I received the following letter from a forty-something man. He had heard me speak at a conference, and handed it to me as he shook my hand after the presentation. If I didn’t know better, I kinda thought he might be Special Ops or something. It felt like that when he handed a typed letter to me, then walked away.
I’ve watched Homeland too much.
He never intended for this letter to go public – at least he told me that later. He just wanted one other guy to hear his story, and I was the fortunate recipient. And once I returned to my hotel room, I read his letter.
And then I cried.
And then I picked up the phone and called a pastor friend of mine. And he couldn’t believe it.
When I saw this man later that night at the same conference, I asked him if I could make this letter as public as my abilities allowed. And he said, “Sure. Just don’t tell anyone my name, because I don’t want to disrespect my church leaders.”
This man is the real deal. I meet people who blame the church for everything – their failed marriages, their teenage daughter’s promiscuity, their ingrown toenails. Everything. But he is NOT that guy. This is a guy who you’d love to have a drink with, or just get to know over dinner. He’s engaging, very normal, and has unlimited potential.
And as people who are called to shepherd the individuals and the masses – as leaders who are given the high honor of helping us all become a light to the world, it’s more-than-crucial that we hear this man’s voice, then look at the way we’re leading people like him.
In his own words…
I’d been serving in church for most of my adult life: worship ministry, teaching, children’s, youth. I’ve served on platforms and behind-the-scenes. I’ve sacrificed my weekends and evenings. I’ve served as an elder, and I’ve grilled hot dogs at the youth fundraiser.
But I woke up one morning, and realized a resentment toward the church was beginning to grow into full-scale anger. When I began sharing these feelings with a close friend, my friend suggested I might be burned out.
He was right.
Over the next year, I backed out of every commitment at my church. A few months later, I left the church entirely.
WHY I BURNED OUT
Most leaders seem to believe burnout is nothing more than being tired and needing to be replaced. Pastors would say things like, “Why don’t you just take a month off, then come back after a break?” They never realized that I didn’t need a break.
BURNOUT WASN’T ABOUT BEING TIRED, BUT ABOUT BEING RECRUITED INTO MINISTRY POSITIONS FOR WHICH I WAS NOT WELL-SUITED.
Burnout was the worst experience of my life—more difficult than marriage or child-raising; even more difficult than the death of my parents. I don’t have any answers for pastors. I only know it took me five years to begin to actively re-engage in communal church life.
WHAT BURNOUT DID TO ME
This is what burnout did to me. These are the things that burnout caused me to do, to think, and to believe. It’s not pretty, but it’s real. I’m not blaming anyone or anything. I’m only reading my journal to you.
Burnout caused me to question everything—God, Jesus, the Bible, the cross, the resurrection. Everything.
Burnout caused me to question myself. During that five-year period, I’ve never felt like less of a child, like less of a beloved son. During that time, I identified myself as a failure more than any other identity.
Burnout caused me to seek and engage a Christian counselor. I’m still paying off that bill.
Burnout caused me to become cynical of church leaders.
Burnout developed a hardening of my heart, even toward the people who are near to the heart of God—the poor, the downcast, the voiceless.
I’m not an expert, so to try and give pastors an easy answer to this problem isn’t something I’m comfortable doing. But there are two things that need to be said.
First, please make sure that your volunteers know you love them beyond the tasks they perform for your church. Most church volunteers secretly believe their value to church leaders lies in their performance. Please help us put that false belief to rest. Or, if it’s true of you, please have a come-to-Jesus meeting.
Second, please help us find and discover the most well-suited ministry positions for us, not for you. I know church leaders have “holes” in their ministries, but I don’t want to fill a “hole.” I want to impact the world.
“I DON’T WANT TO FILL A MINISTRY HOLE. I WANT TO IMPACT THE WORLD.”
Please don’t use me to make your job easier, and call that “equipping.” Help me discover what I’m uniquely gifted to perform, then provide me with an opportunity to perform that thing.
I promise you—if you help me discover where I fit, and if you love me well, I won’t burn out.
I will be a light.
I will change my world.
As I’ve said before, there is no blame here. It’s more my fault than anyone’s. I’ve worked through these issues of burnout, and I’m once-again actively involved in the life of a local church. I’m now stronger than ever, and God has taken something the Enemy meant for harm, and has turned it into good.
Thanks for reading my story.
I’ve read his story over and over again, and I’m always brought to tears. And instead of trying to bring areas of application to light as a conclusion to his story, I think I’ll just let it sit and let the reader come to his or her own conclusion.