On burnout and bear hunts – Part One: De-Formation

Reflection Sustaining Ministry Wellbeing
An image of Dominic Palmer Dominic Palmer
6th June 2024 4 minute read
A smashed porcelain plate

De-formation

“If God has called you, he’ll equip you.”

Right?

We had heard it in sermons for years growing up. If God calls you to do something, he will give you what you need to do it – be it money, skill, connections, confidence. If he’s called you, he’ll equip you.

Which is all very encouraging, but…what about when he doesn’t?

Fast forward a few years from the youth group sermons (for which I am, let it be said, very grateful). My wife and I were living in inner-city Manchester. I was a trainee English teacher and my wife was working as a scientist. We had moved with a group of university friends, all living in the same neighbourhood and part of the same church-planting team. The church was nine months into public worship, but we didn’t have a leader.

My wife and I didn’t want to lead the church, but we were asked by our overseeing vicar to consider it. During a week of holding the question before God, we felt him move our hearts to say “yes.”

So, in February 2020, we began leading the church plant as volunteers, in addition to our regular work. You know what happened next.

The Covid-19 pandemic sent the nation, and its churches, into lockdown. That alone would have made leadership difficult. I also got violently carjacked (the car was a write-off), and we suffered three family bereavements between February and May.

The year continued, and teacher training via Zoom turned into an NQT year back in the classroom. The church bounced between venues as restrictions changed: sometimes in person, sometimes online.

Despite all this, it was a surprisingly encouraging time for the church. We were still small enough for Sunday Zoom meetings to be a meaningful space of friendship, and new people even joined us online and stuck around in person. But by spring 2021, my wife and I were running on empty.

I started to get worried when I noticed myself doing things I would normally enjoy – playing music with my wife, walking in the Peak District – and feeling nothing whatsoever. It was like becoming a detached observer of my own heart. Those around us started worrying too. In the early summer, some friends effectively didn’t let us leave their house until we agreed to drop something.

So, in summer 2021, we stepped back from church leadership. Wonderfully, we stayed part of the church, and the handover to new leaders was healthy.

We’ve been asked since if we thought more support or coaching could have helped us carry on or lead more sustainably. But we were supported well, through leadership and handover, by the vicar overseeing the plant. And as for more coaching, we were in (more than) full-time work and leading a church on top. We didn’t need more input: we needed time.

Not just quantity of time, but quality of headspace: time to think creatively together, to pray and seek vision for the church and our neighbourhood. While leading, we could just about keep the church ticking over, but vision and momentum shifts felt unattainable.

Exploring the structural challenges of bivocational volunteer church leadership in the light of human limitedness is, as they say, beyond my current scope. We took on a lot, took some hits, burnt out, and handed over – which was a relief.

My wife works as a materials scientist. In materials science, they distinguish between two ways that materials change shape under stress: plastic deformation and elastic deformation. Elastic springs back; plastic doesn’t.

While leading, we could feel our characters being pulled out of shape by busyness and testing circumstances. We were becoming snappier, glummer, less hopeful: not formed into Christlikeness, but de-formed into emotionally unhealthy, shrunken versions of ourselves.

After we handed over, life instantly felt more sustainable. We had a long summer holiday. We started playing music for fun again. We thought we were bouncing back pretty quickly. It felt like the aftermath of elastic (not plastic) deformation.

Despite the surface recovery, though, there was still a question hidden below the surface – and more than a question, a wounded trust.

“If God has called you, he’ll equip you.”

Which is all very encouraging, but…what about when he doesn’t?

Prayer

Loving Lord,

Give me the faith to bring you the questions,
And the answers that no longer satisfy,
To bring you my wonder and my weariness,
And to follow you anyway.
Thank you that the story isn’t finished.

Amen

Written by

Dominic Palmer

Dominic Palmer lives in Manchester with his wife and their young son. Between 2020 and 2021, he and his wife co-led Upper Room Church (Cheetham Hill) as volunteers. Having been a secondary-school English teacher for several years, Dominic now works for the Antioch Network of church plants and is due to begin training for ordination in the Church of England this autumn.

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