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Margie Bryce

Your leadership coach
and self-care advocate

116: Back from Burnout ENCORE: Rev. Tony Miltenberger

The Crabby Pastor
The Crabby Pastor
116: Back from Burnout ENCORE: Rev. Tony Miltenberger
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While on sabbatical (yes, I’m taking my own advice), we are replaying podcasts where our brave guests tell their journey into and out of burnout. You won’t want to miss these as there’s always something to learn from others, right? 

This is the story that Rev. Tony Miltenberger shared with me and it’s one where he draws parallels with his demanding time in the Army Reserves. Our conversation underscores the dangers of righteous indignation in ministry and the importance of balancing personal responsibilities to avoid losing oneself in the mission.

For ministry leaders seeking practical advice to prevent burnout and build emotionally healthy practices, this episode is a goldmine. Tony offers invaluable insights on navigating the recovery process, the role of marriage and personal counseling, and the creation of life-giving rhythms inspired by Pete Scazzero. We also talk about the crucial need for pastors to carve out personal spiritual renewal time, independent of their ministry duties. Learn from Tony’s experiences as he highlights how genuine disciple-making can transform your ministry and ensure you thrive both personally and professionally. Tune in for a heartfelt discussion packed with strategies to help you cultivate a sustainable and fulfilling ministry life.

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Transcript

Margie: 0:01

Hey there, Margie Bryce here bringing you the Crabby Pastor podcast, and I don’t think you’re going to be too surprised to know that it’s too easy today to become the Crabby Pastor. Our time together will give you food for thought to help you be the ministry leader fully surrendered to God’s purposes and living into whatever it takes to get you there and keep you there. So we’re talking about sustainability in ministry. We are here today with Reverend Tony Miltenberger and I am going to let Tony tell us exactly what he’s up to these days. He is not in a pastoral capacity, yet very active in ministry. So tell us, tony, about what it is you’re up to.Tony : 0:58

Well, thank you so much for having me on the show today. It’s a real treat to be here. I’ll tell you that I was in a local church for just over 10 years and now I work for a 501c3 nonprofit called Spirit and Truth, where we walk alongside and equip the local church in areas of disciple-making, evangelism and leaning into the power of the Holy Spirit. So I get to travel all over the country and talk to church leaders and pastors about disciple-making. I also get to create content for disciple making and I blog a little bit we have a sub stack and then also record two podcasts one called the Reclamation Podcast, the other one is called the Practitioners Podcast. Both of them are all about Jesus style disciple making and what that looks like.Margie: 1:43

Okay, and you’re kind of crazy about disciple making, aren’t you?Tony : 1:48

It’s my passion, it’s what wakes me up at night, gets me thinking. I think far too often we sell short the idea of disciple making and the fullness of life with Christ that comes with disciple making, and for the last couple of decades the church has done not a great job at teaching people to follow Jesus, but instead teaching them how to go to church, and that little nuance change could change everything.Margie: 2:12

Yeah, we’re supposed to be disciple making factories. I think I read somewhere once and that has kind of lost its steam a little bit, I don’t yeah, so hopefully recapturing that will be a huge, huge plus. So one thing I do want to do up front, because I always seem to forget this, and I had somebody graphically remind me they said the big disappointment for them they said this at the end of the interview was that I, here I am, I’m on the Krabby Pastor podcast and you never asked me what makes me Krabby. So before I forget to do that, I want to ask you, tony, what makes you Krabby and what do you do about that?Tony : 2:58

In life or in pastoring? Let me ask that differently.Margie: 3:02

Oh, all right, We’ll let you off the hook and just say ministry related.Tony : 3:08

Ministry related. What makes me most crabby is when people see the church as a place to be a consumer and not an owner. So when people come in and complain about things like worship times or music or volume and all of a sudden they’re just resorted to the idea that they’re a consumer of the ministry and not an owner of God’s mission.Margie: 3:39

And that will do it right yeah.Tony : 3:43

And the only thing I know how to do after that is to pray, because it’s really hard to get someone who’s seen themselves as a consumer their whole life to become an owner in one statement. So pray and then get close to him for disciple making.Margie: 3:57

Yes, yes, great, great, well good, thank you. I didn’t want to forget to ask you that, since you are on the Krabby Pastor podcast. But the reason I asked you on here is because you have it sounds kind of strange to say a great burnout story. Just, I don’t know, that feels a little irreverent. I don’t mean to be irreverent this time, but what I wanted to ask you about then is your role when you were in pastoral ministry and your burnout journey.Tony : 4:34

Yeah. So I think the best place to start is to know that my ministry career started in the Army Reserves. So I was a chaplain’s assistant in the Army Reserve and I got to travel around the world helping soldiers connect with God. And so I did that and it was great and I really struggled to find my identity and, like so many people, after a deployment I was in Kuwait from 04 to 05. I went and started bouncing around jobs and not sure that I could do ministry, and then in 2011, I jumped into ministry full-time at a very large United Methodist Church called Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church and I was the director of adult education and then eventually made my way up to being a pastor in the Methodist Church as a licensed local pastor and became pastor of adult discipleship, and it was in that role that I really began to experience burnout. But I want to be clear it’s not burnout because I was so overworked. It’s burnout because I lost myself in the process.Margie: 5:53

Hmm, and what did that look like?Tony : 5:59

Well, this may sound funny to a lot of people, but the local church is the closest thing I ever found to the army, and so the local church is like the army in the way that it connects with what we call the warrior ethos, which is I will always place the mission first, I will never accept defeat and I will never leave a fallen comrade. So if you take someone who’s kind of an extremist like myself or someone who’s all in on the mission like myself, and you put them in the local church, what you will quickly find is that there is always work to be done. There’s always work to be done, and this is the most beautiful part. I don’t know if all your pastors that you’ve had on talk about this, but there’s something beautiful about righteous indignation when it comes to the work that you’re doing right. So you can blow off your family, you can blow off your responsibilities, you can blow off all the things that go with a Christian life, because you’re working for the church and no one bats an eye.Tony : 7:04

Another way to say it comparison to the army. My wife and I found out we were pregnant after I had been home on deployment, and so I missed the first trimester for pregnancy because I was still on deployment. And I always tell guys that if you can miss the first trimester of a because I was still on deployment, and I always tell guys that if you can miss the first trimester of a pregnancy and blame it on the global war on terror, that’s a really good thing.Tony : 7:25

I suppose, yeah, it’s kind of funny, right, but the same thing is actually true with the church that you can blow off your family for the sake of the mission of the church, even though that’s not what God desires of us. And actually that’s what happened to me and that really caused a lot of tension in my marriage and it caused a lot of tension just in my life.Margie: 7:47

Right, Well, I thought initially you were going to go with be all you can be. I actually had a pastor and he was an amazing pastor. He was saying that years before that became what is it the army slogan or whatever, but he meant be all you can be in Christ. So he was trying to tie our identity that way. However, it sounds like your identity was tied to the mission and in the church, the mission is important, what we’re about is important, but you took it to a different level.Tony : 8:25

Well, so here’s the thing right when I began to idolize the mission and the work of the church, I lost sight of who Jesus really was for me. And so in my case and this is an extreme case I’m aware of I had three kids all under the age of 10, two boys and a princess. My family life at home was rough because I was never there, and eventually that idea of trying to figure out who I was as a pastor, serving all the people, trying to keep everyone happy it, led me to a really, just, really, really dark place.Margie: 9:09

Yeah, I’ve heard this story before. You know, I’m not minimizing yours at all, but I have heard this before. It’s forsaking everything for the mission and just ignoring the family life around you, the people God has placed close to you, and not just ignoring it like in a mean way, but setting it aside and going all in for the mission for the sake of Jesus, you know, because what it all depends just on you. I’m being tongue in cheek.Tony : 9:44

Sure, of course, of course. But that’s a pretty accurate description of how I felt. And the funny part is and I can see this now from the hindsight is the resentment of my wife’s frustration was part of this buildup for me. So here I am, serving in the church, I’m doing all these amazing things for the Lord, I’m leading. At that point in time we had 120 life groups and so I’m leading 120 life group leaders. There’s thousands of people.Tony : 10:13

Everyone is so excited about what God is doing through discipleship in the church and there was one particular individual, a staff member, and her and I just became really close and we’re working on the mission together. We’re working on the mission together. My wife is not supporting me. From my perspective, you know, in hindsight now I can see that that’s not actually the case, but in the moment you couldn’t convince me that my wife was being supportive of what God had called me to. So look at this perfect storm kind of forming A guy who’s taken his identity and he’s put it all in his work, a wife who’s really struggling with three young kids One of them still even has the new car smell and then a co-worker who I become inappropriately close to and it led me right into an emotional affair and it almost cost me my marriage.Margie: 11:07

Yeah, that was. My next question is because I think you’re still married to the same person, right? Yes, yeah.Tony : 11:18

And honestly, there was another pastor on the team when I was in the midst of this emotional affair who saved my life and it was probably the bravest thing that anyone’s ever done for me.Tony : 11:33

And one thing that the Methodist church has always been really good about is encouraging community. So as I was becoming a pastor, I had this kind of group of guys, guy pastors, who I was close with. Well, one of them had become especially close, a dear friend of mine, james Keith Posey, and James Keith and I were in his office and I felt God kind of compel me to tell him what was going on. And I knew what I was doing was wrong, was sinful, because there’s nothing in God’s word that would ever indicate that God wants me to go against my marital vows, even though in my head I can justify it Like hey, I hadn’t touched her. Like you know, we were texting all the time, we were calling all the time, but for the most part I blamed it all on the work of the Lord and even though that was an inaccurate description of what I was doing, right, you can’t live in sin and do God’s work.Margie: 12:29

And blame Jesus for it.Tony : 12:31

right yeah, right yeah and so james keith, my dear friend, I said, hey, I want you to know that I’m. I’ve got a bad situation going on with this girl, like I’m not sure what I’m gonna do. I need to end it, but I’m just having a really hard time and we work together and man, she’s just really. She’s really a nice human, you know and, and I enjoy being around her and she brings me joy and like all these kind of lies that I had told myself. And he looked at me, deadpan, and he said, tony, I’m going to help you. And I was like, great, you’re going to go talk to her and let her know that we can’t be friends anymore. And he said, no, if you don’t tell your wife today, I’m going to tell her tomorrow.Margie: 13:19

Wow, that did take courage, definitely, and he was definitely a good friend to you. Maybe it didn’t feel like it exactly at that moment, but he was definitely a good friend to you.Tony : 13:32

Yeah, the thing is is it’s oftentimes in the moment. It’s hard to see that my judgment couldn’t be trusted at the time, and I would say this to any pastor that’s listening when you’re in the midst of burnout, when you’re in the midst of a downward spiral, the person in the mirror is not someone whose advice can be taken seriously, because if you can’t see God clearly, you surely cannot see the situation clearly. And that’s also why I think, when God designed us, we were never designed to do ministry alone. That following Jesus, as I like to say, is a team sport.Margie: 14:21

Hey, Margie Bryce here and I have something free for you.Margie: 14:23

If you are unsure of what your mindset is when it comes to self-care, if you know you should do self-care but you’re just not sure how to get that rolling, how to get started, I have a free ebook for you and it is about radical self care and it will get you started thinking about it and has lots of helpful information. Actually, what it is, more than anything else, is a journal style kind of piece that will help you work through the process of self evaluation so you get a sense of where you are with self care. So, to get this free ebook, I’m going to put a link in the show notes and you can access it from there and it can help you get started on the self care that you know you should be doing anyway and get you started maybe on taking some definitive action to ensure that you have the sustainability necessary to go the distance with God, with God. So your burnout led you into a vulnerability and a situation that you then had to find a way out of. Talk to us some about that.Tony : 15:51

Yeah, the reality is the burnout had just taken me off the rails, and so that night I went home and told my wife what was going on, and the next day we made a plan to go in and tell the senior pastor. I was an associate pastor at the time and we had to confess to the senior pastor what was going on, and by God’s grace and his grace I didn’t get fired, because certainly it would have been within his rights. I was in a sinful, inappropriate relationship, even though we hadn’t touched each other physically, emotionally we were pretty well intertwined. And then the next year of my life was spent digging out of burnout and digging out of the sin and digging into creating new rhythms and guardrails that would give me the ability to do God’s work in a healthy way.Margie: 16:44

And talk to us some about some of what that entailed the digging out.Tony : 16:50

Lots of marriage counseling, lots of marriage counseling, lots of my own counseling. I’m now, gosh, almost 10 years removed from that and I still see a counselor once a month, even if even if I don’t have anything urgent to talk about, I treat it like an oil change. The other thing is is marriage counseling, personal counseling and then marriage retreats. So we really needed to begin to reform the foundation of our marriage at that point in time, 10, 10 and a half, almost 11 years in, so that was an important part of the healing process for us is creating new ideas, new rhythms, new boundaries on, and what that would look like.Tony : 17:38

You know, I don’t think anyone wakes up one day and says, man, I want to fall into burnout, or when, I want to fall into sin, or I want to fall into a place that could potentially ruin my ministry. What ends up happening is is we get out of the disciplines that keep us in a healthy place, and so discipline, you know, as the Hebrews reminds us, never feels pleasant at the time I think this is Hebrews 12, but it levels the path in front of us, and so oftentimes we feel like I felt like that I was in burnout because the path wasn’t level. I was going up a hill that I couldn’t get my footing on, and discipline is one of the ways that I really believe that creates a level path.Margie: 18:23

So how would you say that that experience informs how you do ministry today?Tony : 18:31

I would say that everything is done differently now because of that experience, and so I have different guardrails, I have different rules about how I’m close with people of the opposite sex. I have rules about my personal devotions. I have rules about, like, how I approach the word and prayer and, just honestly, the importance of ministry in general. When you risk losing your entire family, ministry doesn’t seem that important and I think, by God’s grace, I’ve been able to keep that perspective over the years. Now I also have a really strict kind of rule of life, and I borrowed this from Pete Scazzaro Emotionally Healthy, spiritually. I’m sure you’re familiar with it.Tony : 19:14

It’s that rule of life has really helped formed my practices. So I also learned that don’t negotiate on your schedule when you’re feeling rather emotional, right? When you’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired. In the recovery world we call that halt right. So don’t make a decision about ministry when you’re hungry, angry, lonely or tired.Margie: 19:37

Right, well, say, can you go back? Let’s circle back for just a second for our listeners that may not be aware or in touch with the Pete Scazzaro rule of life.Tony : 19:50

Yeah, it’s kind of this idea that we create boundaries for the things that we value and are important for us. So the rule of life is like hey, I have a rule around work, I have a rule around physical, I have a rule around spiritual and emotional, and then I have a rule around my family. So one of the things in my rule of life is that I won’t work more than three nights a week. So, no matter what, I don’t work more than three nights a week. I go to the gym three to five times a week, I go to my therapist once a month, I do devotionals every day and I pray over my wife every night.Margie: 20:28

Nice, nice. What would you say then to our listeners? That is maybe a warning sign that burnout is in the process, in the making. Can you offer us any identifiers of that? Or times that okay, if this is going down, if I’m feeling this way, if I’m looking at life this way?Tony : 20:59

this way, if I’m looking at life this way, I’m probably heading down, not the best path. Yeah, I would say that when your identity becomes something that you think that you can strive after, right. So for me, burnout is often goes hand in glove with striving. So if I think that I can chase down my identity, right, If my identity is my work, if my identity is any of those things, then I know that I’m already in a really bad place, you know. And that bad place is not going to, it’s going to spiral me out of control eventually. So I would tell you to pause, take a look around, ask yourself have you become your job? And if the answer is yes, you’re on a one-way path to burnout.Margie: 21:42

Right, right, and technically speaking, you know, as ministry leaders it’s not really a job per se, but it’s very easy to get caught up in that. But it’s a vocation and a calling, and nowhere in scripture do we see Jesus. It says Jesus is booked like a lunatic to Bethany. I mean, you just don’t see that kind of thing we have in North American Christianity. I’ll speak to that point that we are the ones that tend to produce the type A overdriven nickels. Noses are the things that matter and my identity is tied to my job performance. Right, and ministry doesn’t function like that. Yet the challenge is majority of churches are 75 or fewer people in North America right now, unless you have the fortune of living down the street from Omega, something which, for the smaller church pastors, can be a challenge and a pressure for them to do more and more and more and more.Tony : 22:54

Yeah, performance-based rewards in the church world feel exactly the opposite of what Jesus would want.Margie: 23:02

Yeah, you caught the most fish, so you win the prize.Tony : 23:07

Well, I often tell pastors now when I talk to them about disciple-making if Jesus was in our churches today, we would fire him, because he was really rather exclusive in the people that he poured into. He was inclusive in serving everyone, but he was exclusive in who we spent time with and what that looks like. If you said, hey, for the next three years I’m only going to hang out with 12 guys and three of them are going to be extra close. Everybody else, I’m just going to kind of pop by and do this thing here, this thing there. I’m not going to go to any committee meetings and I’m not going to bow down to the cultural idols that already exist in the church. I’m pretty sure no one would survive.Margie: 23:49

According to the institutional, that’s right. The church institutions, pressures, and and heaven forbid, you didn’t even have to fill out any paperwork, did you? No reports, no annual reports and all that.Tony : 24:03

That’s 100% right.Margie: 24:04

Yeah, the institutional aspect of the church has really put a whole other level of pressure on pastors. And then they start running according to that pressure, not according to the pace and load that Jesus asks us. And then the next thing you know, you’re in a place that you never intended to be in. You’re vulnerable in a way that you never expected to be. So that’s some of what I’ve seen, heard and all that, and I’ve experienced burnout not exactly in the same way that you did, but burnout nonetheless where I was just no good to nobody for a period of time, where it’s like don’t even follow me to the corner store.Tony : 24:51

Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s right. No one wakes up one day and says, man, I really want to get burned out. What we end up doing is we end up shortcutting the lordship of Jesus.Margie: 25:03

Oh, say more about that. That’s a pretty big statement.Tony : 25:08

Well, it’s kind of summarizing. What you were just saying is that if I think that I’m the savior of the church, then how can Jesus be lord of my life? If I think that everyone’s here to see me and I have something to do with attendance, then how can Jesus be Lord of my life? But if we’re brave enough to just focus on Jesus and keep Jesus in the heart of what we’re trying to do, I think we’ll end up seeing some pretty incredible results.Margie: 25:41

Right? Well, I’m going to close our session a little bit here, head towards that and just ask you what would be your top couple of things that you would want to say to a pastor who may be experiencing burnout or thinks they might be. What would you say to them right now?Tony : 26:00

I believe that every pastor needs a counselor. Whether that counselor is professional or if it’s a coach or if it’s just there, has to be someone where you can unload the crazy parts of your brain into. So that would be the first thing I would say. The second thing I would say is no one from your church, no matter what church you serve, no matter how long you’ve been there, are going to be the people that stand beside you on your deathbed.Tony : 26:28

That’s going to be your family, that’s going to be your wife and kids, or your husband and kids, so don’t prioritize strangers over the people who are going to walk with you for the rest of your life, and so those would probably be the areas where I would tell people to start. And then the last thing is something that I’ve noticed a lot is so many pastors I hear and talk to are so busy doing ministry they’re not letting Jesus minister to them. Doing ministry, they’re not letting Jesus minister to them. So find time in the stillness of the morning or the stillness of the night to be intentional with your devotional time to Jesus and make sure that you’re looking at scripture. That’s not related to something you have to preach on.Margie: 27:13

Yes, the two for one. Don’t do the two for one well. Thank you so much, tony, for sharing with us, for being brave. I’m interviewing a few pastors that have come back from burnout during this month and I appreciate your vulnerability to share with us, so thank you so much for joining us well.Tony : 27:36

Thank you for having me and for the ministry you’re doing to so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the US.Margie: 27:42

Well, you’re welcome and we’ll talk again, I’m sure, soon and at some point. Hey, thanks for listening. It is my deep desire and passion to champion issues of sustainability in ministry and for your life, so I’m here to help. I stepped back from pastoral ministry and I feel called to help ministry leaders create and cultivate sustainability in their lives so that they can go the distance with God and whatever plans that God has for you. I would love to help, I would consider it an honor and, in all things, make sure you connect to these sustainability practices you know, so that you don’t become the Crabby pastor.

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