Wednesday, January 07, 2015

From burnout to... beginning to get better (pt. 3)

This is the third post in my series on pastoral burnout. You can find parts #1 and #2 by clicking the respective links (or scrolling down). Initially I was going to call this 'How I Survived Pastoral Burnout'... and that may still be an apt title. However, I would like to hold off making that call for awhile yet. You know, just in case. This is how I started to get 'better' though.

Having been a pastor in the same small, rural, "family" church for 14 years, I believe I started down the road to burnout around year 5 or 6 (this is detailed in pt. 1). I have to wonder how much a sabbatical would have helped at year 7. Unfortunately, I didn't get one until year 14... and then when I finally got one, the church council asked me to resign while I was still on sabbatical. So this is a brief description of how I survived not only the burnout, but also the uncalled for dismissal.

First and foremost I would suggest anyone suffering from pastoral burnout should be in counseling. It should go without saying, but probably needs to be said in most cases. It was when I finally started seeing a professional counselor (as opposed to pastor friends) that I was fully convinced of the need to take a sabbatical. He also put me on antidepressants. For years I fought to stay off them by exercising more, praying more, and any number of others things, but I needed help. Sure, there will be those who accuse you of being "crazy," or "mentally unstable," but they probably already have a low opinion of you anyway. However, medication for your symptoms of burnout probably isn't enough still.

Even if the meds help, you can't depend on them to solve your problems. My counselor suggested not only antidepressants, but he also prescribed meditation three times daily. As a Christian, and since I was seeing a Christian counselor, he prescribed "Christian" meditation. The difference is that, while general meditation is more of a 'clearing' your mind, "Christian" meditation is a 'filling' of your mind - filling it with truths of Scripture and attempting to create more God-centered thoughts, ideas and emotions. My counselor offers a 30-minute meditation audio for free on his website. To this day I still practice a variety of forms of Christian meditation on a regular basis (there are apps for that too!). It helps me focus, as well as fill my mind with "whatever is true... noble... right... pure... lovely... and admirable" (Phil. 4:8). Recovering from burnout requires someone better than ourselves to speak into our lives.

It's one thing to finally come to grips with your pastoral burnout, but ultimately you are going to have to make some modifications to your life in order to survive long-term. My survival required modification of my activities, expectations, and occupation.
  • Activities - As I shared previously, I was already doing a number of things that were supposed to help. I was an avid runner, I was in accountability groups, I prayed, studied, read a ton... but they were all things 'I' was doing. So how did I modify my activities? I quit doing those things, and actually started drinking more, I started smoking (after having quit for 25 years), and generally living a little reckless. While I do not recommend it, it happened, and I think it helped (me). If I was going to survive, it would have to be at the hands of God, not something I could control myself. I needed to bottom out; and I did.
  • Expectations - This was/is perhaps the most difficult modification for me. I had to learn to live with little-to-no expectations... for anyone. That included myself. A common phrase my wife used to utter when she managed a pizza place was, "It's only pizza." That's how she dealt with a teenage workforce and a mostly-idiot customer base. When something would happen, she would just say to herself, "It's only pizza." I have been saying that a lot, about a lot of things! Life is long, and most things aren't that important. Friends will fail you, most people don't care, we're all a mess, and so it goes. The same goes for me. I seriously disappointed some people, and the world didn't end. We have to get over it. It also helped to change my...
  • Occupation - This may not be necessary for everyone, but it became necessary for me. However, it wasn't the burnout that made it necessary... it was the treatment I/we received following the dismissal. I needed to re-learn that I did have some value and am able to make a contribution to the world again. Regardless of all that, and whether I ever return to pastoral ministry or not, the change has been good and I believe I am (or will be) a better person for it. 
So, again, I don't know that I can suggest this as a path for others who may be suffering from pastoral burnout, but this is what worked for me: medication, meditation, and modification of activities, expectations, and my occupation. I have no interest in returning to pastoral ministry at this time - I don't know that I ever will - but I survived this experience with my faith intact when I wasn't sure I would. You can too.

Next I will share some further findings in my continuing story of survival.