Depression is something that sometimes has a stigma it shouldn’t have, especially when it comes to ministry. I want to write about my journey with it, in the hope that it might be of value to other people struggling with depression themselves, or supporting someone else who is…
Pastoral ministry involves some incredible highs and some deep lows.
People take significant steps in their faith, they get baptised, and you feel on top of the world. You’re giving your life to something meaningful. People leave the church, or make poor decisions, and it hurts. You go into ministry thinking you’re ready for all of this. You’re emotionally equipped for the highs and the lows. You’re theologically equipped to know you can’t save the world yourself.
This was true for me, until it wasn’t.
I had always taken the highs and lows of ministry in my stride. But one day, something I’d never experienced before happened to me; I just couldn’t bounce back. I got low and stayed there. I remember it well. That tense, sad, raw feeling you get after something horrible happens; I felt that, and kept feeling it, all the time.
The symptoms carried on for about a month. The chronic sadness, the lack of energy, the inability to concentrate. Something silly would happen, like the printer malfunctioning, and it wiped me for the rest of the day. I couldn’t sleep, and I had no appetite. I felt nauseous, and experienced regular headaches. My wife would ask me what I wanted for dinner and I felt too overwhelmed to answer. I felt on the verge of crying all the time, and frequently did.
Finally, with a bit of encouragement, I worked up the courage to see a doctor. I told him about my symptoms, and that it felt like my body was doing all of this of its own accord; rebelling against what my brain wanted it to do. I didn’t know how to stop it.
“I’m not usually an emotional person,” I said, weeping. He told me I was clinically depressed, and put me on anti-depressants for most of that year.
…The good news is, I made it out of the woods. The medication gave me time and space to breathe, and rebuild my emotional energy. I avoided the full-blown burnout that many pastors experience. Of course, for most people, depression is not something you “defeat”, only to move on with your life. I know that it’s something I will always need to be aware of, and something which could reoccur. But, I learnt a lot about myself through the experience, which I hope will help me to cope in a healthier way in the future.
There is an unfortunate stigma attached to depression (and to much mental illness).
In church circles, people spiritualise their response to it far too quickly. At their worst, people attribute depression to demonic influence. That kind of thinking can lead people who have depression to respond with, “If I have enough faith it will pass.”
I’ve seen equally appalling responses in the secular world. People can act like seeing a doctor or taking medication is a sign of weakness, as if you should just be able to tough it out.
Both of those responses are rubbish, and that needs to be said loud and clear. If you are struggling with depression, it’s okay to ask for for help. Far from being weak, talking to someone about it takes bravery.
It’s also okay to be a pastor and to need help. It’s not a sign of failure. In fact, going through this kind of deep water might give you something to minister out of, and a way of helping others, that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
What I’ve learned
There are things you can think you know, but experience can prove otherwise.
Before I was diagnosed with depression, I would have said that my identity was not tied up in being a pastor. But it was. I took ministry challenges personally.
Coming face to face with the prospect of literally being too unwell to pastor had a strangely freeing effect. I “knew” that I couldn’t change hearts, and that it was God who makes things grow, but I’ve lived that truth out a little more now. My identity isn’t as tied up with ministry “success” as it was. I genuinely want to be faithful to God’s call on my life, and to trust him with the rest. If I fall on my face, that’s alright. There are other things I can do.
I think going through depression has made me a bit braver. As close to a cliche as this might sound, I’m happier to be myself. I’m more willing not to be the polite, buttoned up pastor. I want to talk about issues like this one.
As far as these things go, my experience was a fairly mild one. I didn’t burn out or spend a year in bed. I was diagnosed with depression, had a difficult 2-3 month period, then another 5 or 6 months of slowly replenishing my reserves, and I’m here to tell the tale. I’m grateful for that.
I’m even more grateful that I had some incredibly wise and supportive mentors and friends to lean on, and to help me gain some perspective. My wife was incredible, and those in my church family who knew were supportive and most importantly, didn’t freak out.
That’s probably one of the more helpful things you can do: don’t freak out. I think it’s important for those of us in churches to know that pastoral leaders are not perfect, or invulnerable. As Christians I think it’s important for us to know that faith does not mean we’ll avoid these kinds of things. And that’s okay – we need to stop pretending we have it all together.
Trite “solutions” don’t help. Listening, being there for one another, and valuing biblical truth does.
If you find yourself struggling with depression (or any other mental illness), find a safe person and talk to them about it. See a doctor. It won’t make you weird, or weak. You will be stronger for having gone through these waters.
If I can offer you any hope it would be this… it’s a strange thing to say, but Jesus used my depression. He can use yours.