Weakness is good for you. That’s a challenging thing to say but, really, I don’t think it’s news to anyone who’s a Christian. We know it’s true. It’s the way you become a Christian. You say, “I need Jesus. I can’t achieve heaven”. Weakness is the way, but we need to relearn this truth over and over.
In the past year I’ve relearned it in a significant way – and perhaps my experience can inform and protect you, or your church, now and into the future.
Around Easter time last year, I completely hit the wall. There were three main things that fed into that:
- our church in London was planted 20 years ago, but I’d never really got out of the “start-up” pattern of ministry and busy-ness. As the church had grown, this was no longer sustainable.
- I was my mother’s primary support for the final period of her life, particularly the last six months before her death in October 2020.
- the isolation that came as a result of COVID hit me hard; it also made managing our staff team more difficult.
In March last year I said to our senior elders, “I'm in trouble, and I just need to let you know that”. I didn’t provide too much explanation, so I think they just thought, “Well, none of us are doing particularly well in COVID times! He'll be fine”. Fortunately, my two key staff lieutenants then went to the elders and told them they’d never seen me like this before. I needed help.
“I'm in trouble, and I just need to let you know that”.
In the end, our senior elder, who’s a managing partner in a law firm, said to me: “Twice in my career I’ve had to take three months off because I hit the wall and burnt out. That is you right now. If you don't take some time off, I’m resigning. You need to take me seriously”.
He was right. I was tired, and I was angry. Not at anything, and certainly not with God, but my daily experience was one of relentless irritability. I was also depressed. For some people depression manifests in passivity, for some it’s anxiety and for some, like me, it comes out in anger. So, in May I stood up in front of our church family via livestream, told them I wasn’t coping and that I had to step away from my role for a time.
At our church we’ve always pushed pretty hard against polite Christianity. I’m not interested in pretence. So it was very important for me to say exactly what was happening – because if the senior pastor stands up and says, “I can't cope”, that helps create a willingness among the congregation to push boundaries and be a little bit more honest themselves. And there was a wonderful response. People were incredibly supportive.
If the senior pastor stands up and says, “I can't cope”, that helps create a willingness among the congregation to push boundaries and be a little bit more honest themselves.
I took two months off, pretty much completely, and had a phased return after that. At the time I just couldn't cope with people, even though I’m an extrovert, and when I stopped [work] the depression was fairly obvious. I just wanted to quit.
There were long walks with two senior elders to tell them that I couldn’t envisage recovering my enthusiasm. They were very wise: they listened, they didn’t panic and they didn't judge, and they gave me the space I needed to recover.
The rhythm to my days is different now. I’ve relearned the importance of accepting limitations, and include such things as a greater amount of rest – so, some weeks I take a day and a half off rather than just Saturday.
Learn from the word
Theologically I spent the most time during my recovery in 2 Corinthians. Chapter 12 is a particularly rich text and there are some important things in it that I needed to relearn.
When Paul says, “I was given a thorn in my flesh” (12:7) that’s such a challenge. These moments of weakness, of suffering, are a gift. I think the thing that struck me most when submerging myself in this again is that Paul says:
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take [the thorn] away from me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (12:8-9).
So, relief comes, not always from the thorn being withdrawn, but from more grace.
Now, there are physical things to burnout. There’s a stupidity to ignoring that – my own stupidity as well – but rather than thinking, this has got to end, we need to look to God to give us the grace we need. That’s how relief comes, that’s how sustaining power comes, not necessarily in the thorn being completely withdrawn. Maybe I’ll never have the same energy I did as a 30-year-old, but that’s okay!
Pauls goes on to say that for Christ’s sake he delights in weaknesses. Do we do that? Do I really believe that weakness is good? Being limited is good? Not being able to do everything I want is good?
Yes. It’s got to be good. This weakness, this thorn, is a gift. It’s good. I can delight in it. It's something you relearn and, as you relearn it, you learn it more deeply. As a Christian family, we learn that:
- if we only share strengths it can lead to competition and resentment, but
- if we share weaknesses it really builds the community.
It’s collaboration; it draws people together. It’s much more encouraging, because life is hard.
The enemy of the gospel
There may be people at your church who others look at and see nothing but a perfect, gleaming life. Perhaps you think this, too? Everything seems gilded for these people. We sometimes feel the need to put on our best front because we don’t want to be embarrassed, or we think we should have it together at work or at home, or we want people to think that you become a Christian and life is “better”.
But self-sufficiency is the enemy of the gospel. It’s why so many people in our neighbourhoods say they don't need Jesus because they’re fine. In our church we’ve found that sharing weaknesses is a really helpful thing to do. It’s not complicated. It’s not new. But it’s so valuable.
Yes, there’s a balance to be struck. You can’t stand up and cry every week in the pulpit! But we need to think seriously about how to encourage honesty and vulnerability, because this authenticity connects with people. And for some, to discover that they’re not alone in their struggles and uncertainties is such a tremendous relief.
When I’m going through a hard time, sometimes I think, what would Satan not want me to do? What would he least like? When we’re going through suffering, Satan wants to isolate us: you’re the only one, they’re all fine, look at them, and your life is miserable. You should give up on the Lord, or indulge in sin, or just withdraw from people and have a pity party on your own. And that’s disaster, isn't it? So don't do what Satan wants you to do.
That’s the great thing about a culture where you’re sharing your weaknesses and struggles. You’re going towards people and they’re coming towards you. You’re not getting isolated. We can all grow. And we can do it together, supporting each other as the people of God.
Adapted from an interview on The Pastor’s Heart with the Rev Matt Fuller, senior minister of Christ Church, Mayfair in London.