Where the willow won’t bend

Three weeks ago I went to my Dr with some physical symptoms, and left his consultation room on enforced sick leave for burnout. I had left my study that morning with every intention of returning to finish off my sermon preparation, and to pick up some pastoral visits later that day. Instead, I returned to it in order to make some calls to arrange cover for the pulpit for the three following Lord’s Days. To say that this came as a shock to me would be an understatement, and yet I am deeply grateful for the insight that my Dr had into my condition, and his wise advice about what to do next. In this post I want to share three lessons that I have been working through over these past weeks in the hope that they might be of help to others who are facing/will face similar circumstances in life, work, or ministry:

I don’t know myself as well as I think: I consider myself to be a fairly reflective person, and I spend a significant proportion of my time in ministry helping other Christians to form a biblical view of themselves and their circumstances. I don’t feel that I blunder blindly through life, and I often replay scenarios and exchanges in my head long after they have taken place, analysing my words and my actions. Even with all of this, however, in the past few weeks I’ve come to recognise that I suffer from significant blind spots about my self and my soul. I went to my medical appointment believing that some joint pain I was having could be readily diagnosed and dealt with, and that I would proceed through the rest of my week as per normal. I had no idea that I was physically exhausted, and had stopped reading the signs that this could be the case. When my Dr spoke of burnout I initially thought he might have been employing the wrong word.

What concerns me in this is that I have lacked the objectivity to see and assess myself accurately, and that I have managed to transpose some gentle conversations that others had with me over the past months into a key which my ear could not tune in to. I was careering headlong into physical collapse, and I had no idea.

If that is the case with my physical health, then it spells out an important lesson in every area of my life. Denial looks like a difficult discipline from the outside, but it is remarkably easy to achieve. All one needs to do is default on the narrative, on the particular spin that one’s actions and attitudes will embody, and the rest falls into place. No amount of information, exhortation, or even physical symptom can penetrate it, no amount of persuasion can dispel it. Seeing one’s own blind spot is a deeply disconcerting but potentially empowering experience. If I can’t interpret tiredness, then what other phenomena do I quietly accept and subsume into my life, what stories do I tell myself about sin, about ministry, about family, and a whole host of other things. In some ways I need to distrust myself, question my reading of the gauges in my life, and invite others into this process (more about this below).

Voluntary sleeplessness is a symptom of sin: the single greatest contributing factor to my experience of burnout was self-imposed sleep deprivation. I have been extremely busy over the past number of months, and I quietly, subconsciously, devised a way of getting more done – I would sleep less. Of course, I never decided on this course of action, I simply let it happen. 11:30pm conclusions to my working day migrated to the other side of midnight, and then lingered longer and longer to try to bring closure to my workload. In the end I had begun to rely on four hours of sleep per night over the long haul.

This is a symptom of idiocy, but it is also a symptom of sin. Voluntary sleeplessness speaks of a simultaneous under-reliance and over-reaching, a proud and foolish heart which loses sight of the sovereignty and sufficiency of God, and which begins to believe that my perfectionism is the key to getting things done. My blindness is so profound that I have managed to work until 2am on messages urging other Christians not to be anxious and to rest in God.

It is not heroic to push the hands of the clock ever further south to serve the Lord, it is sinful, and it is faithless. If I cannot achieve what needs to be done in the normal working hours of the day, then I have either taken too much on, or I am doing my work in the wrong way. In my case I have driven myself on to the rumble strip of exhaustion by trying to dig ever deeper for resources which I forgot were finite.

The lesson for me in this is to think, and live, and serve, in a way which is diligent, but dependent, industrious but implicitly trusting of God’s strength and grace to me. That might sound like the polar opposite to rocket science, but in life and in ministry it is so easy to forget. Matthew Henry speaks of robbing our sleep to pay our cares, and this is exactly what I was doing. I didn’t feel worried or anxious but this was simply because I was clocking up enough hours to make myself believe that I didn’t need to. I need to repent of this, and resolve to rest while I wrestle, and trust while I work. I believe this lesson will need to be learned over and over again.

As a pastor I need to be pastored: one of the most significant outcomes for me in the process of recovering from burnout is the decision to self-consciously seek to be more closely pastored in my pastoral ministry. As a full-time financially supported elder it is easy to work one’s way into a place where you are counsel-proof, where you mask your own needs by addressing those of others, and where external voices can make little call on your investment of time, and your division of labour. This can be for the very best of reasons, it can be the outcome of an over-realised ministry impulse where one’s instincts are outward facing, giving rather than receiving, but it is not sustainable over the long haul.

I have begun discussions with my elders in which I intend to submit my commitments, my work rate, and key decisions about how I invest my time into their care. I’m not resigning my autonomy, and I am certainly not going to voicelessly allow my life to be directed by others, but I am inviting key people into how I make decisions, how I work my schedule, and how the health of my soul is. This feels a little painful, the door into this part of my life is not well-oiled, but I believe it is the correct path to take for longevity in ministry, and true accountability in life. Having driven through the suburbs of burnout, I have no desire to visit the city centre, and I need the direction of others to help me avoid that.

I’m grateful for the experience of the past few weeks. I’m grateful for the warning light which has allowed me to avoid catastrophic engine failure, and I am trying to intentionally address the attitudes and behaviours which led me to overwork and under-sleep. I am asking God to disciple me and develop my spiritual character by learning from my previous mistakes, and to go forward trusting him, reposing in him, and serving him in a sustainable way.

Resources

If you’re suffering from burnout, or suspect that there are some symptoms of it in your life, the most helpful resources that I have encountered are:

David Murray’s book Reset which ministers to men generally rather than pastors specifically (he and his wife Shona have written a corresponding title for women Refresh);

Brian Croft and Jim Sevastio’s The Pastor’s Soul which is a frank treatment of how pastors can better guard their hearts, sustain their ministries and trust their God.

Also, go to your Dr sooner rather than later, speak to your elders frankly, listen to friends and family members who might just see you more clearly than you can see yourself.

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