Recovering from a Ministry Meltdown

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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.

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The Anatomy of a Ministry Meltdown

ID-10053881Last year on Christmas morning in front of a packed auditorium of church members and  visitors, I had a ministry meltdown.  The truth of the matter is that the breakdown had been coming for almost a year and during the previous two days I had been showing signs of a problem, but simply didn’t realize what was happening.  Up to this point, I have not spoken about the lead up to the breakdown, nor shared with anyone outside of a select group of friends and church leaders about my recovery.  But over the last several months I have had the opportunity to talk with several other Pastors and ministers about their ongoing struggles and after a great deal of prayer I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned.  Today I want to share with you the anatomy of a ministry meltdown.  Then on tomorrow’s post I will share about recovering from a ministry breakdown, and then on Friday wrap the series up with how to prevent a ministry breakdown.

Before I share about the anatomy of a ministry meltdown let me share some enlightening statistics.  According a survey of protestant ministers conducted by Lifeway Research 55% of pastor’s report that they were currently discouraged.  Thom Rainer notes that, “I suspect that if we surveyed pastors over just a few months, we would find that almost all of them experience deep discouragement.”  That same survey reported that 55% of Pastors reported being lonely.  Since having my meltdown, I have been shocked by the number of Pastors who have called me to talk about their own struggles with discouragement and depression.  I suspect that the percentage of Pastors facing these issues is not significantly higher than those in the congregation, but we are less apt to talk about our struggles.

I can identify the following issues that lead up to my meltdown:

1.)  Ministerial Idolatry– It may seem strange but one of the biggest issues that lead to my breakdown was putting the ministry first in my life.  Lay people will not understand what I mean by this but every Pastor knows the constant struggle of not letting your identity become so wrapped up in the ministry that you lose yourself.  When this happens we end up putting the ministry ahead of everything else in our lives, including God, which is the equivalent of making the ministry an idol.  When ministry becomes an idol we end up serving it rather than God. Dave Kraft has written an interesting book about this issue entitled “When Ministry Becomes A Mistress.”

2.)  Spiritual Neglect– When the ministry becomes an idol it begins to demand more and more of our time.  I ended up trusting in my own abilities and talents more than on God.  The busier and more crowded my schedule became the less time that I spent alone with God.  A wise man told me when I started out in the ministry that the most important time of my day would be the time I spent alone with God.  The time we spend reading the Bible, praying, and meditating upon the things of God are the keys to a healthy spiritual life.  I tell my young preacher boys that they must minister from the overflow of their lives.  What I mean by this is that they must constantly spend time with God and nourish their own souls so that the ministry will stream out of the overflow of their lives.  I neglected this principle in my own life and quickly ran dry.  

3.)  Physical Neglect- this is a factor that most people would not have been aware of last year, but in the weeks leading up to my breakdown I was on a crash diet.  Over the previous months, I had lost 65 lbs. and just before Christmas I stopped eating all carbohydrates, trying to lose a few extra pounds in anticipation of the holidays.  What I did not realize at the time was that this had a devastating effect on my physical body.  I lost 65 lbs. but felt terrible and wasn’t sleeping well.  In fact, I hadn’t slept at all for three days leading up to the breakdown.   I was a wreak physically and this had a major affect on the way I felt emotionally.  Our physical condition has an affect upon our spiritual and emotional lives.  We ignore this to our own peril.

4.)  Isolationism– I am an introvert by nature and being around a lot of people is always uncomfortable for me.  But over the months leading up to my breakdown I had gone from being introverted to being completely isolated.  I had been feeling bad for a while and needed to talk to someone but I simply went deeper into a shell.  Even my wife and kids didn’t know how bad I was really feeling.  Publically, I tried to maintain a front and to keep on smiling but inside I felt very lonely. In the process of my recovery I discovered an article by Thom Rainer about the introverted leader that I found to be extremely helpful.  Ron Edmondson has also written a helpful article about understanding the pitfalls of being an introvert.  For lay people, I would encourage them to read this article about understanding introverts.

If you are reading this and you are a Pastor, I am willing to guess that you know exactly what I was feeling.  At some point, we all are going to fall into one or more of these traps.  The truth of the matter is that we al know what the anatomy of a breakdown looks like, but we are afraid to take the actions necessary to stop it.  Looking back, I should have known what was about to happen and taken action to stop it.  I didn’t and ended up going through a rather harrowing experience.  But that doesn’t mean that you have to go down the same road.   If you are suffering from any of these symptoms, stop! Get some help!  Call another Pastor and talk about what you are going through.  Call a counselor and make an appointment.  Most of all, get on your knees and talk to God.

Please click on the following links for part 2 of this series: Recovering from a Ministry Meltdown.

 

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