnout through avoidance or rejection because it reminds them of their own brokenness. This is a shame response that only leads to more shame. No wonder so many pastors are lonely. We need leaders who have the courage to step into the light and admit their shame and their brokenness. This will destroy the effects of shame and create a safe space for those who are struggling. Also remember, our experience of rejection may actually be our own shame causing us to misread the situation. Be careful not to project your self-rejection onto others.
However, sometimes leaders are hesitant to help those who are in burnout or depression because they’ve been burned before. Stepping into the space of a struggling friend takes a lot of emotional courage. When someone is depressed, it may be due to not being ready to make the necessary changes that would bring healing. Trying to help people in such circumstances will be frustrating and potentially damaging. Other times a depressed person is suppressing anger, and the first person to help uncorks that anger and gets attacked.
Burnout and depression will only heal when we admit our need to change and actually do something about it. So let’s recognize that it’s not up to our leaders to help us until we have demonstrated that we are ready to change. There are others who can shepherd us through this darkness.
Find help and healing outside your normal circles
When I was struggling with burnout, I had to find new people to help me heal. Some of this was due to my own shame, and some was because others didn’t seem to understand what I was going through. I needed to find someone who was skilled at navigating this journey. So I found a fellow pastor from a different denomination who understood. I talked with a licensed Christian counselor. I hired a ministry coach and talked with a spiritual director. I even started passing on what I was learning to a less experienced pastor who became a trusted friend. Each of these relationships helped me navigate the darkness of depression and burnout. They had either experience or training that made them trustworthy guides.
Find someone who has experienced similar pain and shame. The empathy that they are able to bring to the relationship will help you find freedom from shame. This is a first step toward healing. You need to know that others have walked this path before you. If they did it, so can you.
It’s also important to talk with someone who has the training to help you find your own path. Your experience and struggle are unique to your personality and situation. You can’t simply rely on the experience of another. A good counselor will help you discover the root of your problem. They will ask questions that help you begin to see your way forward. Once you begin to do your soul work, a ministry coach and a spiritual director can help you discern a path for growth. Just be sure that you are first doing the work to heal from the past or the past will come back to hurt you again. As Pete Scazzero says, we must go back in order to move forward.
When you are healthy again, don’t let leaders dismiss you
Your brokenness is now part of your story, and that can be a beautiful thing. The Japanese have a practice called kintsugi where they take broken pottery and repair it by rejoining the pieces with gold and laquer. This comes out of the Japanese philosophy that embraces the broken or flawed as something that is beautiful in its own way. The brokenness is part of the object’s story but not the end of that story. Kintsugi transforms a normal piece of pottery into a functional work of art. In many ways, Jesus does the same for us. He takes our brokenness and makes it beautiful. Rick Warren says that your area of greatest pain will likely be your opportunity for greatest ministry. Don’t let others dismiss you or your painful experiences; just be sure you have healed sufficiently first.
This is important – heal first! You need to make sure that you have healed from the pain or you risk hurting others. Don’t rush the healing process. As Teilhard de Chardin says, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” Allow him to do the work of healing in your soul and wait for him to release you into the work of ministry. Like a broken bone, your soul needs time to heal. Pushing too hard or too fast will prevent the break from healing and make the process much longer.
When you are ready, when you know you are healthy again, you will have something to offer. Now is the time to demonstrate your health to the leaders who previously dismissed you. You have to be your own advocate. Don’t wait for their approval; do what God has called you to do. Warren Wiersbe used to say that when it comes to doing good it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.
Consider Jesus’s words to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32; italics added). When Jesus restored Peter after his denial, he said, “Feed my sheep.” Start feeding sheep and others will notice your new health and strength in Christ.
Become an advocate for other pastors
Finally, tell your story and become an advocate for others who are struggling. You may be tempted to hide from the pain and shame of your brokenness. Remember the lesson of kintsugi: you are not your brokenness – it’s only a part of your story. Consider the words of the apostle Paul, who struggled with a “thorn in the flesh.” After praying three times that God would take it away, this is what he said:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
It’s time to start gladly boasting in your weakness so that the power of Christ may be seen in you. For when we are willing to be weak, the strength of Christ begins its work in us.
If you feel like damaged goods or if you are struggling with burnout, depression, or other ministry fatigue, don’t walk this path alone. There are many ministries that are waiting to help. I work for one of those ministries – contact Pastor-in-Residence Ministries at pirministries.org. My colleagues and I would love to walk with you through this darkness. We’ve all been there before, and we have the experience to help you find your way out too.