How I fell onto the wagon.

I’m not sure when I started drinking to make myself feel better. I guess I started doing it without really admitting that’s why I was doing it. A social drink with a meal or a beer with a few friends is great, but tossing back a glass of red to make the churning in my stomach go away was something that grew once I realised it actually worked. My burnout had so frightened me, and the anxiety had been so severe for so long, that even when I was in recovery I had a phobia about anxiety. If I felt those butterflies, and the heightened heart rate I would react to it and eventually my go-to was the bottle. After a drink, I felt so much better. I felt calmer, I worried less – heck I practically floated.

There were a couple of downsides I could see though. One was that it slowed me down and some things became harder to do. For example, getting dinner prepared and on the table was slightly harder after a glass of wine or a beer, so I had to go slower. I must admit it was much more enjoyable though.

The other downside was that I worried I was becoming an alcoholic. If I ran out of beer or wine, I was happily drinking port, and if everything ran out, I’d be grabbing the cooking sherry and neat brandy (yucko!). I was starting to keep an eye on stocks at home to make sure I didn’t run out. I started ordering wine by the case and stocking it in the shed. 16 months ago we went away for Christmas and I took the overnight ferry to the mainland with my two boys while my wife and daughter flew across. I smuggled port in an empty juice bottle in my bag, just in case I needed it.

My wife was really concerned with my drinking and she used to ask how many I had consumed for the day. This made me angry. It was my business, not hers. I felt like she was watching me all the time so I was careful to throw the empty’s in the bin so she couldn’t keep track. I think on a couple of occasions I’d cracked a bottle of wine in the shed out the back and from time to time headed out there to toss some back. She used to complain about the smell on my breath.

I didn’t feel good going to the bottleshop on grocery day with the kids in the back seat and emerging with four dozen cans of beer (because they were on special). The kids didn’t seem to like it much either and would ask why I was drinking so much these days. When I first started my “stay-at-home” dad routine, I had the whole day to myself in peace and quiet but my anxiety would grow the closer it came to 3.45pm. At this point, the kids would burst through the door after school like the hungry Mongolian hordes descending the steppes to invade peaceful China. I took to having a drink before they got home, so I would be blissfully calm and welcoming. It was great how the drink enabled me to not get angry about the uneaten lunches, the torn school pants, the drink spilled in the school bag, the forgotten homework, the chaos, the lost school hat, and the usual bickering. At times though, the pre-school-return-invasion drink happened at 11 am. I’m pretty sure the earliest I had a drink to quell the anxiety was about 9am.

I felt a bit ashamed. It was a dirty secret that I drank that early. The only person I told was my psychiatrist. I confessed to her that I was worried about my drinking. I drank every day. She didn’t seem to be worried however, which seemed odd to me. She said that as long as I was drinking less than three drinks a day, and had two days off each week, I wasn’t an alcoholic. Although I wasn’t drinking more than three a day, I was drinking every day. I justified to myself that I was just averaging it out. Did this make me an alcoholic? I reasoned that I could have a day off any day I chose (I’m pretty sure this is what alcoholics think too). Deep down, I knew I was dependent on the drink, but on a surface level I didn’t want to think about it and found it helpful.

Interestingly, my wonderful psych didn’t make an issue of it. She gave me ideas on how to reduce the drinking but was confident that continuing treatment for depression and anxiety would see my alcohol use decrease, and it did. Kind of all by itself. Don’t get me wrong, I still drink – most days. Maybe one, maybe two beers, rarely three unless it’s a dinner party of barbeque. And yes, I still drink if my wife and I have a fight – I find it dulls the pain (resilience is a bit of an issue for me – I crumble easily). But I can go a week without drinking if I’m away, or on a fishing trip for example. I’m paranoid that I’m going to need a drink and be caught short, and I’m certainly not drinking before the kids get home from school so I can handle it better. I think I have a better relationship with the bottle now, where I can enjoy it, without it being my lifesaver.

I feel lucky.

Do you ever get over depression?

I get asked this a bit. Usually by carers of someone with depression, but sometimes from people who are yet to recover. One went something like this.

One thing I am interested in knowing is you don’t talk about having depression anymore, you speak of it as if it were in the past. Do you ever get over it? Are you on medication? I never really asked you about the medication bit and I am leaning towards it because my girlfriend is on Zoloft and she says that she is a changed person.

It’s a good question – one that I’ve thought about for a while (I think it says a lot that I still think about depression). The answer went like this:

I would say I’ve recovered and no longer have depression but I don’t say I’m cured. Basically what I mean is I am not symptomatic anymore and I’m able to do the things I want in life without being impeded by depression.

I do still have a low level of anxiety quite a bit and have a low resistance to sadness so when I’m too busy or haven’t had much self time I tend to get sad. But other than that I’m happy most of the time.

I have changed though, so things aren’t back to the old “normal”. I do things slower. I do less and pace myself more. I am more intentional about self care. My brain doesn’t work as well. But on the upside I’m more patient, understanding, compassionate than before and value simpler things in life because I’m less ambitious. I’m more satisfied and I know myself and accept myself more.

I’m not on antidepressants anymore but they worked really well in controlling my anxiety. They really calmed me down and gave me the space to face my issues. They were important in my recovery. They have their downside (no sex drive and no feeling of happiness either) but on balance I found them useful. They work best for severe depression and anxiety and are line ball for moderate depression and anxiety. My long suffering wife says within 36 hours of me taking it she could talk to me again. Gold!

Recovery is a journey and depression is episodic so I’m not sure I’ll ever be free of it but can still lead a happy,  satisfying and rich life. I don’t regret having it. I only regret coming so close to dying before diagnosis which is why I do the work I’m doing today.

The importance of rest

Attorney and church mediator Blake Coffee (great name) recently blogged

“Nobody wants a surgeon operating on them when that surgeon is in a state of exhaustion.  Nobody wants a pilot flying their airplane when that pilot is sleep deprived.  Nobody wants truck drivers operating 18-wheelers on our highways when they are falling asleep at the wheel.  When none of us in our right minds would trust our physical well-being to an exhausted person, why do we trust our Spiritual well-being in the hands of an exhausted minister?  More importantly, why, when we are the minister, would we think we can minister effectively when we are at the end of our rope physically?”

He advises that we listen to the words of Jesus to the disciples to come away and rest and warns against the dangers of not doing it. Obviously I was stupid enough not to heed the words of Jesus because I overworked, burned myself and others, developed severe depression and anxiety and finally as I became suicidal stepped down to seek treatment. Knowing that R&R is important isn’t enough. As I responded to Blake, there are some really good reasons why we don’t rest and they run very deep.

Part of it is due to the our “philosophy of ministry” and part of it is to do with the kinds of churches we run, some is due to congregations expectations and some is what we put on ourselves.

For example, we demand extremely high volunteer commitment and attendance levels, so some pastor’s I know of, continued to attend their church even while they were on leave. Stupid I know – but we’ve got to walk the talk right?

Others take little of their leave because they feel like God is promising them a “breakthrough” and that they’re in a season of sowing etc. and to take a break would somehow be unfaithful, or faithless and result in not getting the “miracle” they’re expecting. In other words they “spiritualize” their over-work and thus deceive themselves. Self deception is really difficult to self diagnose!!

Our business-styled contemporary churches run off the CEO charismatic pastor model. The senior pastor is the Steve Jobs of his little patch. Everything revolves around him. He is the vision caster, the primary voice – the lynch pin if you like. We don’t like to admit it but it’s true (we like to teach that Jesus is the center). But when the pastor’s out of the picture the church is just in a holding pattern. No-one likes to work hard to build, then take time off and see things possibly decline. It’s a function of the model we’ve chosen.

Another reason I didn’t take enough time out was because I knew work would be piled up when I got back. There are just some things you can’t delegate. Things were piled up enough as it was so my mindset was one of “work hard to get the monkey off my back then rest”. Unfortunately, I never cleared my inbox before becoming too ill to do it despite some nights sleeping under my desk.

So I guess I’m saying, it’s good to know that we need time off, but there are very deep reasons why pastor’s are expiring at a rate of 1500 each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure according to New York Times (August 2010) and it’s not for a lack of knowledge about rest.

The woes of modern church leadership

Shaun King the founder of cutting edge, 700 plus congregation of Atlanta’s Courageous Church created a stir in September when he stood down stating “I have pushed as hard and far as my mind, body, and spirit can healthily go before crashing”. He had tried to transition the church to a emergent style missional church and it killed him. My stomach churns as I read the story that his wife Rai told on her blog.

2 years into it, after 300+ sermons, who knows how many songs, people coming, people going, stressful lead team meetings, raising money from outside sources because the people who attended the church didn’t actually give enough to support the church, Shaun got frustrated, a few leaders got tired and left, …

Thus Shaun had a vision for “the shift”…as it has come to be known.  After searching the scriptures and seeing Christ’s ministry for what it really was we decided we no longer wanted to participate in the spectator sport we Christians call CHURCH.  So we said, let’s stop meeting every Sunday.  Let’s instead, meet in small groups in each other’s homes.  Let’s share a meal and learn how to be true disciples of Christ.  Let’s all serve together.  Let’s have each small group belong to a cause group that addresses a need in our city. 

We talked about it, met about it, argued about it, preached about it, sang about it, and read books about it for months.  And for the most part, people were buying it.  As a matter of fact, the month before the shift, when Shaun was preaching the hows and whys of what were about to do was our highest attendance and our highest offering in all of 2011.  We thought that meant people were actually ready to be radical and courageous.  4 months later, it’s clear that what that meant was that people love HEARING about being radical and courageous.  It gets our juices flowing and makes us feel all powerful.

(We thought) let’s… create time to serve God instead of serving ourselves by getting high off of church services.  If people aren’t in church every Sunday, maybe they’ll serve instead.…FAIL!  What most people did after “the shift” is go to another church on the Sundays we didn’t meet….

Shaun and Rai fought tooth and nail to lead their congregation out of a Sunday-focused, program-oriented, volunteer-intensive all-consuming contemporary church, but after three months, 85% of the congregation wanted it back to the way it was. They both burned out and crucified themselves on the altar of ministry in the modern church and fell on their own sword. My heart goes out to them after experiencing similar pain for similar reasons when we transitioned somewhat unsuccessfully to a cell based church.

Rai went on to say

The truth of the matter is, Shaun is simply exhausted.  Pastoring people has been 10 times better than my best hopes and 100 times worse than my worst nightmares.  Unless you’ve done it, you will NEVER understand it.  It looks one way from the outside looking in, but trust me, you don’t know the half.  Pastors are the sickest, loneliest, most depressed people in church.  That’s why they have affairs, that’s why they die at the age of 42 from heart attacks and drug over doses.  That’s why every time you turn on the TV there’s a new scandal, and a fresh news story about the latest greatest to fall from grace.  Taking criticism day in and day out from people who swear up and down they know better is exhausting.  Having people leave for stupid, selfish reasons is exhausting.  The divorce rate for pastors is among the highest of any other group in the country.  Shaun and I have decided we’d like that to not be our story.

Another good pastor burns out and falls by the wayside leaving us just one more reason to wonder, is there a better way to do church?

Being a stay-at-home-dad can be risky!

I consider myself a stay-at-home dad since I resigned from my full time career as a pastor. After nine years of ministry burning the candle both ends and over-working, depression took hold and after finally reaching the point of seriously planning suicide I sought help. I couldn’t go back though. So I made a deal with my wife. If she went to work for us, I’d take care of the home – lock, stock and barrel. The reason for this was that she wasn’t traveling too well either emotionally because of the toll mental illness had taken on us.

And so I took on a new role. I organised the home, established routines for the kids, and went on a steep learning curve not so much in how to do the job, but how to find a rhythm in each week so that I could still live in an active recovery space and not become overwhelmed by the fact that housework is never completed – it’s the nature of the beast.

I was intrigued to read that while house dads are increasing in number (10-14%), it’s not all beer and skittles. A recent The Age article reported some old research that put men at 82 times higher risk of heart disease than their career paid counterparts but went on to outline some other risks suggesting

Househusbands who linger too long can find themselves in premature retirement, shut out of the workforce, and quite isolated…

House husbands need look no further than house wives to know that it’s not going to suit all of us and that the downsides are the same irrespective of gender. There can be less “job satisfaction” because the work is never done. Progress with the children seems slow at times. It feels like spinning the wheels compared to say an engineering sales role that I performed where I could measure my sales figures.

I’ve done a couple of key things to make it work for me. Firstly, I don’t hope to have it all done. I try and prioritize and get down the key things and let other stuff slide (although I do get defensive if I feel criticized for this). Secondly, I make sure I get out enough and have some kind of life outside the home. I work two days per week in the community services sector, I fly fish (this captures exercise, mateship and photography as well) and I drop in on the local Men’s Shed once a week and make something – like a chicken feeder, or spice rack for example.

One advantage men have is that we’re not “nesters” by nature, so we’re not in general as “houseproud” as a women. Nor do we feel as scrutinized as the fairer sex by their peers (the sisterhood can be a harsh club at times). We’re not as susceptible to guilt when we don’t get it all done so we can still be happy in the face of a full laundry basket, or sit down and have a cup of tea even though the dishes are piled up on the sink. We don’t feel like we should be able to do it all like your average mum who feels like a failure if she doesn’t. I know I can’t do it all and am fine with it. I get the kids to help and train them. Once a week they cook for us. They fold their own laundry. They tidy their own rooms. They all have chores that need to be done. I’m doing them no favors if I do everything for them. We’re a team.

As I sit here, my thighs and glutes ache. The school athletics carnival last Friday had a parent race. My wife entered last year and came a dismal last (she’s a shorty), so I was urged to enter this year and win (for the kids of course!). I entered and whupped those other dads and won. The kids were all suitably impressed. All up, I consider what I’m doing a privilege. There aren’t many dads who have as much involvement in their kids lives when they’re young. Most have to work full time. I don’t and that’s a blessing.

After burning out, would I ever lead again?

I’ve been in church leadership since 1990, and full time staff from 2000 to 2009 when I was forced to resign due to depression and anxiety. Would I lead again? Up until now, I would have refused to even contemplate the idea. But my wife just came home after attending church – my former church, fuming about things like hypocrisy, in-authenticity, and PR bullshit (we’ve been made a scapegoat for anything that was bad about church) and we had a great discussion about what church could be like if we could start with a blank slate.

If this burned out, back-from-the-brink pastor could dream a little dream, it would go something like this:

If a pastor didn’t have a budget to meet, rosters to fill, attendance wasn’t measured, and behavior modification wasn’t on the radar, then I reckon it would be a ball. We would be free to do what we’re gifted for.

One caveat would be that I would not be paid – and therefore not full time and not on staff. I don’t think I would even have anyone “reporting” to me in any official capacity, and I definitely wouldn’t have a job description. I would do what I am gifted and led to do and what I’m passionate about. That beautiful little sector where the circles of gifts, strengths and passion overlap is where I’d live.

I’d think more about following Jesus than leading others. I would let Him lead them and remain only a catalyst.

I’d think more about two-way conversations than preaching messages at or to people.

I’d focus more on relationships, than productivity and efficiency.

I would hasten slowly.

I would concern myself more with journeys than destinations.

I would be brutally honest and leave PR spin to politicians, salesmen and con artists.

The life of the church would not revolve around me. I would not be the primary vision caster or motivator. I would allow people to get their own vision from God.

The church wouldn’t be exclusive. It would be a place for followers or non-followers alike.

Relationships with God and others, underpinned by love and acceptance would be the highlight.

Being would take priority over doing.

We wouldn’t own buildings or take on any debt.

The Sunday Service would not be the peak spiritual experience of the believers week.

The arts would have equal place with the spoken word.

Busyness would be a swear word.

I would not burn people out volunteering.

People would be more important than things, issues, ideas, structures, programs, productions, goals or causes.

I would tell stories. God’s story. My stories and others’ stories.

Yes it’s just a fantasy and no I don’t think this will ever happen, but there’s nothing wrong with dreaming is there? Some like Small Boat Big Sea are at least heading in the right direction. A transcript of an interview with them really gives me hope.

What Happened to Wonder?

It’s a bit like playing a game of snap. Just as I was posting about how I crave a different church service, Tim Schraeder asks “What happened to wonder?“. Here he grapples with the same kinds of ideas. Just goes to show maybe I’m not crazy! He says:

There’s a tension that many churches are dealing with these days when it comes to their services and it’s the battle between right and left brained thinking, or emotion over intellect.

Churches, well the progressive, innovative, edgy ones, get production. Some churches feel like a rock show or Broadway, and while I’m a bit indifferent to their methods, I feel that in looking, sounding and feeling like the world we’ve lost a true sense of wonder.

Today our churches look and feel more like conference centers or coffee shops and instead of creating reverent, reflective space, they are cozy and casual. Gizmodo did an article about the STORY Conference which we hosted at Park a few months ago and said, “The Park Community Church in Chicago is a multi-story Christian center that more closely resembles a Starbucks than any cathedral—and in fact houses its own coffee shop.”

I’m not saying those things are bad, people obviously need to be in space that’s warm an inviting… but I guess I’m wrestling with if that’s the right way.

While I completely agree that the message is what matters most, the tension we live in is the fact that people hear messages on different wavelengths. Some can sit and listen to a 45 minute sermon and get it. Other people need to see a picture or hear a story, some need to hear a song. Some people need to be inspired by beauty while others simply need sacred space to reflect and remember. There’s multiple ways to hear the same message.

Today, flickering pixels are our stained glass and God has given us so many new ways to communicate His unchanging message… to do things that evoke our emotions and touch both our mind and our heart. To bring words to life through an image, a story, or a song.

I’m not saying we need to reproduce a jonsi concert, add more lights or more music, get bigger screens and better projectors… I just wholeheartedly believe we need to first be captured with the awe and wonder of who God is and let Him use the gifts He’s uniquely given to all of us to share the what we have seen …

When was the last time you left church in awe… not of the production, music, lights, or anything else… but truly left in awe of who God is and what He’s done?

Schraeder believes that the artist can help save the church. I agree that the arts should figure more prominently (their demise is a consequence of modernism) but disagree that they can (alone) save the church. I do however totally and wholeheartedly agree on where he’s going with it all. If I could go to a church service that I could dream up, it would be one which made me wonder – about God, life, relationships, heaven, earth, people, glory, mystery, faith, miracles, pain, suffering and redemption. I would have a space to reflect, pray, listen to Him and worship. I would not experience a show, a production, a lecture trying to explain or teach anything, desperate fundraising, coercion, pressure, alienation for not volunteering or humiliation.

Schraeder asks pointed questions, that really deserve answers from today’s contemporary modern church:

When was the last time you sat in wonder of God’s love and grace? When was the last time your heart was truly moved? Where is the sense of wonder?

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