The first time we visited a church during Jerry’s sabbatical, I was not prepared for the deeply emotional response that day would bring. For most of the service, I alternated between fighting back tears and swallowing nausea. We were so determined to slip in under the radar and sit in the back where no one would see us or speak to us, but that didn’t so much happen. Blending in is a little hard with hot tears dripping down your face. Somewhere around the 2nd sermon point, I discovered that running my to-do list for the week over and over in my head was a pretty effective distraction. After 36 years of attending the same church as a member and a staff wife, I didn’t fully realize how broken I was until I crossed another threshold that rainy Sunday morning.
The heaviness of ministry is really, truly hard. When the work you are doing requires a balance of counter-cultural service and serious eternal implications, trusting yourself to follow the Spirit’s leading is not simple or easy. Added to that, ministers (and their spouses) are often guilty of saying “yes” to so many things that we eliminate any opportunity to be poured into ourselves. The analogy we often hear is that an empty jar cannot pour, but that analogy falls flat to the demands we place on ourselves to out-serve the expectations that we think, usually falsely, others have for us.
Somewhere last fall, Jerry and I began to realize the ministry we’d carefully built in our safe and predictable lives was slowly unraveling at the edges. We were continuing to love and serve the best we knew how, but there was a steady darkness creeping in where joy had once been at the center of our work.
For Jerry, that heaviness manifested itself in rising anxiety and self-doubt. Tasks that were once straightforward and matter-of-fact became confusing and paralyzing, and significant weight-loss and sleeplessness became the norm. Racing pulse rates and trembling hands were frightening signs of out-of-sync adrenaline and nerves.
There aren’t really words to capture how hard it is to watch someone you love spiral into a frightening cycle of self-doubt and fear. We work so hard to trust that God’s grace and mercy is enough for any moment that we somehow believe that reading scripture or praying long enough will unlock the grace we need to turn the tide in these moments.
But no matter how many verses we highlighted or prayers we prayed, things seemed to be spinning further and further out of control.
We dressed up and played nice week after week, but deep inside we both knew that we could not keep plowing forward forever…the cost was too great – to our ministry, our marriage, our children and ourselves. In those scary days, things hit the proverbial rock-bottom and we knew something had to give.
It increasingly became clear that what God was calling us to wasn’t a magic formula of more verses or hours on our knees (though neither of those are bad or wrong). What God was calling us to was a deep and abiding season of rest. He was calling us to acknowledge our brokenness, admit we needed some help and seek out a support system that we had pushed away for so long.
So we set out to find healing, covered in a period of a sabbatical and the prayers of our closest friends, and we attempted to find strength day-by-day as we worked through emotions that were sometimes overwhelming and suffocating. Fearing the perception of weakness, we struggled to be vulnerable and transparent. Still, we felt loved in mighty ways and trusted God for the grace to climb out – and He was there…continuing to call us forward as He poured out the grace and mercy we’ve sought these last months.
In rest there was healing. And, in truth, in rest there was also the pain of knowing that healing might come in some ways we were not quite ready to accept.
But there was also light pushing back that darkness. And great joy crept in when we least expected it. And with that, there was great hope.