Depression, Burnout & Ministry: Deciding to Get Honest About Our Journeys…

42-17222040I remember where I was at the exact moment I read the words below by Rob Bell in his book Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. I was sitting on our couch in Pasadena, CA and as I read each word the resonance grew deeper and deeper within me until I finally felt like I was hit by a ton of breaks…but at least understood.  At least there was some pastor out there I thought, this one in Michigan, who put words to my feelings and thoughts in ways that I was not able to at the time. Bell says,

Once again I am going to give you some numbers, and I hesitate to do so, but it is part of the story and it helps to explain the rest. Two years into it, there were around 10,000 people coming to the three gatherings on Sundays.

In the middle of all this growth and chaos was me, superpastor. I was doing weddings and funerals and giving spiritual direction and going to meetings and teaching and dealing with crises and visiting people in prison and at the hospital–the pace and the workload were unreal.

I can’t begin to describe what it was like because it was happening so fast. One minute you have these ideas about how it could be and the next minute you are leading this exploding church/event/monster. All of a sudden there are all of these people who know who you are and want something from you and think you’re a big deal, and you are the same person you’ve always been. Everything has changed and yet it hasn’t. It’s hard to explain, but I found myself asking, “Where is the training manual?”

I think of people who never before cared if I existed who suddenly wanted to be my friend. And that’s why I tell you all of this. Because there’s a dark side.

It’s one thing to be an intern with dreams about how church should be. It’s another thing to be the thirty-year-old pastor of a massive church.

And that is why I was sitting there in the closet thinking about how far I could be by 11a.m. The next service was starting, I had just finished the 9:00 service, and I was done. I escaped to the storage closet where I could be alone and collect myself and figure out what to do next.

I was moments away from leaving the whole thing.

I just couldn’t do it anymore.

People were asking me to write articles and books on how to grow a progressive young church, and I wasn’t even sure I was a Christian anymore.

I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a Christian anymore.

What do you do when you can hear the room filling up with thousands of people who are expecting you to give them words from God, and you don’t even know if it is true anymore?

I was exhausted.

I was burned out.

I was full of doubt.

I was done.

I had nothing more to say.

And so I sat there with my keys in my hand, turning them over and over, listening to them clink against each other, hearing the room getting louder and louder and more and more full.

And it was at that moment that I made some decisions.

Because without pain, we don’t change, do we?

I could talk about the dangers of megachurches and life in the spotlight. I could write pages about what is wrong with Church incorporated and the flaws of institutional Christianity, but I realized that day that things were wrong with the whole way I was living my life.

And if I didn’t change, I was not going to make it.

It was in that abyss that I broke and got help…because it’s only when you hit bottom and are desperate enough that things start to get better. This breakdown, of course, left me with all sorts of difficult decisions to make about Mars Hill. The church was alive and people were being transformed and the stories never stopped coming. Who would leave all that? I decided to be honest about my journey, and if people wanted to come along, great. But I was still going to have to go. And a new journey began, one that has been very, very painful.

And very, very freeing.

It was during this period that I learned that I have a soul.
(pp. 103-105)

Have you ever come to that place where you feel like you just can’t go on? When you aren’t even sure you know what you believe? Or you aren’t even sure you have deep within you the words to speak…even if God is present?

This is the turning point. It’s the fork in the road, where we have the option to either to surrender and get help, or push on, potentially into dangerous waters if we are not careful.

If you have gotten help (counseling, spiritual direction, prayer partners, etc.) when did you know it was time?

And if you haven’t gotten help yet, why not? What are you waiting for?

Now is the time for us to get honest about our journeys. That is where it begins. With honesty. It’s the same principle that Alcoholics Anonymous begins with in their 12 Steps. Step 1: 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. It’s an act of surrender, an act of admittance, an act of honesty with ourselves.

Alcohol may not be part of your equation, but dealing with depression and burnout in our lives and in the ministry begins with honesty. It begins with being real.

And sometimes being honest and real, and admitting that are lives are unmanageable, that we are burned out and depressed is more than we are willing to admit, and often it’s more than the congregation and the people we serve is willing to hear or tolerate.

But let’s just start here…let’s get honest about our journeys.

43 Comments

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  1. by crs mnks on January 22, 2009  6:49 am Reply

    Well said. Thanks Rhett.

  2. by Mary Beth on January 22, 2009  6:51 am Reply

    Rhett - this is so helpful. Ministry is a tough gig and knowing that we can ask for help is freeing. Knowing that others struggle with these same feelings allows us to be honest.

    The question is how honest and with whom?
    Irony? I oversee the small group ministry, yet would not be comfortable as a staff person really sharing this kind of stuff in my small group.

    We know a Christian counselor who chose to focus on helping pastors/ministry staff because he saw such a need there. It has been very helpful, I highly recommend this option.

    I also have an accountability partner who knows what's going on in my life/mind/heart. She listens without judgment.

  3. by Lex on January 22, 2009  6:58 am Reply

    Anyone heard of Mad Church Disease?

    (I hope I can use HTML here or that's going to look really silly.)

    She wrote it for you.

  4. by Rhett Smith on January 22, 2009  7:08 am Reply

    Lex,

    Hey, thanks for sharing. I'm glad you mentioned her book.

    Yeah, if you look at the bottom of my blog it's the book I mention as the recommendation for the month.

    My next two posts in this series as well will be a two part interview with Anne Jackson....I think people will get a lot from it. She was very authentic of course, and honest with some tough questions.

    Thanks,
    Rhett

  5. by Gary on January 22, 2009  7:59 am Reply

    I had been a full-time pastor for 17 years. During that time, I had become the "man" I vowed never to become. Always angry. Always tired. Looking forward to the couch and the remote, far more than seeing my 3 daughters or my beautiful wife. Ministry in the local church had slowly killed my soul, and snuffed out any life abundant.

    So I quit.

    The church was shocked. The staff was shocked. My family was shocked. I didn't have any other job lined up. I didn't even know what occupational field I should pursue. I didn't know anything.

    Worse, I didn't feel anything.

    One year later, I sat in Monterey CA, reading that exact passage from Velvet Elvis. I had already done the quitting ministry thing, but had no idea how much I needed professional help. I was numb on the inside. So I got help.

    I still get help.

    My life has turned into an ongoing admission and cry for help. Depression is not only something I will always wrestle with. It's something I've learned to carry with me.

    And if people can't handle the "broken" me, then that's not my problem.

    Thanks for posting. It's rare that Christian leaders get this real.

  6. by Tyler (Man of Depravity) on January 22, 2009  9:28 am Reply

    I don't know any pastor that would say they can't relate to what Bell wrote there.

  7. by Rhett Smith on January 22, 2009  10:04 am Reply

    @john, @jim, @chris, thanks, I really appreciate it. Hope it spoke to you.

    @mary beth, thanks for sharing some real practical details...that is very helpful, and I'm glad you have those resources.

    @lex, I can't wait to read Mad Church Disease. Hopefully next week at the Innovation 3 conference in Dallas I will have more of a chance to talk with her in person and pick up her book also.

    @gary, wow! Thanks for being so honest. That's so amazing that those words were something you connected with at that time. I bet many have. I appreciate your honesty, and I think your example to us, your family, church community, friends, etc. is something that will be a great model for them to look towards when they go through similar things. I bet your experience is really being used by God to impact others also. Thanks for posting.

    @tyler, so, so true! Anything in particular you resonate with?

  8. by Brent on January 22, 2009  1:28 pm Reply

    Three months ago I was ready to get out of ministry. My burnout was affecting my job, marriage, and friendships. My wife had been insisting I get help. I went to my doctor, and he put me on a med that has turned me around. I thought I had been battling depression for just a few months, but I feel better than I have in over two years.

  9. by anne jackson on January 22, 2009  1:46 pm Reply

    shall see you next week indeed. come cheer in my session. laugh when appropriate at my attempts to be humorous. it just takes one... :)

  10. by Hello, my name is... on January 22, 2009  2:52 pm Reply

    I was on staff with a church for 5+ years. At the end of it, I felt like I did more ministry before I was ever employed by a church, because the business of big church has a lot of the mundane. I needed to get back to the basics of ministry every once in awhile to help avoid burnout, that's partly why I left church staff.

    Church leadership is tough. There's times when you want to quit that you shouldn't, and times when you feel like you should stay, but God is really calling you somewhere else.

    In the end, if you're married, I'm convinced your greatest ministry is to your spouse. If you're not in church staff, give extra grace to those that are, if you are in church staff, don't be a martyr and sacrifice your family on the altar.

  11. by Rhett Smith on January 22, 2009  7:14 pm Reply

    Brent,

    Wow! Thanks for sharing. It's amazing how a med can turn things around for people. I see that everyday. I'm glad that this is the best you have felt in over two years. Thanks for being honest and sharing.


    Hello my name is,

    "In the end, if you’re married, I’m convinced your greatest ministry is to your spouse. If you’re not in church staff, give extra grace to those that are, if you are in church staff, don’t be a martyr and sacrifice your family on the altar."

    I love that statement. I agree. Too many people sacrifice their marriages and family for ministry. Thanks for sharing that.

    Rhett

  12. by jeremy zach on January 22, 2009  8:56 pm Reply

    i think Bell, later, goes on to say that it is imperative to go out back and literally kill the superpastor complex.

    ya know? this sounds really great, it really does. but i am a pastor that has the people pleasing complex and literally thrives off of being accepted and valued.

    it is hard to say no. especially when you feel the extreme expectations of other people and sense their frustration because you are not meeting what they expect.

    resolving the problem takes a lot of emotional and spiritual energy and some times it is just easier to say yes and do it, rather than put up a fight.

    next thing you know, is that you are dry, worn out, tired, and empty and looking towards the heavens asking the question of: what happen?

    i don't think i have been in a place where i intentionally value my soul care time. thankfully i am at church that deeply values time to think, reflect, and to process.

    okay....i have rambled enough. thanks rhett.

  13. by Rhett Smith on January 22, 2009  9:10 pm Reply

    Jeremy,

    Haaa. Yes he does.

    Great comments. So true, it's a vicious cycle. I am a big people pleaser, which you know, is a brutal quality in ministry. Never learned to say no...for a long, long time. Then you are in this endless cycle of expectations needing to be met, not wanting to let people down...and yep, then completely exhausted.

    You feel burned because you feel used and like people or the church didn't care for you...the church and others feel burned, because they don't know what happened since you/I/we always said yes and never know.

    As long as "superpastor" is an expectation, and as long as it's highly praised in our culture, then people will seek it out and get caught in its lure. It's like the siren luring one to get smashed up on the rocks...ugh.

    Thanks for being honest. Who isn't a people pleaser in ministry. That's for another post, but I think there's enough research and evidence out there that can show that the ministry often attracts a certain type of person...and people pleasing is high on the list.

    rhett

  14. by Jared Still on January 23, 2009  10:53 am Reply

    Thanks for posting this Rhett!

    I feel this right now. Feel like I'm on the brink of breaking down...but just keeping my foot on the gas, hoping I can hold the line. Praying that if I keep fueling the virtues (praying, fasting, *trying* to rest, loving the fam, working out), that I'll just 'get through' like I've gotten through before. That rugged individualism spirit, I guess...which I'm well aware is not the Gospel.

    But what to do? Thankfully, my faith has not been crushed or torpedoed as it seemed Rob Bell's was at this time, yet my wrestle with God has increased. I don't know Rhett, it's a struggle...but through God's grace, I am well aware that He's 'in it'. Not of my own "effort" or anything...just His grace.

    I'm drained, but am constantly encouraged by the conversation like this, and the preaching from The Village that reaffirms that "it's ok, to not be ok."

    So, yeah...guess that's a lengthy meandering way of saying, "thanks for sharing!" :)

  15. by Rhett Smith on January 23, 2009  2:02 pm Reply

    Jared,

    Hey, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    "rugged individualism spirit" truly is what we value in our culture and in the West (especially America)...but as you know, it takes more than that. We need community, and Church, as you have mentioned is really important to you.

    I think what was "torpedoed" in Rob Bell's case was the idea of "superpastor" or what it means to be a pastor. But I think out of that, new life, and a new way of living and being emerged for him.

    Definitely true that wrestling with God and our faith often brings about a new way of viewing, or living out things/life.

    Glad that, and honored that, I was able to baptize you on Sunday.

    Rhett

  16. by Heather Smith on January 23, 2009  8:49 pm Reply

    This is so right on. I think in the Christian community it's often taboo to discuss doubts or questions about our faith...about our expectations...about what's working and what's not....it's important that we feel free to voice all of those things...and find someone to help us sort through them all and grow on the journey.

  17. by Matt Singley on January 23, 2009  9:26 pm Reply

    Burnout is as bad as porn in ministry...both exist, and nobody (especially the senior pastor) wants to acknowledge either.

    It starts with honesty, and it also helps to be in an environment where you can share your feelings about burnout. Unfortunately too many church pastors and execs will look at that as whining or weakness and make moves to quiet it. It's a shame...

    Good post, Rhett.

  18. by Rhett Smith on January 23, 2009  10:45 pm Reply

    Heather, Matt,

    sounds like this issue of depression and burnout is too often taboo in our Christian culture.

    I'm glad that more and more people are beginning to talk about this issue and bring it out into the open.

    "burnout is as bad as porn in ministry."

    Great thought Matt

    rhett

  19. by Wyatt on January 24, 2009  11:28 am Reply

    Great post Rhett. I think it is important for folks to have this discussion.

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  20. by Rhett Smith on January 25, 2009  11:14 pm Reply

    Wyatt,

    Thanks. I agree. I think the problem is that most of us are fearful of being honest about our depression, or anxiety or burnout. To us that signals some type of weakness, and that often doesn't go over well in ministry, especially in "high octane" ministries and churches.

    I think the more conversations people have, the more we can bring the subject out of the darkness where it festers...into the light.

    Rhett

  21. by Drew Sams on January 27, 2009  9:25 pm Reply

    Great post, Rhett!

    I agree that the ability to ask for help is something that will significantly reduce burnout. Sadly, it seems like the personalities that would be susceptible to burnout are also highly unlikely to ask for help.

    This past weekend, I spoke at a Young Life camp and I shared with the students how hard it has been for me to ask for help...even when I'm on the brink of burnout.

    The five most dangerous words I have ever spoken are..."it's cool...I got it." I've said that so many times in response to people reaching out and trying to help.

    I'm looking forward to reading Mad Church Disease this month.

    Another book worth checking out in relation to this is Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark Devries.

  22. by RO Smith on January 29, 2009  12:26 am Reply

    Hey rhett,

    I loved this part of the book, and definitely know what that feels like. You sometimes feel like you are "spinning your wheels" and there is no traction. We all feel this burnout or depression at one point or another in our ministry. I have definitely been at a point where I wished that someone would have told me about this when I "responded to the call". I think when we hear people say, "I am called to ministry", I just want to sit them down and give them the whole truth. The problem is that most people who feel that "calling" aren't probably ready to hear it.

    I can't help but wonder if all the people working in ministry are really "called" to it, or just thought they were good at it. These are two completely different approaches. The latter eventually "hits the wall" and then the person either plods through it passionless and endangering the lives of others. The previous still hits the wall, but I think is more willing to work through it and lean harder on Christ--because there is no other option.

    Burnout/Depression is not an easy thing to deal with period, let alone in ministry. But the more people understand it's reality and inevitability in our ministers and the more it is brought into the light, the better chance people who are "called" to lead our Jesus communities can experience healing and the those communities can contribute to that healing.

    Great post brotha!!

  23. by Rhett Smith on January 29, 2009  1:05 am Reply

    Drew,

    Hey, great thoughts...I love that about the most dangerous words spoken are "it's cool...I got it." so true.

    RO,

    And yeah, I think the more we can bring these things to the light, the more that we can lead others with our vulnerable selves and experience healing and help bring healing.

    Reminds me of Nouwen's words in the book In the Name of Jesus...about the leader of the future is one who basically leads with their vulnerable, broken selves.

    I think this generation is dying for this authenticity, and I have no doubt you two bring that into your ministries.

    Thanks for posting.

    Rhett

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  25. by Rhett Smith on February 3, 2009  10:08 pm Reply

    Check out DJ Chuang's post, Deconstructing Depression, http://www.djchuang.com/2007/deconstructing-depression/

    Amazing, honest and insightful post.

    rhett

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  31. by G on March 13, 2009  1:25 am Reply

    Hi, I do feel it right now. Responsibilities of ministry on the shoulders. Expectations of people. Misunderstandings from people. Bitten by sheeps. Disintegrating support from family. Disillusioned by what I am preaching. Yup. I do feel it. Not happy, drained out joy. Purposeless life. I am disillusioned by ministry and people.... What is even more massive - all these above comes in big clusters - waves after waves. Waves after waves.

    Waking up everyday staring and pondering "is this what life is all about?"

  32. by Dennis on March 24, 2010  10:40 am Reply

    Wow, its all there isn't it. What is this toxic stuff that we have all been a part of? I am sitting here in a church office - I have the reputation, I have the career, I finally have a decent paycheck - and it is not enough to keep dealing with all this. For years I told myself that this was God's way of smoothing out my rough edges, or transforming me into the image of Jesus through suffering. Maybe somewhere in all this God is still interested in my soul but it is hard to hear through the accumulated garbage that I have endured at the hands of very "spiritual people" over the years. Sorry -"Bitter -table of one" I guess. And the thing is that the guy I see in the mirror every morning, I don't even know anymore. He is more tired and angry than he should be. Loads of people around me would tell me what a great life I have. I can see those blessings, but counting them one by one isn't getting it done any more. Well - enough venting - Thanks for having this site up, I just stumbled onto it and appreciate the honesty - hope my own is not too much.

  33. by Timothy on April 10, 2010  5:45 pm Reply

    its hard to have surpport when you think and operate differently. I want to live and walk and talk freely. freedom is what I crave .

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