I packed up my notes and walked off stage mid-sermon

Christopher Ash | March 15th 2016

In the USA it is estimated that some 1500 people leave pastoral ministry each month due to burnout, conflict or moral failure (statistics from ‘Today’s Pastors” (2014) by George Barna). The causes are diverse, but they show the intense pressure that many in Christian ministry find themselves under. A third of pastors say they feel burned out within just five years of starting ministry, and almost a half of pastors and their wives say they have experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry. Here’s the story of just one of them, Dennis:

I was preaching one Wednesday night when, in the middle of the sermon, I packed up my notes and walked off the stage—with no explanation to the congregation. I had just had it, and I wasn’t going to take it any more.

I drove home thinking, “I’m not going back. I’m finished with ministry. In fact, I may even be finished with church.”

By the time I got home I couldn’t stop crying. I shut myself in our bedroom and didn’t leave the room for three days. My wife came in and prayed, but I knew I was done with ministry.

Burnout can be defined in many ways, but that’s how it looked in my situation. The seeds of this meltdown had been planted years earlier, and I had unknowingly nurtured them, carefully tending the soil and watering the plant until finally it sprouted into a very ugly weed. I was oblivious to what I had been doing and never would have guessed I could end up in such a state.

During seminary, I pastored a small church just outside of Kansas City for three and a half years. It grew from some thirty-five souls to almost three hundred. I liked the feeling of “success”. After seminary, one growing church led to the next until I was called to a mega-church in another state.

Once I settled in, however, I discovered the church was rife with problems. I uncovered dishonest staff members, strife between members, and a legacy of incomplete truths being offered to the church. Members no longer trusted the staff. I had never encountered such serious problems before.

Furthermore, my predecessor was well known in the community because of the church’s television broadcasts. He was a flamboyant personality who preached powerful evangelistic sermons. His departure was sudden and unexpected, and most of the church grieved the loss. By contrast, I was in my mid-30s and more of a Bible teacher than evangelist.

To my shock, a number of people didn’t like the new guy and left. Attendance reports and contribution spreadsheets confirmed my unpopularity. People wrote to me, telling me that I was ruining the church. Some even turned away when I approached them.

What did I do to turn things around? Did I pour my heart out to the Lord? Did I accept being rejected if it meant obeying him? Did I trust the simple preaching and teaching of the word? Nope! I tried every trick in the book and worked longer and harder.

The sad truth is that the gimmicks worked—but I felt ashamed and guilty.

Then a church in Tennessee contacted me. It was bigger—and nicer—and they really wanted me. I jumped at the chance for a new beginning and success in another city and didn’t look back. The overused cliché, “The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” described me to a T. I attacked my ministry with the same work hours, drive and methods.

But at this church I inherited a new set of problems. People were loyal to my predecessor, who had remained in the church. They were unwilling to change and certainly didn’t mind telling me so. I pushed harder for my agenda. As I worked harder and harder in my own strength, the pressure built higher and higher until that fateful night when, like an overheated radiator, the boiling hot water blew off the cap and spewed out. The car could go no more. I was used up and burned out.

Is there hope for recovery from burnout? Absolutely! The Lord used a number of people and events to change my life and approach to ministry. My wife listened to me, challenged my faulty thinking, and spoke reality to me. Most of all, she prayed for me.

Deacons and staff members came to our house, and insisted on talking with me. Their expressions of grace were life giving. As I slowly recovered from the burnout incident here’s what the Lord taught me:

  • Focus on the Lord’s definition of success. Ministry isn’t about numbers. It’s about faithfully preaching, teaching, and loving the people.
  • Seek help from a mature Christian friend or Christian counselor when appropriate.
  • Share the load ~ with staff, elders, deacons, and trusted friends and members.
  • Don’t neglect your spiritual, physical and mental health.

A year after my burnout incident, the Lord called us to the church where I’ve spent the last twenty-three years. It was a much smaller church, but the people loved the Lord and his word. And they’ve loved and cared for me throughout the years.

The church has tripled in size, but I’ve refused to focus on numbers or gimmicks. I’ve not allowed myself to slip back to old ways of thinking and motivations, and God has faithfully healed old wounds. Recovery happens when we come back to being spiritual men and women who do spiritual things God’s way.

Dennis’ story is one of many in Zeal without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of Sustainable Sacrifice by Christopher Ash, with a foreword by Alistair Begg. Join the conversation and comment below. You can also like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, subscribe to our YouTube Channel, and download The Good Book Company App straight to your phone or tablet.

Christopher Ash

Christopher Ash has been a pastor, and is now an author and writer-in-residence at Tyndale House, Cambridge. He was Director of the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Training Course from 2004-2015. He is married to Carolyn and they have four children and five grandchildren.

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