Junius B. Dotson
It was the most embarrassing moment of my life. Within the first minute, I knew something was off. I had preached a thousand sermons before and some while feeling under the weather. This time, at a funeral no less, something was different, something was off. I woke up not feeling well that morning, but a pastor doesn’t get to fall ill when he or she has to minister to a grieving family. As I prepared for the day, I knew I was feeling tired, fatigued, like this was another thing I would just have to power through.
I remember clearly, I was preaching from Psalm 23, talking about valley experiences. The irony, although I didn’t realize it at the time, is that I was approaching a valley of my own. I preached that the Lord provides quiet places and is our shepherd, he leads us by quiet streams and restores our souls. Words of comfort came out of my mouth, but my mind was reeling and fighting to stay present. This grieving family was looking to me for support, much like in my life as a spiritual leader week-in and week-out, and all I wanted to do was be a help to people in need.
I stood in the pulpit, looked at the congregation gathered, and I quickly realized I was not going to make it through the sermon. As I hurried my way through it, looking at this grieving family, in mid-sentence I felt light-headed and disoriented, and then, I went down. The next thing I knew, paramedics were putting me into an ambulance.
On my way to the hospital I felt embarrassed and ashamed, like a failure. I had let down a family and a community that was depending on me. For a long time, whenever I saw that family, the humiliation I felt about that experience would wash over me. What kind of pastor passes out while preaching a funeral? What could be so wrong with me that it would come to such an extreme example of breakdown? When I got to the hospital, the doctors examined me and gave me a diagnosis I had never heard of: I had “extreme fatigue.”
Extreme fatigue. From all outward appearances, things were fine. My new church start, Genesis United Methodist Church, was growing at a rapid pace. We were adding staff to accomplish all the work and ministry to be done. Some of the innovative things our ministry was doing were featured on local news channels. Newspapers were writing about us. We were featured on a segment of the nationally syndicated radio show The Osgood File. Because of all the outward appearances of success of my new church, you would think that I was living on a mountaintop. I was telling everyone who would listen about the great things that were going on at Genesis.
But the news didn’t tell the story of the pressure I had put on myself to keep the ministry going. I didn’t realize it, but I had set such a standard and expectation for myself that there would be no way to maintain that pace of work. I didn’t take time off. I preached every Sunday. I was the spiritual CEO. I was the decision-maker. I was leading this ministry, and that meant 24/7 availability. Outwardly it looked like I was on a mountaintop, and I felt like I was on a mountaintop—for a short while. But then there I was, lying in the back of an ambulance with extreme fatigue. Sadly, what should have a been a red light I treated as a yellow light, slowing down only to assess the situation, but going right back to work at the same pace that would not be sustainable for me or for any one person.
Psalm 23 became a metaphor for the type of shift I would need to make in my own life. I was on a mountaintop, but I was quickly headed toward the valley. At the beginning of Psalm 23 David describes God, telling us who God is. The Lord is my shepherd. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside quiet waters. He refreshes me. He guides me. David is talking about God. But when he gets to his valley, David changes from talking about God and starts talking to God. You are with me. Your rod and staff comfort me. You prepare a table for me. You anoint my head. Your goodness and love will follow me. On the mountaintop it’s easier to talk about God, isn’t it? We shout out that the Lord is good. The Lord has done this for me! But when we find ourselves in the valley, we come face-to-face with God, and our language shifts. We need an intimacy with God deeper than we’ve known before. We need to rehearse to ourselves and say out loud to God, “You are with me, God. You comfort me, God. You defend me, God. You bless me, God.” This is how we take each step through the valley. I had to stop talking about God and start talking right to God.
You might wonder why I would want you to know about my story. Why would I want to share my journey when it means admitting that I don’t have it all together? The reason is because I believe with all my heart that vulnerability and authenticity are the only way to find wholeness in Jesus Christ. We’re not meant to gloss over or skim the surface, pretending our way through life. Jesus invites us to be real with him and with one another. [In the book] are stories of my depression, despair, burnout, and shame. I’m not here to tell you that followers of Jesus will always have big houses, pain-free living, and all the happiness in the world. It’s just not true. I’m not here to tell you that leaders, regardless of the scope of their public platforms, have it all together and never suffer pain, loss, or sadness. I am here to tell you that I believe in the holistic, healing love and salvation in Jesus Christ, who walks with us in the valleys and brings beauty from ash heaps again and again and again. I am here to tell you that I have been on the mountaintops and in the valleys, and I have discovered that we need a reset in our souls. We need to share stories so that others will too. When we’re free to be real, that’s when the real joy comes.
Rev. Junius B. Dotson is the general secretary (CEO) of Discipleship Ministries, an international agency of the United Methodist Church.
Learn more about Soul Reset: Breakdown, Breakthrough, and the Journey to Wholeness at SoulReset.org and experience practical, biblical guidance for wholistic healing through Jesus.
This article is adapted from Soul Reset: Breakdown, Breakthrough, and the Journey to Wholeness by Junius B. Dotson. Copyright © 2019 by the author. Used with permission of Upper Room Books.