When we first started out in ministry, my husband and I worked under a pastor in his mid-sixties who intended to “die in the pulpit.” He’d frequently say, “I’d rather rust out than burn out!” Frankly, neither of those options sounded particularly appealing then, and now, after nearly thirty years in ministry, they seem even less so. Surely those aren’t the only two options.
Fast forward twenty years to when my husband and I planted a church outside Toronto. I dare you to find two people who poured more heart and soul into a ministry. It. Was. Exhausting. After three years, we were done. It’s a complicated story that deserves more than a mention in a post about burnout, but suffice to say, at the end of the three years, we were drained of money, energy, passion, and ideas. We made the decision to merge with another ministry and moved on. In theory.
Moving on, in this context, doesn’t mean “getting over” any more than it does in relationships. Surrendering a ministry we had poured our heart and soul – never mind personal finances – into felt more like a death than simply moving on to the next chapter.
It’s been five years, and this is what I’ve learned.
It’s okay to grieve. Letting go of that ministry meant the death of a dream, especially for my husband. Usually, a genuinely upbeat, contented guy, the frustration of those last months turned to grief as we let go and started looking for next steps. Allow yourself to grieve your loss, even when, as we did, you know it’s what God is leading you to do. Pretending it doesn’t matter or shutting down your emotions means they’re going to surface somewhere else and manifest in another way. Mourning is healthy – denial is poisonous.
Don’t disconnect. We went through all the classic stages of grief. My gut reaction was to shut down. I didn’t want to talk about it. I felt like a failure. I thought I’d let my husband, my kids, my church family, and our sending church down. But instead of talking it through with those who loved and supported us, I shut them out. I avoided going out whenever I could, stopped engaging, and even skipped out on going home for the holidays. Instead of drawing on the love and support that was available, I wrapped myself in a shroud of self-pity and hid. I fixated on my perceived failure and listened to the voices in my head. That was my biggest problem. Do you realize that most of your unhappiness in life is because you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? I had to remind myself of the Psalmist’s words, “Open your mouth and taste, open your eyes and see how good God is. Blessed are you who run to him.”
Let it go. Yes, in the words of that godawful Disney earworm, let it go. Psalm 23 says, “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death…” Nowhere in that Psalm is there any suggestion we should pitch a tent and set up camp. Walk through the valley, don’t live there. Your life is made up of so many more victories and mountaintop experiences than failures, and like all seasons, it will pass. This isn’t Game of Thrones – thank God – and winter doesn’t last forever.
The key to healing was being intentional about moving forward.
Finally, and most importantly, dive deep into the Word. I’ll be honest. There were plenty of times I picked up my Bible with an attitude of, “Okay God. Speak to me. I dare you.” Other days it was, “Whatever you have to say, I’m not interested.” More times than I care to admit, I found myself going through the motions and would finish my quiet time with no idea what I had just read.
Frankly, one of my primary motivations for moving on was the fact my daughters were watching. Teens when we started and college students when we finished, my daughters were watching their dad and I through it all. I realized this was one of those “time to walk my talk” moments. If I genuinely believed Romans 8:28, a verse our family has clung to through cancer, extended family problems, the death of loved ones, and eleven moves in 25 years, this was the time to prove it.
And you know what? It worked. I started to see the light.
If you’re here on earth, drawing breath, God has a purpose for you. Never lose sight of that. Even on your darkest days, remember what you know to be true. God is good. All the time. Always. He cares for you in every situation, every circumstance. Your friends, your family, your coworkers – they’re all watching to see how you’ll handle your hurt. Who knows but that this season of loss and disappointment isn’t the tool God will use to bring them into fellowship with him?
Most of all, remember God loves you. The older we get, the more we complicate our faith but embracing that simple truth – God loves me – is transformational.
One of the most powerful illustrations of the depth of God’s love for us comes from Isaiah 49:16. “See, I have written you on the palms of my hands…” The word picture here is that God has engraved not our names, but our very selves, on his hands. Side by side with the nail prints we stand. That’s how deeply God loves us.
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure,
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure.
How great the pain of searing loss –
The Father turns His face away,
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory.