I Smell Burnt Toast: Sleep, Anxiety and the Exhausted Pastor

3e1d7deRecently, something strange has been happening.  Sometimes when I wake up at night, I smell burnt toast.  I noticed it starting a few months ago. Rarely do I sleep through the night. Often my dogs wake up to go outside or my children cry out needing something.  It doesn’t really bother me to wake up several times a night. My problem is, I can’t easily go back to sleep. I am often wake for an hour or two just thinking about church, sermons and the things our people are going through. If you are an Average Pastor, you know exactly what I mean. I am sure I could take sleep meds but that just masks the problem.  I am awake because I am a pastor.  And sleep medication cannot treat that.

I am not exactly sure why I smell burnt toast.  I have asked Amonda if she smells it.  So far she hasn’t been able to smell it when I do. So I am beginning to wonder if it is medical.  I looked online and some people say that people who are having a stroke often smell burnt toast. I doubt that is my problem. But it is an interesting concept.  When your body is experiencing something traumatic, like a stroke, it can send you signals that there is trouble.  It could manifest in the form of a smell  or a taste in order to tell you something is wrong.  The smell should wake you up to try to figure out what is wrong.  Maybe my body is telling me something?

I do not think it is a coincidence that I smell burnt toast while I am awake at night.  I think my body is trying to tell me something.  It is the reason I am having trouble going back to sleep.  My mind, body and spirit is exhausted.  Being a pastor is more like a burden you bear than a job you work.  It is hard to explain if you are not a pastor. It is a weight of responsibility that you always feel. You feel the pain of your congregation right along side of them.  For me that is 61 families.  Every struggle they go through, I carry with them to some degree. It is a wonderful thing, but it also a heavy thing.

It is really hard to have “good days” as a pastor.  At any one point, even if 51 of the families are doing great, there are 10 families dealing with something traumatic for them.  It could be a job loss, a secret sin, a long-term illness, an addiction or just hard life realities.  Most of these situations are unknown to others, even your leaders, but as average pastors we are right there with them in that trauma.  Even when I feel great about my life personally, there are always others I pastor that I am mourning with at the same time.  Pastors cannot turn off these burdens they are carrying with their members. We cannot clock out from that burden. We never get to feel normal.  I am not complaining. It is just the reality we have to try to live with.

When I try to explain this to people, they often say, “Why don’t you delegate? Let someone else visit that person in the hospital.” That sounds great, but I doesn’t help.  It is fine to have others share the burden of tasks like visiting when I am unable to.  But I cannot turn off the burden just because I am not there. I still carry the burden with the person in need even if I am not there. Being there with them actually helps lift my burden I feel because I know how they are doing.  And when their prayers are answered and their burden is lifted, mine is too.

I am smelling burnt toast.  That burnt toast is me.  My anxiety is high because my burden is heavy and my resources are low.  I think it is my body’s signal to me that I need a break.  I need a vacation. So I am taking one.  Perhaps by getting away, I can unplug from those burdens for a while and recharge my soul.  I will come back stronger. But I assure you, the burden will be there the moment I get back. It will be just as heavy as it was when I left it.  Hopefully I will have more emotional and spiritual resource to carry it again.  Until of course I start to lay awake at night and smell burnt toast again. Maybe I will listen earlier next time.


5 thoughts on “I Smell Burnt Toast: Sleep, Anxiety and the Exhausted Pastor

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I have been smelling burnt toast as well and I think mine is also related to stress and being run down and a sign I need to slow down and relax a bit and not get so caught up with every day stress.


    • Thank you for commenting Alley. I believe that is exactly what that is. You are not the only one. I have between 5-10 hits on this blog per day. Apparently smelling burnt toast is a very common phenomenon.


  2. I smelt new mown hay, burnt grass, burnt toast and then it changed to melted butter every 2-5 minutes for 18 months and then my gastroenterologist suggested taking charcoal tablets and after a week it was hardly noticeable and 2 weeks later it was all gone. The charcoal binds with the bacteria in the gut and the body eliminates it. No more stomach churning smells! Hope this works for all the other people too. Jenny


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