Recent research has suggested that pastors/clergy suffer from depression at a rate higher than most Americans. This has always been mere information for me; something I knew was probably true but couldn’t speak to with any real knowledge. Sure, I had been sad plenty of times, and even experienced a season of prolonged melancholy after my dad died. But that was more logical sadness, not something I would have qualified as “depression.” The truth was I didn’t really know depression, not personally. Not, that is, until this year.
It was a brand new experience for me. It has been waging war on me for months. I didn’t want to wake up. I didn’t want to go to work. I didn’t want to see people or talk to people. I didn’t want to read or write or laugh or play. Life itself was beginning to feel heavy. A plethora of insecurities about myself began to come to the surface. They began to tempt me with unhealthy thoughts, patterns, and ideas. Suddenly, I found myself in a very different place. A place completely unfamiliar to me. A place that scared me. So, I called my former mentor looking for help.
“I am surprised it took this long,” he said. They weren’t the words I expected to hear and yet they were somehow oddly comforting. Feelings like this are often part of the pastor’s emotional cycles, he told me. He began to reassure me that I wasn’t crazy or broken, nor was I alone. The research was right: pastors get depressed too. There’s another important truth as well: there’s hope and help for pastors who struggle with depression.
As I have waged war against my own depression for the last several months I am learning several important truths. These are truths I’d like to share with my brothers and sisters in Christian ministry. There are two ways to read these truths: (1) As simplistic attempts to explain highly complex problems. The reality is that many people have simplistic answers to emotional and mental exhaustion. Often these answers are cliché, trite, and reductionist. They offer no real comfort and misunderstand the complexity of a person’s struggle. It is not my intention to do that in sharing my experience. (2) These can be read as an attempt to offer some hope and encouragement. What follows is merely my own experience. I do not presume that these truths will impact everyone the same way. We are all different, and while all of God’s truths are good for all of us, His truths impact each of us differently at different times in life. My goal then, is rather simple: to encourage you by my experience that there is some hope and some help that can be found. Depression doesn’t necessarily just go away. Mine certainly hasn’t. It doesn’t just stop. But we can learn to live in the midst of it with eyes fixed on God, and as such find some hope and encouragement. To that end, let me share what has helped me. I will divide my helps into two categories. For lack of better terminology, I will call them Spiritual Counsel and Practical Counsel. My discussion, then, will attempt to integrate both forms of counsel as a means of promoting encouragement and hope.
First, don’t immediately draw conclusions about causation. When I first began to struggle back in January I had loads of theories about what was wrong. At first they were all physical: sleep patterns, diet, exercise routines. But then I noticed more mental exhaustion, cynicism, and apathy settling in. So I concluded it was a sin issue. Even after making changes to my devotional life, however, I felt little relief. It’s comforting to think we know the cause of our problems. If we know the cause, we reason, then we can find the cure and resolve the issue. Depression, however, is complex. It may have many causes. They can be biological, social, or spiritual. It can be caused by others, by ourselves, by our circumstances, by Satan. Determining the cause isn’t easy and reductionist explanations may actually hurt us in the long run. Counselor Ed Welch comments:
The problem with immediately opting for a medical explanation is that, once the decision is made, every other perspective seems superficial or irrelevant. Why, for example, would you bother considering issues raised by personal suffering when a pill might provide relief? (Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, 31)
The truth is that causation is probably far more complex than a single issue. It is more likely that the causes are multiple. Again, Welch says:
When applied to depression, this teaching suggests that our quest to find one specific cause could be too narrow. For example, depression might have a physical cause, but that doesn’t exhaust the list of other possible contributions. It may simultaneously be a consequence of spiritual warfare, the sin of other people, and our own sin. And it is always under the oversight of the sovereign God. (42)
I am learning not to draw too rash a conclusion about my depression. The way I feel is complex, therefore it is likely that the roots of its birth are complex too. Simple answers might make us feel temporarily better, but they won’t really help us in the long run.
Second, evaluate what you are experiencing. Brad Hambrick has developed a phenomenal evaluative tool to help us put into words exactly what we are experiencing. Depression is overwhelming, and that overwhelming feeling can make certain experiences seem more powerful, influential, and pressing than they really are. The overwhelming feeling of depression can keep us off-balance, paralyzed, and uncertain. Evaluating what we are experiencing can help us to get a better handle on our depression, understand it, and speak truth to certain feelings. For example, by evaluating myself I came to see how much of my depression related to spiritual doubts. So many thoughts go through my head in a day it would have been hard to see the spiritual concentration without evaluating my experience. Now, I am attuned to spiritual doubts as they arise.
Third, speak to your feelings. Our emotions are powerful, but they are also contaminated by sin. I need to remind myself in the midst of emotional exhaustion and pain that my feelings do not always tell me the truth. God’s Word is true even when I don’t feel its truth. When my emotions and God’s Word come into conflict, God’s Word wins. Every. Single. Time. So I need to speak to myself more than I listen When my depression says, “God doesn’t care about you,” I know truth that I can speak back to it: for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything (1 John 3:20). The inclination of depression is passivity. I must wrestle against this passivity with Scriptural truth. Fight to believe what is so hard to believe.
Fourth, speak about your experience. In some ways that what this article is: an effort to be honest about my struggle. Depression isolates us. We need to invite others into our suffering and allow them to help us bear up under this burden (Gal. 6:2). This can be particularly hard for pastors, and we must recognize that not every congregation can handle this information in a healthy way. Yet, nonetheless, pastors need people to whom they can go for counsel, encouragement, or simply a listening ear. I am so thankful for friends and fellow elders who have continued to love me, pray for me, and encourage me through this difficult season. It has been a difference maker at various points over the last 6 months.
Fifth and finally, don’t excuse disobedience. Even if our depression is not caused by sin it can still tempt us towards sin. When the pain is unending, and seemingly meaningless (though I don’t think it really is meaningless), it can be tempting to surrender to temptation. When we are emotionally, spiritually, and mentally exhausted it is hard to fight temptation. Yet, God does not excuse our sin because we are depressed. I have had to wrestle with my own disobedience in the midst of this hardship, and while it feels so discouraging to do that there is actually a great deal of relief that comes as I repent and seek help in demonstrating the fruit of repentance. There are no excuses for sin. The words of Paul ring true even in depression:
No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Cor. 10:13)
Stick close to the Scriptures, stick close to the church, force yourself to be in accountability, to seek counsel, to correct sinful behaviors. Depression is likely to worsen as sinful indulgences abound. And while depression won’t just go away as you seek obedience, you may yet grow and honor the Lord even in the midst of it.
I have counseled many people through this experience, but there is something quite different about being in the midst of it. Some days are good, and some days are horrible, but I am striving to be always hopeful in the Lord. I want to be able to say with the Psalmist: I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken (Ps. 16:8). It’s my prayer that all pastors who struggle this way can express such hope.