The three words that got me out of pastoral ministry were the three words screaming naked through my brain while I listened to a parishioner share her prayer requests one morning on the phone:
I. DON'T. CARE.
I loved this parishioner, as I loved all my parishioners, and always before had been happy to take her calls, happy to hear her concerns, happy to promise to pray, happy to pray itself.
But that day, I gave neither flying flip nor two cents’ worth of consideration to what she was telling me. It seemed devoid of relevance, an irritating ping-ping-ping on the windows of my brain. I wrote down everything she said, but may as well have been writing the ingredients from a box of detergent for all I cared about them.
I say sometimes that anxiety got me out of pastoral ministry—and in a way, I’m sure it did, because the anxiety rushed through my veins for months and anxiety, for me, has a heat that burned my insides and mocked my need for sleep or food.
I say sometimes that PTSD got me out of pastoral ministry—and in a way, I’m sure it did, because the traumatic circumstances were external, meeting the anxiety from the outside and confirming it was legit. The trauma transformed the sanctuary of my church into a burning building; a danger zone; a place from which to be rescued.
But the anxiety had been ongoing and the PTSD had been long-building and I had managed to stay in pastoral ministry in spite of them.
No, it wasn’t the anxiety, and it wasn’t the PTSD.
What kicked me out the door was a simple recognition that I needed to care to do my job, and I didn’t care anymore. The anxiety (internal) and the PTSD (external) had finally killed that ability in me.
A week or two before going on leave I wrote in my journal that I didn’t think I could be God’s under-shepherd anymore. I thought—and know this now to be true—that if I pressed on toward whatever the hell goal I thought I was pressing on towards, I would commit some form of spiritual malpractice on one or all of my parishioners.
So I stopped pressing on, and instead went to the doctor. I took her note to my senior pastor and, with his acceptance of my leave, left the building for the last time as a working employee. Then, as I have related here a few times, I went back to my therapist and back to my doctor and back again to my therapist. And I took my medicine and put on my running shoes and I stayed home with my kids and I read books and books and more books and watched The Office. And, in all that, I let everything I had been fighting to uphold in my call and vocation shatter around me.
My burnout, if that’s what we can call it, was so complete that even after six months away from my parish and my Christian faith I couldn’t go back. I did try; but in the end I couldn’t do it. I don't know if I ever will.
I tell you this to bear witness to a reality common to me and other clergy and to say something to those who at the end of their rope:
Sometimes you just need space to fall apart. And it’s okay.
Sometimes you just need time to let everything crash to the floor. And it’s okay.
Sometimes you just need to let your life unravel. And it's okay.
Not because falling apart is fun—it’s not.
Not because crashing doesn’t hurt you and those around you—it does.
Not because watching your life unravel is painless--it can't be.
But because—as I have discovered here at the bottom of everything I thought to be true--
Falling apart is sometimes the most reasonable response we have
to burdens beyond our ability to bear.
Crashing to the floor is sometimes the most reasonable response we have
to being pummelled and broken by life.
Unravelling is sometimes the most reasonable response we have
to others yanking and ripping out the threads that make up who we are.
That is a good enough truth to rest in, but thankfully, there is another. And it is this:
There is mercy on the cold, hard floor.
There is hope that companions the unraveling.
There is love that seeps through the night.
There is joy that comes in the morning,
even if the morning looks like none other you have ever known.
A blessing for you, and for me:
God’s love to us,
His peace to us,
His joy to us,
His healing to us,
His hands holding us,
Now and forever.