At 37, Paul Burgess has been a pastor long enough to know that many people struggle with their mental health, especially during the dark winter months when daylight is in short supply. He also understands the important role ministers and churches can play in providing needed support.
That led him to take advantage of a long winter’s night to promote awareness of mental health needs, and to raise funds for the North Carolina Chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI).
Burgess chose to run through the longest night of the year, completing an ultramarathon of 100 kilometers (62.12 miles) between sundown on December 21 and sunup the next day.
The night of the winter solstice was cold and rainy in eastern North Carolina, but Burgess persevered through 14 hours and 13 minutes of darkness, raising about $8,000 in donations through a GoFundMe page, which remains open.
“This time of year is particularly difficult for many,” Burgess said. “The days are shorter, the nights are longer, depression and suicide rates are higher, and grief is more acute as people miss lost loved ones around the holidays. Rather than being a holy jolly season, many endure it as a long, dark night.”
For his overnight run, Burgess started running from his parents’ home in Johnston County, making stops at four churches in the county that had been significant in his journey. These included his home church of First Baptist in Smithfield, where he interned during divinity school; Sharon Baptist in Smithfield, where he served as interim pastor after graduation; First Baptist of Clayton, where he was associate pastor; and Benson Baptist, his first senior pastor post.
Burgess most recently served as senior pastor of Winter Park Baptist in Wilmington, North Carolina, for better than four years. “If I could have gone to Wilmington, I would have,” he said.
The stops reflected the role that churches have played for Burgess in his own mental health journey. His trek began with a 56-mile route that led from Smithfield to Clayton and back, then Smithfield to Benson and back, adding loops through local neighborhoods to reach the 100K mark.
The importance of friends and family in bolstering mental health was reflected in the physical support that enabled Burgess to complete the run. That began with the Johnston County sheriff’s department, which provided a safety escort through the rainy night.
Friends and colleagues Mike Womble and Lance Rogerson, both associate pastors at Winter Park Baptist, followed in a van loaded with nine boxes of supplies including first aid, food, several changes of dry clothes, and three extra pairs of shoes.
“It was rainy and cold all night,” Burgess said, “so dry clothes were a must.” The support team kept him fed and hydrated, even providing pizza and wings at one point.
Friends accompanied Burgess for parts of the run. Ellie Webb, a long-time friend from First Baptist Smithfield, ran the 13 miles to Clayton with him. Rogerson joined him for 30 miles, more than a marathon. Others ran shorter distances.
As the long night drew to an end and the sun was rising, Burgess’s wife Eliza, their two sons, his parents, and other members of the team joined Burgess to walk the final 100 yards of the 62.12-mile effort.
Burgess had not run that distance before, though he had done three marathons, several half-marathons, and a half Ironman race.
In January, Burgess begins a new tenure as pastor of University Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, where he did his undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina.
He earned a Master of Divinity degree at Campbell University Divinity School before returning for Doctor of Ministry studies, basing his project on issues related to pastoral vulnerability. Burgess believes pastors can help their congregations by being willing to share their own struggles in appropriate ways.
Talking openly about mental health issues or bringing exposure in other ways, he contends, can help to de-stigmatize “something that is so common to so many, yet rarely discussed.”
As part of his Doctor of Ministry studies, Burgess developed “The Naked Preacher Podcast.” Two seasons are currently available, with plans for a third. Each episode is based on a conversation with another minister, often focusing on specific mental health issues that ministers face and how they can deal with them in healthy ways.
Both the podcast and the all-night run have provided Burgess a way “to weave my own journey with mental health into something that could help others and maybe make them more comfortable sharing their own stories.”
Presumably, in ways that don’t take all night.