As I left the church building, I was physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausted. I resigned my position as senior pastor and didn’t know if I’d ever serve as a pastor again. Though all parties involved carried out my departure honorably—and I was departing of my own accord—I had a bitter taste in my mouth and a cynical attitude in my heart.
For three years, I had found myself in the center of a church conflict that was both painful and damaging. It was personal at times, and my family and I were injured. I witnessed people whom I loved and served turn against me, unfairly accuse me and question my integrity. It was a small and murmuring constituency, but over time, their behavior—unchecked by the elders—escalated, increasing my stress and moving me toward burnout.
As pastors, we know that, sometimes, pain will be directed at us and result in pain for us.
In his book, Clergy Self-Care, Roy M. Oswald distinguishes between these two forces—stress and burnout. Stress results in loss of perception, loss of options, fatigue, depression and illness. Burnout follows stress and results in exhaustion, cynicism, disillusionment and self-deprecation.
Amid that stress and burnout, I had a sense of God’s presence and peace, but the exhaustion, cynicism and self-deprecation remained. The church graciously provided me a season of salary and benefits, for which my family and I will always be grateful, but financial stability couldn’t resolve those lingering effects. I needed to face the injury and find healing.
During the year that followed, I stepped away from pastoral ministry. In this time, God gradually brought me to a place of forgiveness and hope that allowed me to return to serving as a pastor once again.
My recovery shepherds
As pastors, we know part of our work is to absorb the pain of others through listening, receiving and caring. We know that, sometimes, pain will be directed at us and result in pain for us. In those times of injury, we share in the sufferings of Christ (Phil 3:10; 1 Pet 4:13).
God provided a few special people to listen, speak the truth and guide me forward to serve the church once again.
This time, though, was different. The sustained nature of the conflict wore me down, broke me and eventually filled me with anger. I had no desire or plan to ever serve a local church again.
But God, who knows me better than I know myself (Ps 139:1-6), had other plans. He provided a few special people to listen, speak the truth and guide me forward to serve the church once again. These people did not replace my family and friends, but rather, they provided me an outside perspective the others could not.
Someone new and unexpected
A nearby convent had always intrigued me, and in this time of pain and uncertainty, I found myself moving toward something I perceived as spiritual and safe. This move was not a soft endorsement of Catholicism, but rather an indication of my then-mistrust in the congregational strain of evangelicalism.
The Benedictines embrace Word and community, and the first person God provided in my journey toward recovery was a nun. This 75-year-old prioress received me, reintroduced me to the writings of Paul and provided me patient spiritual direction. I can still smell the monastery stone and the aroma of incense unique to such places. Through a Benedictine nun, God provided me someone new and unexpected to gently embrace the injury I had experienced.
Someone familiar and experienced
The second person was a Canadian evangelist who still serves as a spiritual mentor. We’d already been meeting together for many years. Earlier, he had experienced a failed ministry coup d’état by a trusted colleague, and it broke him for a season. It took time for him to move through the process of forgiveness, and it was a privilege to experience that with him. His transparency during personal recovery gave me permission to engage him when it was my time.
Through gentle observations and quiet understanding, this counselor reintroduced me to myself.
Out of the pain of his past, he embraced me in the pain of my present. His motto was solvitur ambulando (“it is solved by walking”)—and so we walked together, and he reintroduced me to Jesus. I can still smell the seasons as we traversed around lakes, through forests and up mountains together. Through a Canadian evangelist, God provided me a familiar voice to gently move me to walk with Jesus again.
Someone trained and insightful
The third person God provided was a counselor. I knew there were aspects of my experience that required the insight of a professional. We connected quickly as both of us had an appreciation for art. I met with him weekly for six months and during that time, he studied me like a painting. He explored the bright and the dark of me, the smooth and the rough of me.
Ephesians 2:10 states that we are an artistic expression of God, a work of art, but in burnout, these truths are difficult to grasp. Through gentle observations and quiet understanding, this counselor reintroduced me to myself. He tapped into core aspects of how God had made me and allowed those realities to move me toward wholeness again.
During this time and with the counselor’s encouragement, I began to once again create art—a skill and passion that had been dormant in me for decades. I can still smell the chalk on the paper and acrylic on the canvas as the artistic process helped me reconnect with God. Through a professional counselor, God provided me a pathway back to myself.
When ministry hurts, it’s important to look for the people God will provide you.
Beginning the road to recovery
Ministry injury is very painful and exhausting. When ministry hurts, it’s important to look for the people God will provide you. Some will be new, some will be well-worn and comfortable, some will be outsiders. Whoever they are, engage them and allow them to help you.
God used these three very different people to begin my process of recovery. Through those people, God responded to the groaning of my heart. Their acceptance of me, their willingness to listen and their gentle direction provided me the lifeboat I needed.
Though I was on my way, I had not yet arrived at the shore of healing. Recovery would come, but there was more to navigate—owning my part, forgiving those who injured me and learning to trust God with my calling once again. My three shepherds had guided me to the road of recovery; now it was my time to walk.
This article is part one in a series on dealing with and recovering from ministry injury by James Petersen, executive director of personnel for EFCA ReachGlobal. Stay tuned for part two in this series. To stay up-to-date with the blog, subscribe to our blog emails via the form on the right side of the blog homepage.