I was a burned out priest. I realized that something was really wrong when I ended up in the emergency room. I had had a “near syncope” which means I passed out without passing out. (Not sure what that means medically). Anyway, I felt weird and had tunnel vision, and was out of balance for while. Not a good feeling.
They tell me this happened because of a benign condition that has to do with blood pooling in my legs. I checked out as healthy in other respects, and this condition is not a problem.
But it made me realize that I had no gas left in the tank. I was just out of energy, burned out. Never thought it would happen to me.
We were in the fifth year of our church plant, and had the usual challenges of funding, building questions. We had the usual interpersonal, human challenges that you can expect. Our particular Anglican network of churches was going through a crisis, which the local and regional church leaders and I had to navigate as best we could.
My kids were growing up, I was heading into my forties, with all the usual challenges of realizing you aren’t getting any younger.
We had suffered the loss of a close family member to cancer, and walked through the process of healing with our family members.
But people didn’t burn me out. Ministry didn’t burn me out. Mid-life didn’t burn me out. Grief didn’t burn me out. People, ministry, mid-life, and grief were all around me, but none of them were the source of my burn out.
After attending a stress reduction class, going to counseling, and taking a few months of sabbatical time, I finally started to come out of it. I had big support from my wife, from my friends, from my church and fellow clergy, and from my bishop.
But when I started to heal, I realized that none of the external events or persons around me caused me to hit bottom.
I came to realize that we all hit bottom at some point in our lives (and probably hit it again…and again) We may find that the bottom is deeper than we previously thought. Its a normal part of our lives. We cycle in and out of energy and drive, and we can’t just keep going at the same pace, with the same thinking and same patterns forever. We weren’t made like that.
Yet I hadn’t anticipated that. I hadn’t really engaged in soul care deeply. I hadn’t gone to counseling, or enjoyed a hobby, or gone deeper in the spiritual life. I didn’t have very clear boundaries between work and rest. I wasn’t staying in shape. I wasn’t prepared to hit bottom, so I burned out.
I didn’t feel out of control, or like leaving my life behind. I just felt overwhelmingly frustrated and tired, and a bit angry. I felt like I had no solutions to that, and when I had no choice but to give up and depend on others, healing began.
I can now appreciate the value of hitting bottom. I got a glimpse of my own inability to heal myself, and my dependence on God and others. I learned some new practices that help slow me down, and keep me more focused. And when I lose that sense of presence, I feel like more red flags are raised in my own mind and heart, and also by my loved ones. But I would never have been open to all of that if my false mask of self-sufficiency hadn’t been removed.
We will all have rough times, and it won’t be the same for everyone. Personally, I never felt like I was clinically depressed, but I’ve had several friends who have experienced that. Others experience trauma. We are all different and have different experiences, and none of us can perfectly anticipate how our minds, bodies, and souls will behave.
What I think we can do is to pray for a sense of dependence, and then put ourselves more in the hands of others, under the direction of the Holy Spirit. We can listen with more desperation to the wisdom of the mothers and fathers of our Faith. We can go to counseling. We can pray and ask for help. We can follow the example of our friends in Twelve Step Programs and take it one day at a time. We can put ourselves in the position of being a learner more often, and not always the teacher or leader. We can say out loud, more often, “I don’t know” or “Can you help me?”
None of that will prevent down times, or griefs, or challenges. It won’t prevent ministry breakdowns, or conflicts. It won’t magically erase a mid-life crisis or prevent us from experiencing grief or trauma. But we may be in a better place when they come, a place where we already have helping hands around us to lift us up when we fall.
And I give thanks for those hands. As St. Paul wisely wrote to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Photo: Public Domain