Instead of the typical “3 things” email, I felt to share a personal journey.
An extended personal reflection about burnout recovery
I went to the petrol station to pump up my tires, and left in despair. I had been standing, staring blankly at the air pump for a long time, with no recollection of what number to set it to. Was it 2, or 15, 60…? The longer I looked, the more confused I became. There was nothing within me that could grasp an answer. This simple everyday task, amidst the dysfunction of burnout became impossible. It didn’t even occur to me to pull out my phone and google it. I considered asking for help, but had no emotional energy to start this simple conversation with a stranger. Tears flowed, blurring the numbers on the air pump. I drove away defeated.
As we approach our AGM I was reflecting back on the last AGM in November 2020. A year and a half ago, because of the unprecedented times navigating COVID restrictions and vaccination divisions. You’ll also be aware that our church had another layer of complexity to add to the challenges over that time – my burnout situation meant that I wasn’t able to be at that AGM. In light of that, I think it is helpful now to share part of this burnout recovery story, because of the impact it had on our church and leadership team decisions. This is not easy for me to share, but important.
I’m grateful for the way our leadership team handled this season, when the senior pastor crashed and dropped everything. The caring and courageous way our leadership team responded has enabled me to fully recover and continue in ministry. In fact one significant Baptist leader reflected that he had never seen a pastor recover from the level of burnout that he had observed me go through. Recently, I’ve been approached numerous times by other churches and pastors facing similar burnout experiences, asking if I could share insights about what Franklin Baptist Church leadership team did to enable this recovery. Our story has helped other churches, pastors and ministries, as well as families within our own church who have been affected by stress and burnout in recent years. Here’s an overview of the journey.
In September 2020 during my family holiday, I crashed emotionally. This was later diagnosed by a psychiatrist as burnout, caused by stress accumulated over many years. There were several factors that contributed to this, primarily relating to the pressure of pastoral ministry and expectations. Pastoring is a job that is never complete, and carries significant emotional pressure due to the collective pastoral circumstances of a congregation. There are increasing legal requirements, health and safety demands, with responsibility that sits squarely on the senior pastors role, alongside a public dynamic that significantly impacts the whole family. None of my other year group peers who trained as pastors are still in ministry. The calling of ministry and mission sit heavily on my heart, as I desire to see our church fulfil the Great Commission. Over time I have struggled with the reality that some areas of ministry have not flourished under my leadership at Franklin Baptist church. I am passionate about being a pastor, and feel called to live my life for God’s kingdom. But gradually my ministry hours were over-extending, and time off increasingly interrupted. Lockdown in 2020 was a very difficult time for me personally, alongside some significant health circumstances within my family. Early in September 2020 I crashed emotionally. I was completely unable to function. The petrol station air pump was just one example of what life looked like at that time.
I scrambled to find advice/diagnosis/wisdom, meeting with medical professionals, mentors and trusted counsellors. As a pastor, this health journey is also inseparable from big questions about ministry. “Was I still capable of being a senior pastor? Was I still called to ministry?”, which created even more turbulence and uncertainty for myself, my family and our church leadership team. I want to express gratitude to my wife Jenni who is phenomenal. She has been so strong and caring.
At the time, we were guided by the advice of a Christian psychologist who specialises in stress and burnout. His recommendation, supported by our leadership team, was to return to the role at a reduced capacity, and recover in that setting. Apparently, research shows that recovery is proven to be faster and more long-lasting if it can happen in the setting where the stress occurred. He advised me to find “life giving” areas of strength in ministry, and focus on these, instead of taking extended time off. Thirty years of experience dealing with pastors with burnout had led to his concern that if I took extended time off at this stage of burnout, I would be unlikely to return to ministry.
This is a small snapshot of what our leadership team was carrying at the time – the very real possibility that the senior pastor’s burnout situation could end his ministry. The leadership team have been incredibly gracious and helpful, and have demonstrated amazing leadership and care at this time. It is important to acknowledge that they could not share any detail with the church. I understand that it may have been hard for the church, and there are still some lingering misunderstandings about communication and decisions that the leadership team needed to make at that time. But I am deeply grateful for the provision of privacy that was necessary for recovery. It must have been a challenging time for our staff and leadership team, as unfortunately I dropped everything in ministry.
Based on this professional recommendation, in October 2020 the leadership team and staff picked up the immediate ministry responsibilities, releasing me to gradually re-enter as I was ready and able to. In particular, John Wilcox carried a significant ministry load, which few could have. I honour John for his timely leadership. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I believe God worked through him to hold our church together during that season, and that this support directly enabled my recovery in ministry. I’m also grateful for Faye Snook and Philip Kelsey who visited Jenni and I in our home every fortnight, simply to listen and pray for us. We felt very supported and were able to be completely transparent in navigating the next steps.
Through October I had reduced hours and minimal responsibility. This recovery time was very difficult. Even just being on site at church felt overwhelming and caused pain/pressure to resurface. Every day I had to consciously choose to face and work through barriers in small steps (eg going to the office; attending a staff meeting; meeting with an individual; opening the emails; going to church on a Sunday; taking a small role in a wedding etc). I can’t overstate how challenging every one of these steps was, due to extent of the burnout.
I also discovered that feeling 50% doesn’t look consistently that level across all areas. Rather, it looks like 90% in some areas, 10% in some areas, 50% in other areas. This meant that I was soon able to lead well in some areas, like preaching, quite quickly. While other areas, like management team responsibilities, I needed extended time away from. Overall, this time was an “unpredictable roller coaster”. I genuinely felt competent to contribute meaningfully in some areas of ministry; but in other areas, one simple email or conversation would trigger a whirlwind of confusion. However, in November I was back full time, focussing on areas of ministry strength (…for those interested, responsibility is a high value to me, so I fastidiously recorded my time to ensure that I wasn’t a ‘liability’ to the church. Any leave or reduced hours I took was covered by accumulated sick leave, and annual holiday leave).
As we approached 2021 we decided to invite a Carey summer pastoral student to relieve pressure from the team. Sacha was an amazing fit. Few will realise how much Josh, Sandra and other staff members had to cover for me at that time. Around this time, Esther also picked up an enormous workload with a project from the Baptist National office that would typically have sat with the senior pastor. I’m very grateful. Having permission to focus on areas of ministry strength was life giving. I felt a renewed sense of calling toward pastoral ministry, biblical teaching, leadership, spiritual formation, discipleship and mission. There were many valuable lessons learned about healthy rhythms of life, rest, and boundaries in ministry. Every month through 2021 I felt increasingly healthy and stronger in ministry.
This health is also attributable to a shift in focus of the senior pastor role, by investing my best energy into ministry and mission, rather than management. At our church meeting we discussed a new interim part time executive pastor role (10 hours week), to carry some of the pastoral organisational management tasks that often sit within the senior pastor role. Penny was undoubtedly the right person for this role, as an experienced qualified senior pastor previously, who also holds a degree in business management. Having Penny already on our church leadership team was another strength during a season of recovery. It enabled a sharing of ministry responsibility and communication, that did not hang too heavily on one person. This is a ministry model that we have observed working well in other Baptist settings. We learned from their accountability processes to ensure it would not be a problem having another staff member on the leadership team. I believe this has been tremendously beneficial for Franklin Baptist. This has enabled me as senior pastor to put my best energy into ministry and spiritual leadership, rather than organisational leadership, pastoral management and systems. I believe this arrangement has helped us navigate the last year and will set us up well to move forward into the future.
As a final note of reflection on the recovery journey, it is important to comment on the extraordinary challenges of the past six months for all churches around the country. Never before have I observed such division and distress in the body of Christ, as we have seen with the vaccine mandate and omicron restrictions. At this time the pastoral needs of our church vary enormously. From those desperate for church as a hospital to find healing in Christ, spiritually, emotionally, physically. To those who are hostile because our pastoral decisions didn’t fit their perspective. Church ministry is challenging. Not just for the senior pastor, but for every member of the body of Christ. It’s realistic to say that I fully recovered from burnout last year, but also that the last six months have been more difficult for the church of NZ than any time I can remember.
Amidst all of this, Jesus is still calling. I have felt attuned to God’s presence, and a rekindled love for God’s people and God’s word. I am increasingly aware of my personal limitations, and the need to rely on God’s grace and strength. We are walking through turbulent times, yet God has placed many amazing people together at Franklin Baptist church and I am deeply grateful for each one. I know that it is not going to be easy, but I am moving forward with a sense of hope and optimism about how God is calling our church at this time.
Thanks for listening.
Grace and peace,