Crawling from the Prayer Room
There I was. Praying.
Not too stressful. Not burdensome.
I was in a lovely room, with coffee on tap, comfortable sofas, spacious surroundings and no disturbances. Just me and time with God. I always found this place refreshing and relaxing to be. It was a sanctuary.
At that time in life, I had established and was leading a successful and growing youth work, with a growing reputation across the community, and personally I was well respected in the local area, would speak regularly at my local church and was often sought after for advice and support in a range of areas.
Being a leader of my 'own ministry' and using my gifts effectively, I was well on my way to 'achieving' good things both personally and 'for the Lord'. In no way was my conscious intention to climb any ladder, but I certainly was enjoying the reality of what I was doing.
In the eyes of the broad evangelical Christian world, I was well on my way to 'success'.
In order to keep this momentum going, it wouldn't be unusual to work 16 - 18 hour days (I found it hard to switch off - and I LOVED what I did), I had food on the run, I didn't have any external hobbies or ways to relax, and I have the ability to have ideas and make them a reality - which gave me an unrestricted development setting. I wasn't married, had no dependants and I could choose how to spend every minute of every day.
And yet the personal resource I was putting in to sustain the growing external achievements, blinded me to the fact that my inner emotional world was in turmoil and my physical body was under increasing amounts of unsustainable stress. Both of these areas of life were about to come crashing down under the weight of all I was putting them through.
As I stood up to pray, I immediately found myself flat on my face. For a split second I wondered whether I was having one of those moments you only read about in books where God's presence has knocked someone to the ground, but soon realised that if He did, He also caused the room to spin and made me want to vomit. I didn't think God's presence was meant to be like that, so I soon knew that it was something else!
I could not get up further than being on all fours.
Any further movement and the world would spin. After five or so minutes I realised this wasn't going away. It wasn't a temporary loss of balance or a fainting spell; I was unable to get up. It was so bad I couldn't even use the phone.
The only way I knew I could get help was to get up to the church office where there would be someone around. And the only way I could get there was to crawl on my hand and knees!
Suddenly the successful me seemed very unsuccessful. For all the good stuff that was going on, I didn't look like I was 'living my best life now' as I crawled up the hill - thankfully there were no cameras!
Fortunately the office was still open and I was able to get a lift home. I went to hospital and it was a bad bout of vertigo, which took me out; for a number of days I couldn't even get out of bed.
I got better, but this was the beginning of my body giving up on me and was quickly followed by herpes, shingles and various other illnesses linked to my nervous system, flying red flags that this had to stop. But in spite of all of that, the only thing that actually stopped me was the day I was unable to get out of bed full stop and just had to cancel my day. That day turned into a month, and that month turned into into me stepping down from my role.
And not only did my body collapse, my mental health collapsed too and my exhausted, emotional state caused significant damage to various people around me; close friends, colleagues, supporters of my work and also the potential long term relationship I had just begun with Abby. It was a horrendous time.
And the scary thing was that once the spiral happened, I had no control over it. I was becoming undone and there was nothing I could do about it but let it happen. I had nothing left and couldn't have given of myself to anything even if I wanted to. And many of the things I had achieved quickly became obsolete due to no-one being able to sustain them. I had to exit the work I had started in an abrupt and confusing way for all. It certainly wasn't the glorious picture I had foreseen, nor was it the outcome anyone else was expecting.
I had burnt out.
Just like so many before me, and just like so many experience today.
It wasn't that I didn't have accountability. I had trustees who would regularly check up on me, I had an office in the local church surrounded by people who had known me for a long time, and I met many people each day who knew me enough to ask how I was beyond a quick greeting in the street. People told me to slow down, they encouraged me to take breaks, they weren't expecting a long list of achievements - that was all driven by me. There was no one really at 'fault' for this but I do think there are a few significant factors:
1. We have created a culture in our churches that is more like business than ministry, more about goal achieving rather than journeying, and more about what you accomplish than your personal life long growth to become more like Jesus.
2. A lack of personal discipleship, which includes the emotional and the physical, where we honestly evaluate ourselves before God and allow others to speak into it.
3. Keeping up appearances.
In recent years Abby and I have found that Pete Scazzerro (https://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/) has an important voice in this area. He is clear that 'you can't be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.' We tend to agree with him, and it was certainly my issue that I was good at the doing, but not so good at the growing, which meant there would always be an inevitable crash without a strong inner world.
I have never recovered fully from burnout. I am 10 years on. I am not sure I ever will (I am open to it!!) but I think once you have pushed yourself beyond a certain limit there is permanent change.
If you are close to burnout or know someone who is, then now is the time to act. The impact of burnout will be much more significant that the impact of you taking time out now to recover.