*For an audio version of this post click here.
I recall when I hit my breaking point in ministry. I was running a youth group with little support, helping with the intercession team, prayer team, worship team, chatting with parents, leading weekday meetings, preparing for Sunday messages, attending leadership groups … all while going to school full time and working two jobs. There wasn’t enough time in my week to do it all, yet when ask to attend one more meeting or help out on a Sunday off, I felt guilty saying no and leaving them short. The worst part wasn’t that I was exhausted, it was that I was losing the passion I once had for my kids [the youth I led]. I accepted this big volunteer-based ministry position because I loved seeing youth find their purpose, walking with them through hard times and showing them they could come out on top, and really encouraging them to stand out in a crowd that wants to fit in with the world. Looking back, there is so much I did wrong! I honestly cringe at times (haha!), but there is also so much I did right, and I pray I left a solid Jesus loving imprint in their hearts. Till this day, I have so much love for my kids and how they allowed me to grow as a leader (seriously guys and gals, you were the best thing about my ministry!).
Sorry, rabbit rail, back to burnout.
I recall the mixed feeling of anxiety and relief while I stood at the front of a room full of my youth and their parents, bawling as I tried to tell them I was stepping down from my position as the church’s youth leader. I walked home that afternoon feeling so light and happy; stepping down had been the right decision for me despite it making some leaders and family worry. I know it was questioned if I was stepping down because I was seeing someone new to the faith (was I being persuaded away?), but honestly, I was burnt out. I hoped for the day where I would be booked to work a weekend shift because it would mean not having to go to pre-service prayer, help with worship, lead youth, and then help clean up and mingle. I was tired. So so very tired, and so so empty. I had nowhere to give from and it led me to run myself to the ground trying to give out of my own strength.
I loved what I did! But as burnout began to set in, I struggled with feeling inadequate, not knowledgeable enough, not spiritually strong enough. There were times where I felt like a fraud, where I felt like a failure, when I disliked myself for when I suddenly disagreed with a teaching I had done. I had weeks where the dread for Sunday turned to depression, and I had months of feeling unsupported in a position that carried so much authority during such a sensitive time of in the lives of youth. The thing about being in leadership is that we really do love what we do. But! We forget that as we say yes to do more in the church, we aren’t always able to say no to the other responsibilities in our lives, which leaves us overbooked and over worked! Burnout is mostly our own doing, but I do believe leaders need to step up and call out ministry volunteers who are doing too much, instead of turning a blind eye and requesting more of the “yes” givers.
When I came across the story of Andrew Stoecklein, my heart absolute broke. The story broke me because I am devastated for the family that lost their father, their husband and son, and the congregation that lost their pastor in such a traumatic way. It also broke me because, in my own experiences, I can relate to what it is like to battle anxiety and feelings of being a failure as a leader. I cannot image how much harder it must be to battle those feelings at such severe levels when leading a mega-church and being a family man. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have full blown panic attacks and then having to minister to others, or having to walk through crippling depression and anxiety while being present to a young family. It breaks my heart to know that in a congregation so large, with leadership present for all members, the very man that lead this ministry found himself so alone and defeated in his mental health battle, that he felt the only way out was to take his own his life.
One of my prayers for the Stoecklein family is that the loss of Andrew would start a movement. A movement that takes leaders off the pedestals of perfection and sees them as the humans they are. That congregations that are in constant expectation of their pastors would turn the table and be the ones that are present for them. That pastors and leaders that never take more than a few hours off their never-ending work be gifted vacations, and date nights, and babysitting, and just be loved on. That the church set up of “Pastor leads and is present for congregation” would become “Pastor leads and is present for congregation, congregation supports and is present for Pastor and family”. That congregations would begin to ensure their leaders and volunteers are taking the needed time off to be filled. That leaders would ask each other the hard questions, see through the fake smiles, and ensure their teams get the appropriate help until the individual feels truly well again (not half well!).
To Pastors, leaders, and ministry volunteers: Stop. Stop and check in. Stop and work through your heart’s emotions. Stop and be honest with yourself and your loved ones. Stepping away for healing or rest is not failure, it is not defeat, it is not weakness; it is a move of strength. Let your congregation step up to the plate and run programs and be there for each other. You do not have to carry the weight of the church or your team. You do not have to say “Yes” to another leader because you feel bullied, forced, or guilty. Put yourselves first so that you can lead out of a place of rest and fullness, not out of your own strength as you barely hold it together. If you are feeling the effects of burnout, reach out. Do not believe the lie the enemy sows that you will disappoint and let people down.
To the congregation: Be present for your leadership and volunteers as they are present for you. Ask them how things really are if you see them acting differently, or losing their patience, or looking overburdened. Step up and be an active member of your church: volunteer, take on tasks, share the workload even if for one event. You are there to receive but you are also there to give to others. See your leaders as humans, pray for them and bless them instead of criticizing and tearing them down.
Jesus himself so often stepped away to be with God to refuel and find strength, the Son of God knew the importance of saying “No” and making time to find rest. As we try and be reflections of Him, let us also reflect the establishment of that boundary – of saying No to another task if it means we have to say no to time with God, time refueling in a service, of time away for our health.
If you think of the Stoecklein family, say a prayer for them and their congregation as they walk through this immense transition without Andrew.