It’s interesting how a good discussion with a new acquaintance a couple of days ago can bring new insight into your own experience of coming out of a high-expectation church setting and help identify patterns. My INTJ brain likes this! Having someone else say ‘I experienced exactly what you’re describing too’ can be very affirming, and I won’t deny it, it felt good.
I should add the disclaimer to the following, that I can only speak from what I have observed in my own recovery progress from burnout to spiritual wellness so hold these thoughts lightly. This is just a (non-exhaustive) list of principles that have helped me along the way.
1. Take care of yourself
Leaving a high-expectation setting can lead to confusion when the requirement to serve has been removed. Not being involved can feel wrong or lazy or even un-Christian.
In the months and even years of slow recovery, it is important not to minimise the impact of the hurt and confusion that you are experiencing, and to cut yourself some slack.
This could include taking time off church and learning to rest properly. Take on a new hobby. Do something for yourself.
For many months I barely could make it through the doors of church without wanting to run straight out again when overwhelming feelings of boredom or anger would swell in. I have learnt that it is a common symptom of being burnt out and that it is ok. You are ok.
2. Give yourself time to heal
Recovering from a bad church experience is a long-term process; I won’t lie, it took over three years for my coping abilities to get back to what felt like a more normal range. Things do not resolve themselves with the snap of a finger. Whatever you decide to do, if you do continue to attend a church, I would not recommend getting involved in anything. Because of the ‘I must serve’ mentality I had carried away with me from my previous life, that’s exactly what I did and within a few months I was an emotional wreck with just enough capacity physically and emotionally to cope with my working life and relationship/marriage. Everything to do with church was off-limits and would cause me anxiety and even at times distress.
I liken it to running a car without filling up the oil tank. The car is running but the internal damage that is going on undetected is extensive and incredibly destructive. Eventually the whole machine turns into a shell, a fuming pile of junk that creaks to death in the midst of white smelly smoke. Being burnt out means just that: your emotional and spiritual tank runs dry, you have been used up and your capacity to give is exhausted. It is especially true if you were running on someone else’s vision. Take the motivation away and there is nothing left within you. If you try to serve in these conditions, you are just kicking your feet in a pot of ash and causing yourself more internal pain.
Unfortunately, there is no magic recovery button. What you really need at this stage is rest and time. Eventually it will happen. Sometimes even from one day to the next, your emotional tank will have refilled itself sufficiently so that your inner world will find balance again. Then it will tip in the other direction and you will find that you have something to give out again after all. In the meantime, I would take some time out from any kind of service.
3. Rebuild a relationship with Jesus that is separate from serving the church
You may not be able to join in with corporate worship or go to church; you may struggle to worship privately, or read your Bible, or even pray. Again, these are common symptoms of church burnout. I still struggle to read my Bible now, and it has been years. The desire and the hunger within me is growing again however, I am pleased to say.
Well-meaning people often say ‘just take it to the Lord’, which feels so trite and cliché when you are in the midst of such emotional pain. My idea of prayer, erroneous as it was, was that it is such a holy, spiritual thing that I ought to feel extra holy and spiritual doing it. A lot of the time however, my actual dealings with God were more Jonah and Job-like, that is, lots of angry ranting and asking God why and how. But then I remembered that most of the Psalms read like this too, bleak conversations with God about despair, and that God is neither surprised nor offended by my honesty.
On a personal level, after years of focus on the Holy Spirit, the turning point in how I lived my faith in the midst of this painful season was to get back to the centre of what the Christian faith really should be about, the person of Jesus. Everything else falls by the wayside when compared to how fascinating, inspiring and worthy of worship Jesus is. Rediscovering this has brought life into my soul again. When you can’t talk to anyone for lack of words, when you feel like you might be too emotional, too messed up and basically ‘too much’, when God feels too big or too remote and the Holy Spirit too mysterious, going back to Jesus and pouring your heart to Him becomes the safe place where you might be yourself and know you are welcomed in wholeheartedly, where you might rest your head and soothe your wounds.
The key thing is to keep the conversation going.