Last year on Christmas morning in front of a packed auditorium of church members and visitors, I had a ministry meltdown. The truth of the matter is that the breakdown had been coming for almost a year and during the previous two days I had been showing signs of a problem, but simply didn’t realize what was happening. Up to this point, I have not spoken about the lead up to the breakdown, nor shared with anyone outside of a select group of friends and church leaders about my recovery. But over the last several months I have had the opportunity to talk with several other Pastors and ministers about their ongoing struggles and after a great deal of prayer I’ve decided to share what I’ve learned. Today I want to share with you the anatomy of a ministry meltdown. Then on tomorrow’s post I will share about recovering from a ministry breakdown, and the on Friday wrap the series up with how to prevent a ministry breakdown.
Before I share about the anatomy of a ministry meltdown let me share some enlightening statistics. According a survey of protestant ministers conducted by Lifeway Research 55% of pastor’s report that they were currently discouraged. Thom Rainer notes that, “I suspect that if we surveyed pastors over just a few months, we would find that almost all of them experience deep discouragement.” That same survey reported that 55% of Pastors reported being lonely. Since having my meltdown, I have been shocked by the number of Pastors who have called me to talk about their own struggles with discouragement and depression. I suspect that the percentage of Pastors facing these issues is not significantly higher than those in the congregation, but we are less apt to talk about our struggles.
I can identify the following issues that lead up to my meltdown:
1.) Ministerial Idolatry– It may seem strange but one of the biggest issues that lead to my breakdown was putting the ministry first in my life. Lay people will not understand what I mean by this but every Pastor knows the constant struggle of not letting your identity become so wrapped up in the ministry that you lose yourself. When this happens we end up putting the ministry ahead of everything else in our lives, including God, which is the equivalent of making the ministry an idol. When ministry becomes an idol we end up serving it rather than God. Dave Kraft has written an interesting book about this issue entitled “When Ministry Becomes A Mistress.”
2.) Spiritual Neglect– When the ministry becomes an idol it begins to demand more and more of our time. I ended up trusting in my own abilities and talents more than on God. The busier and more crowded my schedule became the less time that I spent alone with God. A wise man told me when I started out in the ministry that the most important time of my day would be the time I spent alone with God. The time we spend reading the Bible, praying, and meditating upon the things of God are the keys to a healthy spiritual life. I tell my young preacher boys that they must minister from the overflow of their lives. What I mean by this is that they must constantly spend time with God and nourish their own souls so that the ministry will stream out of the overflow of their lives. I neglected this principle in my own life and quickly ran dry.
3.) Physical Neglect- this is a factor that most people would not have been aware of last year, but in the weeks leading up to my breakdown I was on a crash diet. Over the previous months, I had lost 65 lbs. and just before Christmas I stopped eating all carbohydrates, trying to lose a few extra pounds in anticipation of the holidays. What I did not realize at the time was that this had a devastating effect on my physical body. I lost 65 lbs. but felt terrible and wasn’t sleeping well. In fact, I hadn’t slept at all for three days leading up to the breakdown. I was a wreak physically and this had a major affect on the way I felt emotionally. Our physical condition has an affect upon our spiritual and emotional lives. We ignore this to our own peril.
4.) Isolationism– I am an introvert by nature and being around a lot of people is always uncomfortable for me. But over the months leading up to my breakdown I had gone from being introverted to being completely isolated. I had been feeling bad for a while and needed to talk to someone but I simply went deeper into a shell. Even my wife and kids didn’t know how bad I was really feeling. Publically, I tried to maintain a front and to keep on smiling but inside I felt very lonely. In the process of my recovery I discovered an article by Thom Rainer about the introverted leader that I found to be extremely helpful. Ron Edmondson has also written a helpful article about understanding the pitfalls of being an introvert. For lay people, I would encourage them to read this article about understanding introverts.
If you are reading this and you are a Pastor, I am willing to guess that you know exactly what I was feeling. At some point, we all are going to fall into one or more of these traps. The truth of the matter is that we al know what the anatomy of a breakdown looks like, but we are afraid to take the actions necessary to stop it. Looking back, I should have known what was about to happen and taken action to stop it. I didn’t and ended up going through a rather harrowing experience. But that doesn’t mean that you have to go down the same road. If you are suffering from any of these symptoms, stop! Get some help! Call another Pastor and talk about what you are going through. Call a counselor and make an appointment. Most of all, get on your knees and talk to God.