Home Pastors The Un-Talked About Pain of a Pastor: Recovering From Burnout

The Un-Talked About Pain of a Pastor: Recovering From Burnout

burnout

5 years ago, I remember arriving, extremely tired, to a quaint vacation bungalow in Virginia Beach. For 25 years, my wife and I had been serving the church full-time in various roles, we learned the value of a vacation every year. But this vacation felt different. I didn’t bring any books to read, and I was grumpy. That first day, I slept 14 hours and woke up at 2pm. 

Leading up to that vacation was a 2 year stretch of pastoring that felt like walking through a driving range praying not to get whacked by a golf ball—an Elder I had to fire for infidelity but publicly resisted it; a funeral for a teenager in our church gunned down by a local gang; my best friend leaving our church because my sermons weren’t good enough; a collapse in the literal foundation of our church building that drained our savings; a small group leader I had to confront who began teaching polyamorous relationships; a women accosting me after a Sunday sermon for not being there for her when she wanted counseling; a conservative fella sending a blazing letter to our congregation that I was a dangerous liberal and a progressive couple, sharing at a church town hall that I was heartless and didn’t care about injustice because I didn’t attend a protest they organized. 

I meandered out to the kitchen, saw the beach in the distance, and even that felt like labor just to go out there. I scooched up to the dining room table, still a bit groggy, and began munching on a bowl of cereal. My wife looked across the table and asked, “Why are your hands shaking?” I brushed it off as low blood sugar but the shaking never went away. This was my lifelong habit: to bypass exploring why I was hurting with reflexive statements like “I’m fine” or “it’s not a big deal.” A part of me is always afraid to explore why I’m weary and wounded. 

It took a neurologist, therapist, and a spiritual director to diagnose the source of the tremors. I remember after a battery of tests being pulled into the neurologist office to be given the diagnosis — “Dan, you have an active tremor attributed to Cumulative Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Honestly, my first gut instinct was to think they were quacks. But it didn’t take me too long to realize that the last 25 years of ministry (conflict, loss, betrayal, scapegoating, etc.) had taken a toll. An EKG had also shown heart damage from the stress disorder. My body had been keeping the score all along.

All In but Alone

I love the local church. Through Bible college, seminary, refining my preaching craft, numerous conferences, ordination, spiritual direction, and 20+ years of faithfulness was invested in being the pastor and church planter, I sensed God calling me to be. But there was so much torque on my soul.

I have new emotional insight into when the Apostle Paul shares in 2 Timothy chapter 4 “… come shortly unto me Timothy: For Demas has forsaken me, departing unto Thessalonica; Crescens left me to Galatia, Titus abandoned me and went to Dalmatia…” And he explains a little early in chapter 4, “At my first defense before Rome no one took my part, but all forsook me.

What is going on here? The Apostle Paul gave his life and his love to bring the message of Christ across the Roman and Mediterranean world, and only Luke is with him. He’s alone and abandoned, and ironically feeling unloved. I now understand the ache Paul has and it’s not for lack of people around me, or even a lack of ministry impact. It’s because a part of his soul has been injured.

No Room to Talk

I have met many pastors over these last few years, from small and big churches who have never had the space to explore why they were soul-tired and experiencing burnout. There is something about the culture of “being a pastor” that keeps us from talking about it. There is a lot that is un-talked about. Where is it safe? We must first acknowledge the reality—pastors are in pain. Is that a controversial statement? For some it is. We’ve seen a lot of pastors abuse their platforms publicly. Many perceive that categorically pastors are the problem. With all the headlines of bad pastors, it seems uncool to talk about being beat up and burnt out as a ministry leader.

I know pastors are in ministry for God’s glory, but we cannot sweep under the carpet how decimated we are inside. The polarizing presidential election. Unrest around racial injustice. A global pandemic. Never before have so many expectations been placed upon pastors to be absolutely perfect or experience severe backlash. 

When I lost my best friend because he didn’t like my preaching, I might have grumbled to my wife about it, but I certainly never grieved. Such a deep loss, a moment of rejection, and I never cried because I had volumes of ministry to do. Yet, I was carrying that searing sadness in my body and no way to talk about it.

Unrealistic Expectations

A lot of theologizing has been done on why Jesus sweat blood in the garden. One thing I know we must do is not disconnect it from that full day of washing his friends’ feet, sharing a meal with them, having them fall asleep when he needed them and then knowing he was going to be betrayed by someone he invested in. One of the reasons Jesus was in anguish, fully God but also fully human, was he was alone and with no one to be there for him. Relational pain hurts the most, even Christ.

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Dan White Jr is the co-founder of The Kineo Center (Puerto Rico), a place and process to find healing amidst a hard calling. Dan is also a consultant and coach with the V3 Movement, coaching cohorts from around the country through a 9-month system for movement and mission. Dan’s most recent book is "Love Over Fear: Facing Monsters, Befriending Enemies, & Healing Our Polarized World" (Moody Pub). He’s also written "Subterranean" (Cascade) and co-authored the award winning "The Church as Movement" (InterVarsity Press). Dan is married to Tonya (25 yrs), dad to Daniel and Ari, and can be found enjoying conversations at his local neighborhood coffee shop.