Recovering from church burnout: tips for the early days

burnout tips

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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.

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Spiritual Abuse and Discipleship – yep, that’s my first post!

I didn’t intend to start this blog on such a sensitive and sobering subject, but things have conspired against me in the last two weeks.

First I stumbled upon a website called Under Much Grace, which provides resources for recovery from spiritual abuse. I started reading and was immediately stunned to find myself remembering events and particular practices in my church experience, which perfectly fitted the description of cultic behaviour provided on the site. Secondly, out of the blue, a number of Christian bloggers I follow started to join in with a week-long series on the subject of spiritual abuse awareness so the subject matter has been playing in my mind all week and basically bugging me into putting my thoughts down. Despite the fact that all of the material comes from US sources and doesn’t always translate into a UK or French setting, it certainly brought a number of things to the surface.

So although I’m really late in the day, I am sort of writing this piece as part of the synchro blog.

A couple of posts echoed with me very specifically, the first one from Dani Lee Kelley at Crooked Neighbor, Crooked Heart, who titled her post ‘In which I hesitate to call it abuse’. She opens by saying:

“I am so hesitant to add my voice here. Surely abuse is too strong a word for the things that have happened in my life, I think to myself. No one meant any harm. Everything was done in love, everything was said in love. They didn’t know that they hurt me.”

And

“Please understand that in each and every one of these instances, I believe with all my heart that the people involved intended good for me. But as I am learning, good intentions don’t always mean good actions. And in fact, sometimes the people who mean the most good do the most damage.”

I spent eight years in a church where the practice of one-to-one discipleship was an integral part of the culture. Within a month of my joining the church at eighteen years of age after travelling across the Channel, I was invited to be mentored by a more mature Christian, which in my case was a lovely lady who had kids my own age. In some ways, certainly when I started to attend the church as a clueless, immature but passionate to know God eighteen-year-old, I was blessed to be mentored by such a wonderful woman. She lightly guided me through some difficult situations during my first few years in England, and her and her husband remain good trustworthy friends to this day. However in the following years as my life changed and I got known and grew in my knowledge of God and in my gifts, I was not always ‘lightly guided’ and in my immaturity and dare I say also my childhood history, I was not able to tell the difference between guidance and subtle behaviour manipulation. The quotes I include above and below describe very much how I feel at present about my experience and the accompanying discomfort, as until last week, I don’t think it would have occurred to me to use terms associated with spiritual abuse to any of my experiences. And yet…

Amy Mitchell, who writes at Unchained Faith, talks about the aftermath of dealing with spiritually abusive people and states:

“I am not going to sit here and say that I was spiritually abused by our church or the leadership*.  That would be lying, and it would be hurtful to those who are still involved.  But I will tell you this: There were people in authority there who absolutely, unquestionably used intimidation tactics on me and on others.”

With hindsight that has only been slowly unraveling in me in the last couple of years, I have started to see that the spiritual burnout I experienced after leaving the church I had attended for eight years was not normal. The spiritual, emotional and physical exhaustion I lived with for four of the last six years are not just a sort of ‘desert experience’ that Christians occasionally describe, when God doesn’t seem to be speaking into your life in the way that He used to. No, I went from leading worship and a house church to struggling to muster any interest in all aspects of my walk with God, being regularly overwhelmed with boredom or feeling irritated during church meetings, having no desire to communicate with God or read the Bible, experiencing irrational feelings of anger and depression against the church in general and wanting to withdraw altogether from church life.

Identifying the root cause has not been easy and I am still working it out but a few things stand out.

Serving the church vs serving God

I definitely got burnt out because I over-served. When I moved away to be closer to where my now-husband lived, I got involved in his church straight away, serving with the worship team and attending weekly choir practice as well as joining a small group just as I had done previously. With the daily commuting I was doing to and from work it was not physically sustainable but whilst I can see the physical strain was of my own doing, I could not immediately see where it was heading; as far as I knew, I was just doing what Christians do; the negative emotions that I was starting to experience were a complete mystery to me, I simply did not know why I was feeling that way. Increasingly however I was building up resentment against the level of engagement that was required of me, especially with the worship team and small group. The more I got involved, the more was asked of me so that I felt like I was backed into a corner, wanting to give a hand and having my whole arm taken off. I was not aware that I was not serving the church out of love for God but out of duty. Unsurprisingly, it took its toll and the exhaustion I felt affected every area of my life. I do think God took pity on me at this point as I hit boiling point around the time of my engagement to my boyfriend so I was able to withdraw completely from serving in the church to organise the wedding and later to focus on our relationship during our first year of marriage.

Following someone else’s vision

Another issue was that of motivation. For years I was mentored by my church leader and I had become used to being ‘in the know’ about the vision for the church, the prophetic words that inspired it and I had no reason to doubt that God was speaking to us about the direction we were taking. Due to my close relationship with the leader and the fact that I was often leading worship on Sundays, I was regularly reminded to engage with the vision of the church ‘for the sake of what we are trying to achieve’, especially when it came to moving to house churches, which was a bold and challenging move for everyone, leaders included. I did so willingly enough because I didn’t doubt that the leaders were devoted to hearing God’s voice and following His lead, even though I had no particular conviction either way and increasingly struggled to connect with God without others hearing His will for me and the direction of my own life. So I ran with the vision and started to lead one of the house churches with three other people without any sense of personal conviction that I was doing something I was actually interested in. When I moved away and lost the environment where the leadership was pushing their agenda on me at a personal level, I was no longer able to sustain any motivation for what the church was doing. This is when I realised that I had been running on empty, with someone else’s vision, someone else’s dreams, someone else’s prophetic word, which they had, consciously or not, handed to me as if they were my very own vision and dreams.

When non-essential doctrine takes on a life of its own – do I need to justify my feelings again?

Whilst I actually believe that a culture of accountability and authenticity can be a source a great strength to grow in maturity in God, it can become unhealthy when the level of introspection and constant self-questioning that is expected becomes a dominant feature of everyday life.

The importance of purity in my behaviour and in my intentions were called into question as part of the discipling process on a number of occasions. Again, there is no problem with wanting high standards for yourself and wanting to encourage others to have the same, however it is all too easy to throw away grace in the process and turn the Christian walk into a striving battle to avoid sin. I recall a particular incident when I was living in the church leader’s house when I went out with non-Christian friends and stayed up all night chatting, only returning home at 6 am. The girl I was sharing a bedroom with mentioned it to the leaders who sat me down to basically tell me that it was not appropriate behaviour for a Christian girl to stay up all night in someone’s house where there would be alcohol and where I would be vulnerable to seduction from non-Christian men, and that it would give the wrong impression about the kind of person I was. They were also concerned that neighbours might have seen me come in that morning and made assumptions about where I had been and what I had done. The problem was not whether anything inappropriate had actually taken place but rather that I might become the subject of discussion among our non-Christians neighbours who knew that this was a Christian household, and might wonder what kind of Christian I was really like if I behaved just like the world does.

After this incident, I never did stay out that late again, but never did I trust my roommate again about anything of importance either, despite the fact that I know she only did what she did out of concern for me. She never actually discussed the incident with me, just went straight to the leaders about her concerns. I never felt comfortable talking about anything that I did outside of the church with anyone in my house ever again either, for fear of being misunderstood and having to justify my actions in any way.

Under the guise of ‘becoming more like Jesus’ and ‘saying the truth in love’, I was taught to double-check myself about every thought, every plan and every decision, to make sure that I was walking in line with God’s will for my life. At a subconscious level however, the subtle underlying message I was taking in was that it is not OK to make mistakes. If you make a mistake, it must mean that you did not hear God properly in the first place. And if you are not able to hear God clearly to make the right decision, then the root cause must be sinful. The necessity of knowing that you were doing the right thing by God was all important and it was preferable to involve others in your decision process, the implication being that someone of more mature faith and experience might be able to help you hear God more clearly. For someone like me, who had grown up without the guidance of a father or a strong authority figure, it sounded like a completely reasonable and desirable scenario, and it is entirely possible that for many years, it protected me from making knee-jerk emotional decisions that would have had a negative impact on my life. However what had once felt like protection at 18 had become an exhausting approach to doing life when I was 25 and wanting to once in a while not having to justify why I was not going to be at church that morning, which is difficult to do when you’re one of the house church leaders and you just want a day off.

Lack of validation when expressing negative feelings

Once when I was having a chat with the leaders about how I was getting on in their house (which was massive and at one point housed 9 young people as well as the leading couple), I said that I was uncomfortable sometimes with the fact that the men would come out of the shower wearing just a towel. I said I had obviously no problem wearing a bathrobe but that the same courtesy from the men would be welcome. I vividly recall that my request barely registered and the discussion was turned around to why this was a problem for me, because, you know, lust and all that, women don’t usually find seeing a man’s chest a stumbling block. It was never discussed again, and as far as I know, no action was taken to get the men to be a bit more dressed. As it was, there was definitely no lust involved for me, I just found it uncomfortable if I had to walk past said half-naked man in the corridor.

Whilst this situation alone would actually be a major problem for a lot of women, and not because of problems with lust, the crux of it for me is that a lot of conflicts were turned around this way. I would express a negative feeling, especially in a conflict with another person, which instead of being acknowledged and validated, would be dismissed and the issue raised ignored in favour of examining the state of my heart. It felt like the most important thing was to ensure that my heart was protected from holding on to these negative feelings. I would therefore need to ‘check my own heart’ to make sure that I was being clear before God.

I organised a leaving party when I moved away and asked that the invitation be extended to all the house churches via their leaders. I had been a huge part of the church for eight years yet barely a handful of people attended, and the main pastor who has mentored me for years and in whose house I had lived, did not come either. I left within days of the party so I had very little opportunity to chat to people to know how this happened. It was a very long time before I could think about this without experiencing confusion and pain, and I was at great pains to try to rationalise it by assuming that the information just didn’t get through and people didn’t know about it. Still, the feelings of intense rejection and that my contribution to the life of that church had been for nothing lived with me for many years. It would be fair to say that to this day I try not to think about that day. Recently I was asked if I thought it would be a good idea to chat with some of those guys to get some closure, especially the leader to whom I had been so close, and I said that I didn’t think it would be helpful. My greatest fear is that if I were to raise it after all this time, it might be met initially with an apology but I would end up being questioned and finding myself justifying and defending the emotions I felt at the time. I simply cannot bear the thought of going through such a conversation.

Yet I cannot deny that within this occasionally stifling and unhealthy environment I was nonetheless able to grow in ways that I could never have achieved had I stayed in France. I encountered people who completely changed my life. My understanding of God was very theoretical before that time and it is in England and in that church that I was shown how to be a Christian in practical and genuine ways. People modelled a daily walk with a living God who wants to know us and be known by us accompanied by a level of expectation of encounters with the Holy Spirit that I had never seen before. I was given a lot of support when I had to deal with an unhealthy relationship very early on. I discovered my musical and prophetic worship gifting and was enabled to grow in it. The church was in full acceptance of women in ministry at every level and I never once had to fight to be recognised as a valid member of the church.

And so now I am at an impasse. I look at both the blessing and the hurt that I have experienced and I am divided. I want only the best for the church yet I am very aware of some serious shortcomings that have hurt many others and to which they remain oblivious. It poses important questions about the kind of discipleship Jesus had in mind when he said ‘Make disciples of all nations’. He did not ask us to make converts and he did not expect or demand perfection from each other. Yet did Jesus, Paul and others in the Bible not have disciples, people to whom they taught all they knew, challenging them and raising them to be the leaders, preachers, apostles, worshipers, prophets of tomorrow? Is it possible to mentor people without falling into a behaviour-controlling pattern? Having experienced both, I do think it must be possible but it appears to be dependent on an individual’s inclination and personality, and how do you discern that? What sorts of guidelines would you put in place? These are questions I don’t have a clear answer on.