Yesterday I shared about the anatomy of a ministry breakdown. I can speak with some authority about this issue because on Christmas morning 2011, in front of the entire church I had a ministry meltdown. The days after the breakdown were some of the strangest days of my life. I was very fortunate to be part of a loving, supportive church with some of the godliest leaders I’ve ever known. After meeting with our deacons and Pastoral staff, it was agreed that I would take two months away from the ministry for a sabbatical. At the end of this time, I would meet with the church leadership to decide whether or not it was time for me to return. This decision brought a brief sense of relief to my life, but then Saturday rolled around and it hit me that I would not be in the pulpit on a Sunday morning for the first time in years. To say that this hit me hard would be an understatement.
At about 9 pm on Saturday, January 7th I began to experience enormous waves of anxiety. For the next 48 hours, I went through agonizing physical and emotional turmoil. The closest parallel that I can draw to what I went through would be to compare it to someone going through drug withdrawal. My dear friend Daryl Love talked to me later that week and shared that this is a rather common experience for Pastors who’ve had a ministry breakdown. In his book, “Leading on Empty,” Wayne Cordeiro, attributes this phenomenon with the effects of stress. All I know was that when it was over it left me with the emptiest and loneliest feelings I’ve ever experienced. Thankfully, several good friends began to come around me and gave me some good advice. The most important piece of advice I received was to put together a plan of how I would use the sabbatical to get things back together. Below are the five areas that I worked on during the next two months and that I continue to work on today. These have formed for me a pathway for recovery.
Put God back in first place– I shared yesterday that one of the biggest issues that caused my meltdown was neglect of my spiritual life. I am convinced from talking with other Pastors that this is perhaps our single greatest problem. It is easy for us to think that the time we spend studying to preach is a substitute for daily time alone with God. IT IS NOT! During the time I was on Sabbatical I dedicated every morning from 8:30 am to noon, to studying my Bible and praying. This came hard at first and my temptation was to start preparing sermons for when I got back in the pulpit. During the first week, my study was dry and dead. No matter how hard I tried, I could not seem to hear from God at all. But then it hit me, “Why I am preparing sermons? I may never get back in the pulpit.” It may seem odd, but that revelation was really a turning point in this process. When I stopped trying to write sermons and simply started listening to God, He began to speak. What He showed me about my life was not pretty and I had to completely reorganize my priorities in life, but the short version is simply that God wanted first place in my life. For along time, I had been letting other things creep in and occupy that place.
Put the ministry in proper perspective- If we are not careful, somewhere along the line our identities will become wrapped up in the ministry. When this happens we start thinking that our value is determined by the success or failure of the church. Sadly, this often results in becoming obsessed with the nickels in the offering plate and the noses in the seats. When attendance goes down, we interpret it as failure. When it goes up, we see it as success. Part of my meltdown stemmed from the fact that I had let the ministry become an idol in my life. I thought that somehow “it” would bring me satisfaction and contentment. I learned the hard way that it won’t, only God can bring genuine contentment in our lives. When I put God back into the first place in my life, I began to realize how out of balance the rest of my life was. It started with strengthening my relationship with my wife, then my children, then and my friends.
Start taking care of yourself physically- During the several months leading up to my meltdown I had gone on a crash, low-carb diet. I lost 65 lbs but in the unhealthiest way you can imagine. The truth of the matter is that I was no healthier after losing that weight than I was before; in fact, in some ways I was worse. This is where my friend Coach Glass helped me tremendously. He stopped by one night and told me that I needed to start coming over the High School and working out. Within a couple of weeks, I noticed a change in my energy level and the way I was feeling. I also started to eat healthier and to take care of my body better. I still have along way to go, but I can tell you that a little exercise and taking care of you health will go along way towards helping to reduce the stress and mental fatigue of the ministry.
Embrace the fellowship of other Christians- In the months leading up to my meltdown I had allowed myself to become isolated from the people who cared about me the most. My natural introversion worked against me here. Part of the recovery from any meltdown is to embrace the fellowship of the other Christians. During the first month of my Sabbatical, I attended a different church. We thought at the beginning that this was a good idea but it was not. Being a stranger in another fellowship does not bring healing. It was not until I started attending First Baptist during the second month of my time off that I really started to emerge from the darkness. That first Wednesday night that I came back to church was so awkward but it was a key step in getting well again. My advice to Pastors and churches is not to create further isolation by retreating away from the fellowship. It was important for the church to see me and for me to see the church.
The entire process of recovery would fill an entire book, but I think you can get the basic outline from this post.