Fire in Your Bones:
Relighting an Extinguished Flame
By E. Glenn Wagner
Fire in your bones can set the world ablaze for Christ. But the other side of the story is that fire also can burn.
I would love to paint a rosy picture and tell you my life has been one of reaching new, higher spiritual plateaus one right after another. But that's not my story.
Let me take you back to the first Sunday morning I stepped into the pulpit as pastor of
At the time, I sensed my journey had been leading to this moment - my former pastorates, being vice president of Promise Keepers, my education, the books I had written - all helped equip me to pastor the church Billy Graham's family once called home.
That first morning, as the music softened and I glanced out over the massive 5,000-seat auditorium (with only 1,400 in attendance), feeling the looming presence of one of the largest pipe organs in the world behind me, I prayed, "God, am I up to this challenge?" The answer was clearly, "Yes."
Within five years, attendance had doubled, staff grew, services were added, debt was significantly reduced and the church was regaining its leading voice in the city of
However, as we entered year five, something inside me began to sink. At first it felt like exhaustion. The flurry of nonstop ministry activity over the years, along with the stress of staffing and leadership issues, caught up with my body. I finally began to realize it wasn't my physical body that was exhausted - it was my mind. The daunting task of leading this great church and overcoming a number of rising challenges was causing me to shut down. I began to delegate and withdraw, believing space and time would clear my thinking. It became increasingly difficult to prepare to preach. It would take most of the day on Saturday just to get my thoughts in the right attitude to minister on Sunday. And I felt that my ability to lead, make decisions and cast a vision for the future was becoming hidden behind an opaque curtain of despair. Without knowing it, I was slap-bang in the midst of clinical depression and burnout.
Because of a failed process of being able to deal with my depression, on
On my road to recovery and healing, I have learned that what I faced is fast becoming one of the greatest threats to those in church leadership. The stealth nature of this illness makes it difficult to identify and treat. Often, ministers are depressed before they even realize or are able to admit it. Meanwhile, the shadows of darkness haunt their lives and dismantle their ministries one day at a time. Just as serious is the fact that once a pastor is diagnosed with depression, many churches are not safe places in which they may find support and healing. This condition among pastors is still a dirty little secret that many churches don't wish to disclose, address or cure. This combination of late detection and church denial is a lethal cocktail.
However, I believe the church can curtail this epidemic, and it must if we're to have any hope of healthy pastoral leadership in the future. Take an introspective look and answer these questions honestly:
- Do you feel like crying more often now than you normally have in the past?
- Do you feel sad or blue much of the time?
- When you see yourself in the mirror, do you appear to be sad, or do others comment that you no longer seem happy?
- Do you frequently have a sense of hopelessness or helplessness?
- Do you think nothing matters or that nothing will do any good?
- Do you have less motivation and interest in activities, hobbies, work or relationships you previously have enjoyed?
- Has your sleep pattern changed? Are you unable to sleep at night, or do you struggle with restlessness that leaves you tired in the morning? Do you want to sleep all day?
- Have you thought recently that life is just not worth living?
- Do you wish God would just take you home?
- Do you dread the beginning of a new day, the anticipation of your responsibilities, decisions and meetings?
- Are you anxious and stressed?
- Are you worried and concerned about the past or what the future may hold?
- Have your eating patterns changed? Have you lost your appetite? Is even your favorite food no longer of interest? Are you eating much more than you previously did, perhaps even an excessive intake of junk foods?
- Do you have less energy than usual?
- Are there other physical symptoms that differ from the past, such as frequency of headaches, upset stomach, constipation or rapid heartbeat?
- Do you feel you're not functioning as well at work as you have in the past, and that others are beginning to notice?1
Many of these factors trapped me in the fast-flowing current of depression. I felt as if I were grasping for my emotional breath, and there was nothing to latch onto. I fought the swirling rapids alone, but unfortunately, I wasn't strong enough. Rather than being rescued from the river, I had to claw my way to the shore on my own, and by then I was too weak and exhausted to continue on.
Let me offer seven "course corrections" for ministers and congregations to prevent and deal with pastoral depression. These are the things I wish the
church had in place when I was fighting the problem.
1. Replace secular leadership with sacred leadership.
2. Replace employee assistance with spiritual direction.
3. Replace the board room with the hospital room.
4. Replace judicial spirituality with confessional spirituality.
5. Replace accountability with mutuality.
6. Replace solution orientation with process orientation.
7. Replace giving up with starting over.
There was an old horror movie in the '60s titled, "The Night of the Living Dead." My greatest fear during these days was that God would not restore the fire and passion I once cherished. I prayed, "Lord, if you don't, just let me die!"
How did I find escape from the deep valley? I began by claiming God's promises. I found hope in the Word, which declares, "Those who live in a dark land, the
light will shine on them."2 I stood on the fact that "God...comforts the depressed."3
My recovery process has included dealing with the past, establishing the present and pursuing the future. God, in His mercy, has renewed my faith, restored
my vision and rekindled the fire as never before. From personal experience and on the promise of His Word, I can guarantee He will do the same for you.
Make sure you don't find yourself in the trap of religious distraction - running from place to place, church to church, conference to conference and even book to book trying to find "it." This "it" is found only in Christ, down under God. It is a place you can go to be filled with Him: His glory, His passion, His love, His grace and His power.
I pray that the Father will fill you with an intense, irresistible longing and desire to know Him more fully and be filled with His fire and power. If you are content with spiritual mediocrity, you will never enjoy the greatness of God.
Instead of quoting the old saying "If there is no fire in the pulpit, there will be no fire in the pew," perhaps we need to turn it around: "When there is fire in the
pew, a fire can be ignited in the pulpit."
Will this flame begin with you? Will there be fire in your bones?
1"A Self-Rating Depression Scale," from Happiness Is a Choice: The Symptoms, Causes, and Cures of Depression, by Frank Minirth and Paul Meier, as adapted by Steve Arterburn. Used with permission of Baker Publishing Group and New Life Ministries.
3."4 (2 Corinthians 7:6).
2 Corinthians 7:6.