My brother’s car sped off down the street. The police officer jumped into his vehicle in pursuit. What started off as a suicide intervention had quickly turned into a high speed car chase. As I sat in shock in the first squad car chasing my brother, our speeds increasing to 80 miles an hour, all I could do was pray. Miraculously, the chase ended without any physical injuries. I didn’t know, though, that this traumatic event would trigger a season of burnout in my life and ministry.
Up until this point, my life had been fairly uneventful. I had just returned home from a year-long ministry internship in England with an increasing sense that I was called to work in the church. Now I was stepping up to help fill in the gap when my young adult pastor relocated to another church. I was also praying about the possibility of entering seminary to be further equipped.
My brother’s depression and suicide attempts disrupted my plans for the year. I assumed that one trip to the hospital and an adjustment of medication would quickly fix his problems. I was wrong. The next six months were a nightmare as I felt powerless to help him deal with his depression.
Within weeks of the first suicide attempt I took on the unhealthy responsibility of being a pastoral support to my parents during this crisis. Meanwhile, I continued to serve as a high school small-group leader and a Bible-study leader for young adults. I worked full-time, and I rarely took time off. In fact, I only took one day off to recover after the car chase. My life was full and busy.
Asking for Help
Then one night I found myself unable to sleep. One night. Two nights. Three. The moment I would lie down, anxiety would flare up. The clock was my enemy, taunting me as the time steadily ticked away until morning. Anxiety plagued me day and night, and my stomach churned in anguish. My exhaustion made even the easiest tasks feel overwhelming. I quickly realized that I needed help. I swallowed my pride and made my first counseling appointment.
In those first few sessions with my counselor I discovered much more than the trauma from my brother’s suicide attempt. I began to see my motivations in life and ministry were separate from the gospel I proclaimed. Like a map, I began to trace my actions down to the beliefs that motivated them.
I realized that I felt that God was disappointed with me. I believed that God only loved me for what I could offer him. Sure, the pocket theologian in my brain knew this was not true, but my life was revealing a different story. I thrived on the illusion of being in control of my life. If I was in control, then no one, not even God, could let me down. I was a mess ready to explode, and my family crisis lit the fuse.
In Jeremiah 17:9, the Lord explains the way of our hearts: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” This passage elicited a sense of relief for me: I must not be the only messy person. It also made me frustrated: Who can understand the heart? I saw the truth of this passage come to life before my very eyes, and I had no idea what to do.
The Lord goes on to say in verse 10, “But I, the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve.” As much as I tried to hide from myself, there was no hiding from my Creator. God, amazingly, was not surprised by my messiness. I came to understand that the messy parts are the very things he loves about me because that’s where the real me resides.
Discovering My True Identity
During a time of retreat, I clearly heard God ask me to step down from all of my ministry roles. I immediately tensed up, which revealed how much my identity was tied to my role as a leader. I heard God’s whisper inviting me to let myself be loved just for me. Thankfully, I said yes.
Over time, my brother stabilized and decided that he wanted to live. I was able to believe that God really did love me for me, not what I did for him. That understanding formed a new foundation in my heart. It was a long process and involved many hours of counseling, spiritual direction, cry sessions with friends, and continual reminders that God really did love me.
From this place of love and humility, I was able to enter back into ministry. While old beliefs still battle to be heard, they don’t hold the same power they once did. Even on days when I fall back into old ways, the Lord calls me back to him. I find regularly practicing times of silence, spiritual direction, retreat, and authentic community keeps me grounded in my true identity—a child of God. As a child loved by God, my call first and foremost is simply to abide in him (John 15:1–11).
Ignatius of Loyola said “all is gift,” meaning that although many circumstances in life are painful and confusing, there’s nothing beyond the grace and redemption of God. I now see that season of burnout as a gift. It’s still a place of pain, and I wouldn’t want to relive the experience. Yet, through that season I was given the opportunity to catch a true glimpse of my complex heart and to be loved by God.
Instead of letting me continue with my own ways, God loved me enough to demolish and rebuild me. As a result, I’ve grown in compassion and my ability to be present with people in pain. Through my experience with pain, my vocation has shifted—I feel called to be a safe place for others to be vulnerable about their own messy life experiences. As a spiritual director and a retreat coordinator, I invite those I interact with to be real with God and to discover that he really does love them.
Sometimes we just need to stop and ask for help from family, friends, or our church community. A spiritual director can help you process through your experience with God and explore the places where your professed theology differs from your practiced theology. Regularly practicing rest through the spiritual disciplines of Sabbath and retreat can also give space for God to confront the pride that so often underlies a frenetic pace of life. We may not naturally abide in Christ, but he is faithful to develop us into the type of people who depend upon him, using whatever means necessary—even trauma.
My brother was recently married, and I can’t help but stand in awe at how God has redeemed our lives. There were countless times when a day like this felt impossible. My burnout began as a traumatic, hopeless experience. It was redeemed into a surprising gift that I never could have fathomed—one that only our God can craft.
Jen Manglos is a lover of beauty and a red head. When not offering spiritual direction or facilitating retreats as part of her work at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, she can be found enjoying a cup of coffee or a flavorful meal with a friend. She blogs regularly on spiritual formation, culture, narrative, creativity, and soul care. Find her on Twitter @jenmanglos.