Burnout's refining fire

An experience of ultimate ministerial distress and its potential positive outcome

Austin Miles is a chaplain and a college instructor in Northern California.

To suddenly find yourself piled up in an ash heap of burnout is, by its nature, a defining moment. It's a significant point in one's life that seems to offer no choices, a place where natural impulse easily takes control.

Whether the burnout arises from the stress of overwork, lack of time for oneself, trying to be too many things to too many people, or callous mistreatment and injustice by others, the symptoms are the same: severe hurt; an intense, growing feeling of hopelessness; betrayal; self-doubt; anger; bitterness; outrage; and often a thundering passion for revenge. I went through it all, and every one of those reactive traits developed rapidly within me.

Not possessing the maturity to assess the lesson that might be learned through the experience and what role my own personality may have played in the events, I automatically chose to retreat instead of regroup, and began to strike out at everyone who had hurt me. I did this publicly, taking the dispute to national television.

I defiantly left the ministry vowing never to return. The worst years of my life followed. My rebellion grew to the point that God found it necessary to send me to the pit, the only place where I could truly hear His voice.

Early experiences

When I first entered the ministry, I had plenty of money and recognition. I was doing most of it in the strength of my own flesh, not really looking to God to guide and empower me. My self-sufficient attitude had blocked me from true usefulness in ministry. I came to the place, without knowing it, of course, where all this had to be stripped away.

When my pride and mutiny would not subside, my wife, Shirley, who had been trying to get me to focus on God instead of people, finally said, "You are like Moses out in the desert. He was kept there for 40 years while God tried to work out something in his life.

"Now if you want to keep wandering around in this desert for 40 years, I will stay with you, but you could make it so much easier for all of us if you would just relinquish your pride and do what it takes to find out exactly what God wants to do with your life." But I continued as I was, and life became meaningless.

I had been in show business and went back to it, finding it empty and unfulfilling. Then there were growing health problems. All the internal conflict was taking its toll, which only increased my anger.

As an outlet, I published a scathing book titled Don't Call Me Brother. It detailed all that had happened to me. The book immediately became a bestseller, creating a furor in the church world, which led to harassment and death threats against me. This only served to turn my anger toward Christians into hatred.

While the book had done well, this had not given me the peace or satisfaction I had expected. Panic attacks became prevalent. The anxiety became unmanageable. Death would have been welcome.

The whole experience seemed to become a merciless boot camp, through which I felt I had to struggle endlessly.

My friends and a funeral

In the midst of the chaos, God had a plan to get me back on track. It involved three men and a poodle!

One of those men, David Balsiger, who was working on the CBS TV special, Ancient Secrets of The Bible, called me after reading my book. He asked me to appear on the special as a skeptic, which I eagerly did. David was a true Christian who treated me with refreshing acceptance, warmth, and respect.

Two other men, Rev. Lee Regier, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Concord, California, and Rev. Rick Hahn of Sebastopol (California)Christian Church, reached out to me with unreserved love when I was at my worst. They showed me profound understanding while exemplifying what a Christian should be.

And my poodle, Deputy, defined what unconditional love really means. This may sound trivial, but for me, during this time, it was not.

It was the unexpected death of Lee Regier, with whom I had formed a close relationship, that turned the tide. Even though I had vowed never to enter a church again, I performed his funeral.

The 500-seat church was packed to overflowing, with people spilling out into the street. This was not just a gathering of people fulfilling a funeral ritual. The people who squeezed in and around the church had each been deeply touched for the good by the life and love of this gentle giant who walked with God. His congregants reflected what kind of man Pastor Lee was. These Christians were not fanatical or hate-filled. They were loving, beautiful people.

The crowd consisted of weeping teenagers, old people, rich people, poor people, a couple of mentally handicapped people, two disabled persons in wheelchairs, an attractive woman on crutches; all had been deeply touched by this pastor. They all felt equal, at home, and loved by him. His departure left an enormous gap, and deep sorrow.

What a loss. Right then, at his funeral, I felt that I had realized the full extent of his value too late.

I got angry. I thought of how I had allowed my bitterness to rob me of the blessings I could have received at the hands of Pastor Lee. I chose my times with him, so I could unload on him all my anger and resentment toward everything he represented, instead of tapping into the wellspring of knowledge and spiritual uplifting that was there for the taking.

Pastor Lee had graciously allowed me to dump these things on him while he continued to love me. He was interested only in my spiritual welfare.

As that service went on, I realized how much I had missed. Oh, I was blessed greatly by knowing him, but I could have enjoyed him more had I not been in a state of blindness, a state that I voluntarily entered.

A perfect example of Christian con duct and responsibility had been presented to me. And unknown to me, God had sent me a mentor and an example to follow.

I vowed then and there that I would return to my calling and seek God unlike any time in my life. I vowed to make peace within myself, a work that I knew would take some major internal housecleaning.

Turning to Shirley, I said, "You may think that I am crazy, but I am going to return to the ministry and God's service."

Human ego and forgiveness

During my time in the pits I had come to the realization that I would have been hard to take in these days of my previous ministry. My attitude had provoked much of the hostility against me. I was full of myself, along with a strong ego, which had carried over from my life in the ego-driven environment of show business.

It is our ego that can't take criticism and causes us to strike back at any perceived slight and to stand up and vigorously defend ourselves. I could identify with St. Augustine who said that he had an uncontrollable lust to vindicate himself.

My ego demanded that I be constantly recognized. This resulted in too much attention being directed my way, which stirred up a lot of resentment among those around me, even my Christian colleagues. That ego had to be tossed out the window. As Oswald Chambers wrote, we must give up all rights to ourselves.

God at work in me

God commanded me to forgive those who had hurt me and to ask for forgiveness. This was the toughest assignment of all, and I had to ask for God's strength and love to attempt to do it. I really had to put myself aside to accomplish this. I traveled to many places to do this personally, and the blessings that resulted surpassed any thing I could have imagined.

I gave away all the money I made from my book, actually more than I earned, to various ministries until I had nothing left in my bank account. I tried, by God's grace, to undo any harm I had caused by my denouncements of the church and religion in general, hoping desperately to reach any soul I may have turned off.

While the attacks and persecution from the church were severe, I now understood how I had managed to bring out the worst in people through my own self-centeredness.

During another attack from an unexpected source, God spoke to me and said that He would not change the problem, but He would change me through the problem.

Then He said, "Through this you will have the opportunity to develop character, humility, and grace. You have never excelled in grace. I will walk with you through this, and if you will obey Me, you will come out the other side in victory and then be truly fit to be My servant. Until you learn what I am trying to teach you, I will keep sending you problems."

Starting over with nothing, not even a favorable reputation due to the stories being circulated about me, I devoted two years to working with the homeless and addicted, preaching, teaching, helping serve food, and cleaning up afterwards.

It was there that I really learned how to preach the Word rather than making a presentation.

I enrolled in college for the first time to begin a degree program, and graduated with honors.

The ministry has been restored, and it is more fruitful than ever. I have never enjoyed it more, and my relationship with God is finally on solid ground.

I have been asked to do a second television series on Ancient Secrets of the Bible for CBS. For this one, I have worked as a researcher, writer, and technical consultant.

I had brought on the burnout because of my lack of focus on God. My own insecurities, precisely because my focus was in the wrong direction, made me appear overbearing and self-centered. The grace that God wanted for me to exhibit was not there.

Yes, I can see I would have been hard to take! This is why I have deliberately not elaborated on what was done to me or by whom. That is all over and buried. Thank God my old self has finally been buried as well; cremated through the flames of burnout. The defining moment became a refining moment.

I have learned that burnout, properly handled, can indeed be a refining fire that allows you to regroup and come forth as gold. Remaining in the smoldering ashes of burnout is to experience hell without much reprieve.

I now urge all who might be in the midst of burnout, and those who may be approaching it, to take charge of it without delay instead of allowing it to take charge.

We need not throw in the towel, or even think of quitting. Instead, we can consider burnout a time of learning and a time for expansion. Dare to examine yourself critically. Be honest with yourself. God is trying to do a new thing in your life through the pressures you are experiencing. Let Him have His way. Consider any trial the beginning of a new miracle.

Let the ashes of burnout return to ashes... dust to dust. Which takes us back to square one, a place and time for a new beginning. Then rise from those ashes with a new purpose, a regrouping, and a new you. With your diploma from God's boot camp, you will be able to experience what real spiritual power is.

The boot camp required of me was tough but essential. It has proved to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I no longer need people's approval or acceptance; I am serving Him on His terms. And my entire ministry today is for me joy unspeakable and full of glory!

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Austin Miles is a chaplain and a college instructor in Northern California.

May 2003

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