Hope for Pastors Who Are Trapped in Depression

LincolnThis past Sunday I preached a message from the book of Job entitled “The Dark Night of the Soul:  The Problem and the Blessings of Depression.”  In this message, we examined the difficult and often neglected subject of depression in the life of believers.  I showed our congregation that Job shows the classic signs in this book of experiencing anxiety and depression.  In this blog post, I would like to extend that conversation to the problem of depression among Pastors.  Specifically, I would like to offer some hope and help for Pastors who are serving the church but who feel trapped in depression.

I understand this problem because I have struggled with depression throughout my life and have been serving in the ministry for over twenty years.  For most of my ministry I have kept my depression a secret — fearful that it would disqualify me from carrying out the call of God on my life.  But a few years ago, I began a journey that has lead me to understand that although depression presents several unique problems it also presents some unique blessings and opportunities.

First, however, let me share some statistics with you that demonstrate just how big of a problem anxiety and depression are among Pastors.  According to a a study conducted by the Schaeffer Institute among those involved in full-time ministry:

  • 50%  feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
  • 80% feel the ministry has negatively affected their family.
  • 70% report battling depression
  • 70% report that they do not have someone they consider a close friend

Obviously, this is one of the most pressing issues facing the clergy in America today.  When I first read these statistics I was both relieved and surprised.  Relieved because for the first time I realized that I was not alone in my struggle and surprised because I talk to Pastors daily and never realized so many were struggling.

The problems created by depression are rather obvious.  Pastors who battle with depression end up feeling isolated, lonely and discouraged.  Often they end up quitting the ministry or worse yet stay in and grow more and more bitter.  Over the past twenty years, I have met dozens of men who once felt the fire of God burning in their soul to preach the Word but who’ve grown despondent and jaded due to depression.  The problems are obvious to everyone, but what we often fail to comprehend is that depression also offers some unique blessings.  

I first began to think about the unique blessings of depression a couple of years ago when I came across an article in The Atlantic magazine detailing Abraham Lincoln’s  struggle with depression.  In that article, Joshua Wolf Shenk discussed Lincoln’s lifelong and public battle with depression.  As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think about how different things are today than they were in Lincoln’s day.  If Lincoln were running today there would be no way he could get elected as a member of town council let alone as President of the United States.  His battle with “melancholy” was far too public for him to be elected in our present political environment.  But Lincoln, thankfully,  lived in a different era — an era when depression was thought to be closely linked with genius.

As Lincoln grew older, Shenk argues that he moved from fearing his melancholy to engaging with it and to eventually transcending it.  Shenk points out that due to his depression, Lincoln was able to see situations with more clarity than others — an phenomenon that researchers have labeled “depressive reality.   This allowed him to come up with creative solutions to the problems of his day.  In addition to these, however, Lincoln’s depression also produced within a sense of humility and determination.  He was not afraid to fail and, in fact, expected to fail more often than he succeeded.  Harriet Beecher Stowe compared him to a wire cable that sways in a storm but holds fast.

As I was reading Shenk’s article a thought occurred to me.  A light bulb went off in my head and it dawned on me that Lincoln would not have been perhaps the greatest President in the history of our nation if he had not been depressed.  Theologically speaking, God has uniquely prepared this man’s personality and psyche for the time and place in which he lived.  But then something even greater popped into my mind — God has made me just the way I am to serve Him.   For years, I had felt embarrassed, ashamed and guilty because I struggle with depression but what if I had been looking at the issue all wrong?  What if my depression was really a gift from God rather than a curse?

Reading that article radically changed the way I looked at depression.  Suddenly, I stopped thinking of depression only in terms of being a curse and started looking at the potential blessings that it might offer.  Now I know that some of you want me to say something along the line of, “and then I got better and was never depressed again.”  We like fairy tales endings where everyone lived happily ever after.  But that’s not what happened.  Recognizing that depression was a blessing from God didn’t make it go away.  In fact, I’ve come to the realization that I will struggle with depression for the rest of my earthly life.  But that does not mean that there isn’t a silver lining.  What I discovered is that as I became more open and honest about my depression, I started to become more effective in the ministry.  Let give you some of the ways that it has helped:

  • I’ve been able to relate to those in my congregation that are also struggling with depression.
  • I’ve been able to minister to other Pastors who are struggling with the same issue.
  • Knowing and accepting that I struggle with anxiety and depression has helped me to balance my tendency to obsess on the worst possible outcome of any scenario.  This has helped me to embrace the kind of creative thinking Lincoln experienced without focusing too much on the darkest possible outcome.

If you are struggling with depression in the ministry let me offer you a couple of pieces of advice.  First, the sooner you come to grips with it the better.  Second, don’t give up.  If you are hurting so bad that you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or entertaining leaving the ministry please call someone and talk to them.  There is hope.  Third, study the issue of depression and learn as much as you can about it.  The more you understand the unique problems and opportunities it presents the better off you’ll be.  Finally, when the time is right share your struggle with others.  Don’t do this before you are ready and before you are able to help to others but when the time is right don’t hesitate to share your struggle.  WARNING: there will be some in your congregation who will criticize you for being so open but don’t let them discourage you from sharing.  Some in your congregation might think they want Superman for a Pastor but what they really need is YOU.  God has uniquely made you and placed you exactly where He wants you to be.  Your depression is not a surprise to Him.  He wants to use it to make an eternal different in your life and in the lives of the people you serve — so engage it and transcend it through the power of the Gospel.

 

 

 

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You’ve got to Pastor the Church You’ve Got

Many years ago I was Pastoring in West Virginia when one Sunday afternoon I got a call Christ Church Stellartonfrom a friend of mine who was Pastoring a church about twenty miles from us.  He started the conversation by saying, “I need your opinion, my deacons came to me after the service this morning and said they needed me to come to a special called meeting tonight.”  Then he asked me a hard question, “Do you think I’m in trouble?”  My response was to ask him some questions, specifically, “Have you done anything different or controversial?”  He then proceeded to tell me that on that particular morning he had decided to institute some changes in the church so that it would be more relevant and effective in reaching people.

Before we move forward let me give you some important information about his church and community.  The church was located in a rural part of West Virginia and was made up mostly of senior adults.  Yet for some reason my Pastor friend had decided that it would be relevant to preach in a pair of shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.  Needless to say, it did not go over very well.  He had made a common mistake — He was trying to Pastor someone else’s church— maybe Rick Warren’s, maybe Don Ho’s but certainly not a rural church in West Virginia.  That brings me to an important point.

As Pastors we must Pastor the church we have while trying to move it to become the church it needs to be.  Read that again, because it is more profound than it might first appear.  We have a duty and a responsibility to cast a God-given vision for what the church needs to become.  Like it or not we live in a ever changing culture and we must constantly find effective ways of presenting the eternal truth of the gospel.  While our message is always the same, our methods will always be changing.  But on the balancing side of that we must keep in mind that we have to Pastor the church we have.  Not someone else’s.  Not the church that we wish we had.  Not the church we hope to become.  The church that we have right in front of us.  That means that we need to be patient and careful in how we institute change.

My friends mistake was twofold.  First, he thought that what was working in Southern California or somewhere else would work in rural West Virginia.  Second, he did not take the time to really learn his community.  This is mistake that my generation of Pastors has been particularly prone to falling into.  We read or hear what someone else is doing and thing that we can get the same results by replicating what they are doing.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We must be missionaries in our communities learning how to effectively present the gospel to the people who we minister to.  Remember, you have to Pastor the church you have while trying to move it to become the church it needs to be.