A Pastoral Health Story

When we asked Dale Harris, Pastor of The Freeway in Oshawa, ON, to share his experience with burnout and clinical depression he did not hesitate.  The following is an excerpt from his May 2015 blog, Notes from the Ashes

(Part 1): Some Reflections on Pastoral Burn-Out.

It was just over a year ago now that I went through one of the darkest periods of my ministry, if not my life.  It was a season that started with a long run of emotionally demanding ministry challenges, a few hard disappointments in a row, some big uncertainties looming up on the horizon, and my worst self-getting the better of me one too many times.  Before long I was exhibiting all the classic signs of burn-out—severe depression, physical exhaustion, difficulty making even simple decisions, unexpected and uncontrollable bouts of anxiety, and what those in the biz call “escape thoughts.”

After a few months of being like this, it all came to a head one very dark Sunday evening, when an unexpected email from a well-meaning friend expressing some concerns about my ministry, launched me into a startlingly intense and disproportionate explosion of frustration, fear, and despair.  I say “startling” because when the storm passed, the uncontrollable eruption of emotion was so alarming to me that I finally admitted to myself, and my wife, that I needed help.

About a month later I was off on stress leave for emotional and physical exhaustion.  About three months after that, after a good deal of self-work, some pretty serious work on my life with God, and some much-less-serious but vitally needed rest, I was back at my ministry post, with fresh clarity on who I was as a pastor, renewed heart for the ministry, and new depths in my life with God.  I was, in the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “an older and wiser man.”

The medical term for what happened to me, I think, is “clinical depression.”  The corporate world calls it “burn-out,” and the church sometimes calls it “compassion fatigue.”  I just call it “my dark time.”  It was very real, very raw, at times very scary, and, while I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, God used it to help me become the pastor he has called me to be.

To start it all off, let me offer four simple things I learned about burn-out that were very important first-steps—not to my recovery itself, necessarily, but to my getting to a place where I could begin to recover.  In a way similar to how acceptance is the first step to recovery of other kinds, these are four things I needed to hear someone I trusted say to me before I could begin to heal.


Burn-out is not a sign of failure but strength

Think about it like the fuse in a car.  When the fuse blows, it’s not because the fuse failed, but because it worked: there was an overload on the system and by “blowing” the fuse did its job and protected the system from frying.  The burned-out pastor is like that fuse, inasmuch as he or she “blew” to keep the emotional load from frying the whole system (the local church or ministry context).  Refusing to “blow” and letting the emotional load fry the system would have been the real failure.

You are not alone

Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen, Peter Scazzero, Bill Hybels, Rob Bell and, as far as I can gather, the Apostle Paul himself, have all been through what you’re going through.  One of the lies I believed early on in my experience, a lie that was keeping me from seeking the help I needed, went like this: “if you do ‘burn-out,’ your credibility as a pastor (such as it was) will be shot.”  So imagine my surprise, as I began reading about burn out, when I discovered that almost every contemporary church leader I’ve ever admired, respected, taken cues from or tried to model my ministry after, have themselves been through this thing called burn-out.  Knowing they’d come out the other side older and wiser helped me to believe I could, too.

This is not “just in your head”

Burn-out is as much a physical thing as it is intellectual or emotional.  This was huge for me to realize because it forced me to accept that I could not “keep pushing” by sheer mental exertion alone, anymore than a guy with a broken femur can just “walk it off.”

Depression is real

I would have “said” this before my dark time, of course, but after the dark time, I actually “get it.” People who have experienced depression have different terms for it—the noon-day demon, the black dog, and so on—that try to put their finger on what it’s like to be depressed.  I often describe it like this: “It’s like, the sun’s shining.  You can feel the light on your face, feel the warmth on your skin, see the blue sky, and yet your brain tells you with all seriousness, ‘nope.  It’s another cloudy day.’”

If any of this is resonating with you today, let me encourage you to take it seriously.  One of the other things I learned about burn-out is that there’s sort of a lag-time with it—that is, often we are burned out months before the “running on adrenaline” catches up to us, and we finally have to admit that the tank is empty, so the sooner we’re honest with ourselves, the better.

Burn-out is not the end of the world, but it is the end of some things—a false kind of self-sufficiency, an unrealistic perception of yourself and your limits, in-authenticity and dishonesty about where you’re really at with God. But as someone who’s been through it, let me humbly suggest that for us to grow in the ways of Jesus, the sooner those things come to an end, the better.

Rev. Dale Harris is the lead pastor at The Freeway Free Methodist Church. If you would like to read more about Dale’s journey, check out his blog, terra incognita http://daleblogging.blogspot.ca/