Eric's eyes are bright again. Coupled with a smile, they give testimony to the resilience of a body and a soul that have experienced both heaven on earth and hell on earth as parts of a ministry career.

On the condition of anonymity – for reasons that become obvious as his story unfolds – Eric (not his real name) has agreed to tell his story of joy-turned-to-torment and the road to wellness. His willingness to discuss a subject some consider off-limits, he said, is to help others who may share his career circumstances and to help the denomination he loves know how to deal more compassionately with burnout victims.

In retrospect, Eric admits he contributed to the lifestyle that ultimately ended a church role he loved dearly. He took on too much additional work, added to his duties to cover for the weaknesses of a colleague, kept consistently long hours, and took far less than the number of vacation days he had earned.

At the same time, circumstances beyond his control created stress related to his vocational calling, leading to increasing uncertainty and frustration.

Eric had accepted a staff position with the last church he served because it was a small congregation, a situation he believed to be a specific calling from God.

Over a five-year period, attendance grew from 200 to nearly 1,000. With a building bursting with people, multiple services and Sunday schools were added. Though some had expected the church to form a mission from the enlarged congregation, the pastor privately planned to maintain one congregation and move the church to a larger facility. A new music minister was employed with the directive from the pastor to replace traditional hymns with contemporary music. Senior adults complained. The minister of music struggled. The pastor went on sabbatical.

Eric tried to soothe hurt feelings and put a positive face on what was becoming a strained situation. Before the pastor's sabbatical, Eric had begun to make increased pastoral calls to provide ministry to the people. The pastor, not inclined to visit, call, or tend to members in need, had not delegated pastoral duties; they just went begging. This concerned Eric to the degree that he simply took on additional duties to cover for what he considered the pastor's deficit.

"I would tell them the pastor really wanted to be there, but had asked me to go for him," Eric said. "In retrospect, I was trying to protect the pastor, and I really shouldn't have done that."

The pressures were mounting, creating physical problems. Breathing difficulties prompted Eric to go to his physician with a concern that he had a heart problem. But the diagnosis was stress with mild depression. After two weeks on medication, his breathing improved, but there were other changes. He became irritated easily.

Meanwhile, a staff member had an affair, and Eric was faced with the task of dismissing him. The music minister resigned in frustration over musical style. Personal stresses also came when close friends divorced and a favorite relative died.

Still on medication, Eric was so high-strung he began to overreact to church problems. For example, he strongly scolded the rest of the church staff for what he perceived as failure to support a church event.

One church staff member complained about Eric behind his back to the pastor. Eric never knew about the complaint until close to the end of his tenure at the church. At the same time, the pastor began to pressure Eric to begin Sunday morning Bible studies in homes rather than at church, without discussion with church leaders.

"I could feel the tension," Eric recalled. "I couldn't sleep. I was suffering from severe back pain. I had trouble thinking, and I became defensive. I quit working out and gained weight."

A change in relationship with the pastor became all too obvious.

"Suddenly, it was like pulling teeth to get him to go out to eat with me or do anything together," Eric recalled.

Added work assignments coupled with unannounced changes in existing assignments heightened the mounting tension.

A change in medication brought on a major reaction, including extreme nervousness. As a result, Eric became more reactive. He had confrontations with a complaining church member and another staff member, but he did not realize the intensity of the confrontations.

Back at the doctor's office, Eric reported the problems he had experienced with the new medicine. A subsequent switch to another medicine made the situation worse. Eric was allergic to this commonly prescribed drug, and his depression worsened.

"I was out of it," Eric admitted.

He had a major argument with a staff member who was leaving the church, his father was diagnosed with cancer, and he was facing a residential move because of a rent increase. He was ministering to two church members who were dying with cancer. It was all just too much.

In a conversation with the pastor, Eric was told his staff role was being reduced, coupled with a cut in salary. He was given a month off to rest, along with the suggestion to see a counselor.

In other settings, the pastor reported that Eric was offered three months off, rather than the month taken.

Today, Eric recalls he thought being relieved of responsibilities was a temporary move to give him a break. He was wrong.

"I've lost confidence in you, and so has the staff," the pastor told him. "You are my friend, but the church is more important than you are." The words stung. Totally surprised and devastated, Eric now assesses his condition at that time as "burnt to a crisp."

From Eric's view, promises were made by the pastor, but not kept. Payment for counseling was offered but not provided, and church program changes that were to be delayed until his return were made while he was on leave. Learning about the changes through a family friend rather than the pastor did not help Eric's feelings.

During the month away from the office, his wife would go to work each day, and he would lie in bed in the fetal position.

"When she returned at the end of the day, I would still be there," He said. "I should have been hospitalized at that point. She's really been a trooper," he continued. "She stood by me. She didn't know what to do. She was totally helpless. She was pretty much at the mercy of what I was going to do. You take it out on the closest people to you. It creates a wedge with everything. I had let her down and everyone else."

Returning to the church in a reduced role required overcoming his pride, but Eric did go back to work. Staff meetings were strained. He had to learn from the office manager, rather than the pastor, that he no longer had authority over anyone on staff, including the secretary who had worked for him. After some very hurtful words were spoken by the office manager, Eric drove to the pastor's house and resigned in tears.

"I can't stay here and get healthy," he told the pastor.

Eric never met with the church personnel committee. With two months' severance, excluding insurance, Eric packed and moved. Not one church staff person came to help. Many church members privately gave him money and helped him with the move.

A pastor in another state helped him relocate, arranging for career assessment by the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) and paid sessions with a counselor.

"I was so devastated, so bitter," Eric remembers. "For the months I was without work, I sat and stared at the walls. I called three friends in the ministry to tell them what had happened. I waited to hear back from them and finally had to call them to say how things were going."

A temporary position filled some of the days, but Eric said in the process of looking for jobs, "I realized I couldn't get away from my calling."

In spite of a good track record in previous church positions, "nobody wanted to talk to me about a church position. Nobody. I couldn't even get a part-time job to get me back 'in' so I would have a church to move from. I felt betrayed by everyone except the pastor who helped me."

Eric was approached with the possibility of returning to a church he had served earlier in his ministry. In fact, they discussed with him the role of pastor, but, given all he had been through, he felt he was not ready for that responsibility.

Approaching a friend in the denomination for a part-time job at a Southern Baptist-related organization, he was stunned to be offered a full-time job.

"I will always be indebted to him for taking a chance on me," Eric said of his new employer. A month after accepting the job, he received numerous invitations to join church staffs.

"It was after I got this job and was marked 'OK' again, but after all that had happened, I felt a church was not the place for me. As time has gone by, healing has continued. Many of the church members have been faithful to stay in touch to encourage me."

Eric said he has come to believe some church staff members "don't know how to treat each other. The person who went to the pastor behind my back still doesn't seem to feel there was anything wrong with that, even though the process wasn't scriptural. We need a better understanding of ethical standards for staff relationships.

"Every day I deal with the hurt. Maybe I'm not spiritual enough. Who knows that? I could have handled things better, and I learned a lot."

Eric's experience has been that people treat those who have suffered burnout as though the situation is shameful. No one seems to know what to say or how to respond. Even some of his family have discouraged him from talking openly or admitting that he suffered from burnout. He has even heard some say that burnout is "a sin problem."

Eric said if sin was a factor for him, it was in leaning too much on his own strength rather than on God.

"I was working my tail off," he said. "I was putting hours in coming and going. I just about killed myself working extremely long hours. I gave little time for physical or spiritual renewal.

"When your church gets large, it puts pressure on you to continue to get larger. There is more tension to perform. More staff. More people pulling on you.

"And when some churches get in a position to grow, they lose what made them great. I got caught up in it. You find yourself pushing people in ways you are not comfortable with. You satisfy that by saying you are reaching people, and that's what God wants us to do.

"We have created people who are not as concerned about people as we are about statistics and systems," he continued. "People ask, 'how big is your church?' rather than 'How healthy is your church?'"

Now much better emotionally and physically, as well as much wiser, Eric offers lessons learned the hard way:

o Never make a major decision during a time of burnout.

o Call LeaderCare (LifeWay's personal enrichment initiative that includes crisis help referral).

o If it comes to the point you know you have to leave the church, remember you cannot go somewhere from nowhere. If you resign a church, you may not go to another place. Get counseling and work toward a solution. Bring in someone who will help you with the process.

o Be very wary of medication. Do not let it be dispensed to you without thought and a system of accountability.

"I don't think I'll ever get over the hurt," Eric reflects. "You forgive, but it is always there. That may be good. It will always be a reminder of where I have been and what I need to do for myself and other people. It is a reminder that God took care of me when I 'blew it.'"

    About the Author

  • Charles Willis