Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Needing treatment to restore mental health isn’t shameful, nor is it exceptional.  I share my mental health journey in hopes that it will lead other church leaders to do what I’ve done – admit I need help and get it.


I thought it was déjà vu.

Helping our student minister pack his office to move out of our now sold church building felt all too familiar.  I’d carried my boxes through those same doors thirteen years before.  We loaded the cart with boxes of books and wall decorations and headed out of the office doors to our student minister’s car.  As we exited the doors to the parking lot, my heart fluttered.  My hands shook. I felt a chill run through me.  (Even as I write this, I’m having slight dizziness and disoriented thoughts, a tension in my chest, a narrowing of my vision, and a bit of weakness in my legs…Deep breath.)

It wasn’t then, nor is it now déjà vu. 

After loading our student minister’s car, I barely said goodbye as I darted towards my car.  You know the sprint to the bathroom so that the vomit lands only in the toilet?  Yeah, that sprint.  As I climbed into the driver’s seat, dry heaves of emotions came, emotions that exist beyond words. My throat seized up.  “O God!” was all I could say, repeating it to myself again and again. My body did its best to curl up into the fetal position, prevented from doing so by the steering wheel behind which I sat.  A brief respite from the symptoms gave way to another wave of trauma, trauma finding its way out of my body years after it lodged there.  I could form only one sentence that night:

“God, why have I stayed at a church that has hurt me over and over again?”

Carrying someone else’s boxes out of an office in a church that escorted me off its staff triggered acute PTSD.  Weeks later, I cannot enter our church building without anti-anxiety medication.  Even with medication, I feel mild symptoms each time – weak legs, nervousness, a need to hide those symptoms through humor and light conversation, and a desire to exit as soon as I can.

Through therapy, I’ve come to understand that my body has been trying to get my attention for weeks, even months.  I was participating less and less, checking out of sermons and declining to participate in the Eucharist.  My heart and head just hadn’t been in it when I led worship.  I’d retreated from many relationships, even if those relationships had only ever been a mile wide and an inch deep. I secluded myself away from smaller groups.  The smell of the building had become more pungent.  I’ve cried more and laughed less.  I continue to be more easily angered and less likely to see nuance in complicated circumstances.  Curiosity quickly devolves into anxiety.

My questions seem endless and without answer.

Will my reactions be only to this specific church building?  Or will it be generalized to any church building? Is it more courageous to leave or to stay?  Will my body ever react in a less reptilian way to the place where my wife works as a children’s pastor and where my sons were blessed as infants and baptized as adolescents?  What does it mean that my work centers on pastors but the physical place where they work makes it difficult to function?  Will I ever be able to recover?  Or is this a limp I’ll walk with the rest of my life?  Am I  sure I want to continue attending a place that triggers shame in the deepest parts of my soul, so deep that its only expression taxes my body?  

I’m headed out to my regular sabbatical in July.  I’m not at my best; I’m stumbling to the finish line.  There’s a question that will haunt me during sabbatical if I’m not willing to sit with it, face it, and answer it through tears, anger, and fear:

“God, why have I stayed at a church that has hurt me over and over again?”

For Pastors and Church Leaders

If you’re someone who attends church and loves your pastor, you should know that s/he has likely asked or will some day ask, “God, why should I stay at a church that has hurt me again and again?”

It isn’t ours to do to tell them to “just get through it.”  “It will all be OK.” “It’s only a season.” We can only tell them to pay attention to their body, to listen to its wordless cries for attention.  Their soul is crying out through their body, a breakdown hiding beneath a fraying blanket that barely covers them.  Their body is trying to tell them something; our role is to help them pay attention.

What I would tell them if they were present with me – and what I hope you’ll tell them – is to seek support before they reach a crisis point.  Pay for therapy and spiritual direction.  Schedule and insist on sabbaticals that don’t involve education or preparation.  And when the words finally come that honestly answer, “How is it with my soul? What is my soul crying out for?” support them in whatever that answer may be.

If you’re a pastor and you’re reading this, you know the sensations you dread.  It’s the rush of adrenaline when the text message alert comes through.  It’s the call that you struggle to answer when you see the caller ID.  It’s ruminating at night.  It’s the exhaustion you feel before you preach.  It’s the numbing out on Sunday night.  Your body is telling you something.  Are you listening?  Hear me: it’s not OK.  The events that have led you to these experiences are not OK.  It’s time we name these experiences for what they are: trauma.



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