On burnout and bear hunts – Part Two: Re-Formation

Reflection Sustaining Ministry Wellbeing
An image of Dominic Palmer Dominic Palmer
6th June 2024 4 minute read
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Re-formation

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

Really?

My wife and I didn’t initially want to lead our church plant while working full-time. We felt God asking us to do it, so we said yes in trust and to serve his people. We weren’t workaholics: we’d read The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry; we worked with our vicar to devolve pastoral care away from ourselves; we even took a mini-sabbatical. But we still burnt out.

After we handed over church leadership in the summer, we thought we had recovered quickly. But then the deeper question bubbled up: why did God call us to do something he knew we couldn’t handle?

So began several months of painful soul-searching. Early on we wondered if we had heard wrong, and God hadn’t actually called us to lead. That would solve some problems. It would still be painful, but at least we would know why: we’d messed up.

A startlingly on-the-nose prophetic encounter put the kibosh on that idea. At another church in the city, one of the leaders, who knew nothing of our questions or our exhaustion in the last year, came over to us, placed her hands on our lowered heads and shaking shoulders, and said, “You didn’t hear wrong. You heard right.”

Well. That was clear.

But if we couldn’t blame ourselves, what could we do? Blame God?

At times, it was tempting. We certainly felt a sense of solidarity with Teresa of Ávila, who once prayed, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”

That winter held a lot of fun – recording an EP of Christmas carols, planning a cycle tour – but also a lot of pain. We felt far from God. Biblical encouragements rang hollow. Church was a duty, with little joy – although it probably didn’t help that our venue had no central heating.

Maybe our deformation had been plastic rather than elastic after all.

Even so, the story wasn’t over.

It’s a cliché, but sometimes you just have to live the clichés. As winter turned to spring, healing came. For me, it included a deepened sense that part of our calling (and ‘equipping’) as Jesus’s disciples is to know Christ by sharing in his suffering, and that resurrection comes on the far side of the cross (Philippians 3:10-11).

Like they say in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!”

For my wife, healing included a cathartic and painful realisation that burnout was only half the story: God hadn’t abandoned us, but had been with us and provided for us in ways we hadn’t seen at the time.

For both of us, healing came through the patient kindness of our families and church community. The Church of England’s ordination discernment process also helped us practice trusting God again: gingerly offering the future to him, despite the bruises.

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

I can’t fully get on board with that youth group refrain now – not without a few caveats. Life isn’t always ‘onwards and upwards’. We don’t always know what God is doing. Every disciple is called to the way of the cross.

But here’s something else I first heard in a youth group sermon. The Japanese art of kintsugi involves a beloved, broken piece of crockery being repaired with golden lacquer, so that the cracks are not only visible but emphasised. Having been broken and made whole again, the vase, plate or pot becomes even more highly prized than when it was new.

That sounds like Jesus to me. Not only his healing work, but his body: resurrected, scars and all.

It also sounds a bit like my wife and me now. We took on a lot, and we cracked under the weight. But God broke into our brokenness. Through prophecy, through friendship, through a fair few tears on the bathroom floor, he has led us into trust and wonder again. It’s not the same as before, exactly, but it feels – we feel – a bit more weathered, and a bit more broken and whole at the same time.

Prayer

Spirit of God,

You brooded over the deep waters
And brought forth a world of beauty.
Where there is disorder in me,
Come and bring peace.
Where there is darkness in me,
Come and bring light.
Where there is wilderness in me,
Come and bring life.
I offer you again my hopes and my disappointments.
Please be close to me today,
Lead me closer to Christ in his suffering,
And in his resurrection make me new.

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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