By Aaron Coalson
Pastors aren’t supposed to have breakdowns.
We’re supposed to be in control, collected, stoic. Pastors exist to help others in their needs, and through our work, be able to rise above our own. Unaware of what was brewing underneath the surface of my soul, I believed the lie that pastoral work required me to be fixed, resolved, finished.
So I thought.
Yet, God has humbled me, bringing me to the end of myself and the beginning of his grace. Solomon writes: “Though a righteous man falls seven times, he will get up…” (Prov. 24:16); this is only possible because of the sustaining grace God gives his people.
I knew early in December something wasn’t right. Something subtle, yet significant, felt off in my being. I felt a weight I couldn’t shake. Joy was gone, replaced with sadness. Anxiety that is always creeping at the door was relentless, higher than ever, leaving me feeling as though I was living on the edge of the cliff every day; one wrong move, and down I fall.
Two weeks before Christmas, I hit a wall, and for the days that followed I hit it again, and again. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t breathe. Over the course of a week, I saw enormous emotional swings, experienced intense chest pains and deep depression. Driving to work one morning, I wept uncontrollably…“What is wrong with me?” I wondered. Finally, I was forced to see a doctor, where I was diagnosed with clinical depression.
Jolted to a halt. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced, I was unable to function. I was burned out. Full stop. After multiple conversations with my bosses and pastors, I was graciously placed on sabbatical for the next few weeks to rest, reset and recalibrate.
An old, familiar voice echoes in my head. It preaches to drive harder, faster, longer. “Produce more, and you’ll make it,” it says. And once I do, rest escapes me; it’s time for more. I was constantly driven to meet my own unrealistically high expectations. Good wasn’t enough, everything I touched had to be gold. “It has to be perfect,” my heart cried. That’s what I had built my career on. When I became a pastor, I brought this incessant drive with me.
Perfection and performance were my taskmasters. When I didn’t achieve my expectations, I was devastated. Every level of success became the baseline from which I expected myself to function. I was attentive to many of the Father’s commands, but for someone as “driven” as I was, “Be still and know that I am God” was a nice sentiment, not something to be practiced seriously. So in his mercy, God let me drive myself over-driven self right into a wall of my own making. He orchestrated a sabbath for my run down soul, and in the process he’s revealed how my identity was rooted in my performance, rather than His.
So I’m taking off the mask.
I have nothing to prove.
The lies I believe about myself are covered and crushed by the blood of the cross. He has shattered my self-sufficiency, humbled me and rendered me undone, and in the undoing he gave me the greatest gift, he gave me himself.
As your pastor, it’s important that I lead out of transparency, so I wanted to let you in on the struggles I’ve experienced over the past few months, and with hope, share with you the lessons God has been teaching me to live and lead more centered and balanced. Leading out of grace, rather than brokenness.
“It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes.”
– Ps. 119:71
Here Are Three Lessons I Learned From Burnout
1. We are humans, not machines.
I am not a god. I am not operating with unlimited time, energy, creativity, margin, joy and peace. No, those things are a products of the Spirit and must be replenished daily. Operating at a pace that was unsustainable, I brought a business mindset to ministry that is really borne out of my performance mentality and need to prove myself. I had forgotten the intangible fuels the tangible, and in my race for productivity, I made little effort to refuel myself and I had reduced myself to a machine, existing only to continue to meet the expectations of others, and more importantly, myself.
I existed to perform, not to live. Sure, I rested at times, but my mind was working, 24/7. I never shut it down. There was simply too much to do. So, God choreographed a moment for me. In his severe mercy (read severe: it was hard; mercy: it was good), he orchestrated a season to teach me that I need sabbath, because I am not Him. If I am to thrive, I must live as my Creator designed me. Abiding must replace producing as the most important value in my life. I was redeemed to be a son, not a slave.
Sabbath is an orientation, one that destroys my idols. This sabbath has driven me to repentance over my selfish drivenness, my exhausted idolatry and my own kingdom-building and, involuntarily at first, into the Sabbath heart of God. God broke me to restore me. To bring me to a place where my being not just my work, was re-centered on His sufficiency. My identity and my work must flow out of his work. I echo the psalmist: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Ps. 119:71).
2. Two things will motivate our work: Grace or Hunger
Grace is the thing that can fuel our work and in the same day allow us to release our work back to God in its imperfect, unfinished state. If he is the Author and Sustainer of my faith, he is the Author and Sustainer of my work. Overwork is always fueled by wrong motivations, building the wrong kingdom and results in a reckless pace. If this isn’t rectified, work will be my taskmaster, dictating how I work rather than the cross and the deep grace of God motivating me to work and rest in rhythms because He is God and I am not. I work in response to his work, not to validate my own sense of self worth. Otherwise, I’m like the Hebrews set free from slavery, but choosing to go back to the taskmasters. A slave’s identity is reduced to their work, and only their work.
The opposite of slavery is liberty. Freedom.
Through my sabbatical, I realized my soul had been very hungry. Compulsively hungry. Hungry for satisfaction, affirmation, approval, pleasure and completion. Hungry to be whole. And it was out my hunger that I was working. A feeble attempt to fill my hunger with productivity and affirmation. I wanted to validate my existence with my productivity.
I was angry at God that this hunger existed and the thing I was using to fill it, at least subconsciously, has been removed—my work! Then the Father gave me these verses: “For he satisfies the thirsty soul, the hungry soul He fills with good things” (Ps. 107:9) and “…he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23b). Wow.
These verses fell on my aching soul like a two-ton brick, but comforted me like a warm embrace. The very thing my soul needed and ached for. The very thing I was running to other things to fill, God has promised to do. He promises to satisfy my soul, in its hunger and in its thirst, he fills me if I run to him. So much of my life was operating out my hunger, my brokenness. It drove me to overwork, to obsess over perfection and performance rather than serving out of grace. Resting in this reality, God’s promise to satisfy my deepest needs and his faithfulness to do so has given my restless soul, my identity, the rest, affirmation and acceptance in which I can work out of rather than work for.
3. It’s not my performance, it’s his promise.
The third morning of my sabbatical, I sat on the couch in our living room, early before everyone was awake, deep in the despair. I felt like I had let my team, my church and my God down. Not sure what to do with myself, this question compulsively flowed out of my soul: “Apart from my work, who am I?” I was voicing an existential crisis I was entering on this sabbatical—that I had subconsciously been trying to prove my worth, to validate my existence in this world with my work.
If I succeeded, I deserved another day. If I failed, I castigated myself, over-analyzing every area of my failure to ensure it didn’t happen again. As I audited my life over these past few weeks, I found that virtually everything I do, everything I put my hand to, is an effort to prove myself. This flowed out of my brokenness and personal insecurities, that I would let few into. Areas of brokenness that left deep holes in my soul that wouldn’t heal or go away as fast as I wanted. This left me constantly feeling like I was a fraud, that I was not the person who I projected myself to be. “If everyone knew ______, I’d never be looked at the same”, etc. This led me to overcompensate for my brokenness, rather than trusting the Father with my healing. If I couldn’t control the demons inside, I’d control the work and image outside. All in an effort to project a more idealized version of myself. Aaron, 2.0.
At first I thought this was just for the benefit of others. Let me project a better, cleaner, more sanctified version of myself that everyone would like. But this image-projection was also for me. I liked the projected version of me better than the real me. That’s why I liked being at work so much. I enjoyed playing the part of “high-capacity, driven, always get it done kind of leader.” This was a distraction for me as much as it was for anyone else. I didn’t really like who I was, and I was angry that God refused to remove my thorns in the flesh faster.
In this scenario, my idols of perfection and performance were my friends, my tools to reach the goal of curating a better and improved version of me. Limitations were to be dismissed.
I feared limitation…admitting I don’t have the bandwidth for something…because it ran the risk of rendering me unimportant.
If I don’t matter in my work, do I matter? The problem with idols is, given enough time, they will crush us, and my idols crushed me, with their ever increasing demands.
Ephesians 1 and 2 have been immensely helpful here, helping me become a more centered, balanced and authentic person, re-rooting my identity back into the cross.
I am not what I do. I am not reduced to my output, my productivity. Ephesians 2:9: “not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” It’s not my performance I stand in, but his promise.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us: “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God… For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:12,14). This means the performance can stop. We can stop trying to do, and simply be in Him because he has completed everything necessary for our salvation and sanctification through one single sacrifice.
Now, the mask is off. Jim Carey says, “We all get to a place where we will have a choice. Either walk through the door and take off the mask, or die trying to be the person you’ve projected to be.” I’m not going to die trying to be a projection. I’m going to be me. Redeemed and rescued, forgiven and flawed. Needy of community, friendship and grace.
This is the beginning of this journey, for me, but I’m happier. More centered, more at peace, more content, this has felt like a deliverance. My taskmasters that were crushing me have been crushed by the One who will not share his glory with anyone and is relentlessly committed to his people for his name’s sake. Every day, every skill, every opportunity is a gift I don’t deserve, a gift to be stewarded, a gift to share. I’m done striving, it really is finished.
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I’m a husband, father, pastor, writer and general cultural connoisseur. Here I write at the intersection of theology, culture, leadership and community. Written by a millennial, for millennials in the church and in the culture seeking out what it means to live out our faith in this beautiful, chaotic world. This grand stage, as John Calvin calls it, where humanity lives out their lives.