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Depression in pastoral ministry

Yesterday’s USA Today carried the disturbing story of a 42-year old pastor in North Carolina who committed suicide. I was deeply moved as I read about this young man who had apparently come to the end of his hope and, in complete despair, took his own life. Suicide is rare among pastors, the article reports, but many live with depression. Loneliness, isolation and the resistance of congregations to cultural change are cited as primary causes of depression.

The day before, the New York Times ran a piece entitled “Kierkegaard on the Couch,” by Gordon Marino. After reading the piece twice I began to discern the important distinction he makes between depression and despair and Kierkegaard’s concern for the spiritual dimensions of despair.

Then, while chatting online with my friend, Alburn, he pointed me to this interesting article entitled “Stressful jobs that pay badly,” which describes “15 of the most overworked and underpaid professions out there.” Number 10: Minister. According to this piece, 71% of ministers report that their job is stressful.

This was like a perfect storm for me. But the picture is not yet complete. My own personal story is that I serve a congregation that is creative, flexible, open-minded and open-hearted, loving, supportive and fun. They are a group of spiritual pilgrims that genuinely enjoy being on this journey together. And, they love me. How do I know? They tell me. Frequently. It may have escaped your notice that October was Pastor Appreciation Month. For the past five years I have been appreciated by my church family in a way I never imagined possible. This is due primarily to the ministry of one of my dear friends and church elders, Kirsten Salvador. She has the gift of remembering important moments in people’s lives and making them understand that they are treasured.

Last Sabbath, as I was walking up to the front of the church to give my sermon, a video started to play. I am usually aware of everything that’s happening in worship, and this was unexpected. On the screen was a friend and church member – a young lady I baptized about 4 years ago – who currently lives in New Jersey. She thanked me for my ministry in her life. I sat back down. When the video finished, 6-8 other members of the church simply stood where there were and blessed me with words of affirmation for my ministry in their life and in our congregation. I was so overwhelmed that I nearly broke down and wept. Somehow I held it together and gave my sermon, but I’ve been thinking about those words all week. They came at a good time for me.

For the past several months, maybe since January, I’ve struggled. I haven’t wanted to call it depression. I still don’t know what to call it. It isn’t constant and it usually isn’t debilitating, but I don’t feel like myself. It isn’t necessary for me to go into details here, but it has made me think about my friends and colleagues who are pastors.

First of all, I hope you know you are not alone. It isn’t unspiritual to experience depression and despair. In fact, it may be the most spiritual thing you’ve experienced in a long time. You’re aren’t less because of your silent struggles that no one knows about.

Secondly, I wonder how some of you manage in congregations that aren’t as supportive of you as mine is of me. Some of you, I’m sure, serve churches that are downright hostile towards you at times. I, too, have been in that place and know the darkness that can surround you and your family in those times. But even in congregations that are as supportive as mine, pastoral ministry is lonely. The pressures of expectations (notibly our own self-imposed expectations) can be crushing. The challenge of helping congregations make the turn to missional life is daunting on a good day.

To the pastors who are reading this I would just like to say, break the silence. Get with a trusted friend and tell them what you’re going through. Find a counselor to talk to. Even better (and I think Kierkegaard would approve) start a relationship with a Spiritual Director. The goal of all of this is to be attentive to your own soul and how God is at work in your life. In our Prozac nation we have lost the art of being attentive to our souls. It may be frightening and Prozac may be exactly the help you need, but ignoring what’s going on isn’t healthy. It might not end like our fallen colleague in North Carolina, but it could. Jesus isn’t asking that of you.

To the non-pastors reading this who have a pastor in your life, please take care of your pastor. You may think he doesn’t do anything all week long. You might think her sermons are lacking depth. You might not agree with his ideas for how the church should change. But before you decide, do your pastor a favor. Take her to lunch. Invite him to your house to talk. No agenda. Just to talk. Find out what’s going on in his life. Ask her what stresses and pressures she feels. Listen not only for what he says, but what he doesn’t say. He’s not going to come right out and tell you that he’s at the end of his rope and thinking of giving up. That’s not what pastors do. We tell you that everything is fine and that “God is good, all the time!” Which, of course, is true, but doesn’t lessen the fact that God’s goodness is all but imperceptible at times, even to us.

The dirty little secret is that pastors are human beings, too, with struggles more or less just like yours. If your pastor is being honest with you he will tell you that he feels desperately alone most of the time. Yes, he may have close friends. You may see him laughing a lot. You may see him with his family looking like they have it all put together. But trust me: it’s not as pretty as it looks. And your pastor may not tell you much, but just know that your encouragement may be the only thing that gets her through the next week.

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