I felt like dying. I couldn’t explain it, but I just wanted Jesus to let me die. The church I was pastoring had recently become debt free, I had a wonderful wife and three amazing kids and my staff was incredible. Yet in spite of these wonderful things I would find myself fantasizing about being in a fatal car accident or choking to death on a large bite of steak. One night I actually bought some sleeping pills and contemplated taking all of them. I was deeply depressed and while I talked about it some, I was reluctant to open up about the true extent of my depression. Thankfully, a lot has changed and I’m not there today.
I’m sharing this with you because I’m know there are too many people who are living daily with depression. Maybe you’re one of those people. People at war with depression MUST KNOW they’re not alone. And most of all, they need to know there is hope.
What I’m writing about next is how depression affects pastors. That’s because I’ve been a pastor for nearly 30 years and I know what the depressed-pastor-battle looks like. But what comes next is NOT just for pastors. It’s for anyone fighting the agonizing conflict against the beast called depression. A pastor named Wayne Corddeiro wrote a book called Leading on Empty. It’s a book for pastors and leaders who are burnt or burning out. In it Cordeiro writes of the major causes of depression. Here’s my summary of these causes and how they often affect pastors:
- Long-Term Stress – Pastors have to deal with not just long-term stress but ongoing stress. Pastors have to come up with a new message (or multiple messages) to teach almost every week. That’s like being in a university class where you have a major term paper due every week, but there’s no end to the class. Dealing with criticism is a constant burden. Caring for the hurting and listening to their pain comes with the territory. Long hours and low compensation is normal.
- Great Loss – Everyone has to deal with loss in their lives. Pastors frequently have to preach at funerals, comfort families, and write obituaries, so they should somehow be better equipped for personal loss than others. Right? WRONG! Just because pastors often help others face loss, it does not make their own losses any easier. Sometimes loss is harder for pastors because they don’t have a pastor of their own to call for help.
- Unresolved Problems – Despair and dismay often flow out of difficult issues that don’t go away. Financial problems, debt, personal conflicts, health issues, family stress and church dysfunction are just some of the ongoing problems that pastors face. Cordeiro says it best when he writes, “Problems don’t destroy you. Unresolved problems do.” Pastors are often passive when it comes to some problems. The result is greater stress and a faster plummet into depression.
- Pressure to Excel – Pastors live in a fishbowl and everyone watches how they live. They are under pressure to be sterling Christian examples. They are expected to never lose their tempers, to always be gracious, to be vigilant in dealing with their sin, and to be ever close to Jesus. Pastors are expected to look, act, talk, and dress in certain ways. On top of that, their sermons must be great every week. This kind of pressure seems unrelenting and it certainly contributes to depression.
I don’t know about everyone else, but I have had all four of these causes of depression in spades. For years I did nothing about these things. The result was a deep and lasting depression that went on for more than two years. My dad (who was my greatest mentor) died and then so did my closest friend. I was worn out from the continuing stress and pressure that come with being a pastor. And to top it all off, I was trying to lead our church to overcome an overdose of debt and major dysfunction. All of this made me ripe for extreme depression.
What about you? Do you see any of the four causes of depression mentioned above in your own life? If you aren’t taking steps to address these things, you’ll be like me. You’ll find yourself spiraling downward with feelings of utter hopelessness.
Thankfully, my life is very different today. What changed? First, let me tell you for sure what didn’t change: life. Life on earth means suffering because humans messed everything up with sin. Therefore, on earth we will always face the stuff that depression is made of. The change that helped me face my depression was not circumstantial, it was spiritual.
Today the four causes of depression are still present in one form or another, but because of a profound inner transformation I am able to deal with them differently. Below are the steps I took that have led to this transformation. I strongly encourage every pastor battling depression to take each of these steps as soon as possible. But beware! The steps aren’t magic. This list is not “five easy steps to beat depression.” Rather, these steps will force you to face your depression and become accountable for the personal changes needed to overcome it. This journey is not easy. In many ways it’s harder than the depression itself. BUT it’s worth it. Beating depression is one of the hardest battles any of us will ever face, but face it we must!
- I asked for help – I didn’t know what else to do, so I talked to my associate pastor about my depression. He asked if he could share my story with our church elders. In my emotionally-impaired state was too embarrassed to tell them myself, so I let him tell them for me. I’m glad I did. The elders were so gracious. They did not judge. They did not condemn. They did not offer quick fixes or quick advice. Rather, they offered to help. Of course they said they’d pray, but they went a step further by paid for me to see a counselor.
- I started seeing a therapist – I should have gone sooner, but I tended to use money as an excuse. Listen to me, money is not an excuse. Help is available. GET IT! I wouldn’t have used the money excuse to leave cancer untreated. Why was I so stubborn when it came to my mental health? I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back I think it was because I was prejudiced against people with depression. In my heart-of-hearts I thought they should be able to snap out of it. I thought they just needed to be stronger or smarter or more disciplined. I didn’t think depression was really an illness. I thought it was just a mental state one could overcome. But now I know what it’s like to be depressed. Here’s how I describe depression today: “You want nothing in the world more than to feel better, but you just can’t. No matter how hard you try to “look on the bright side” the darkness doesn’t retreat.” That’s why people can’t just snap out of it. Therapy is a must! The help of professionals is a non-negotiable. Over the last few years I’ve been to several different counselors and when my battle with depression was worst, I even checked into a counseling program that required a 6-hour-a-day commitment for three weeks. More about that later.
- I talked to my doctor – My primary care doctor listened to my story and offered to prescribe an antidepressant. I was a little reluctant, but I accepted his offer. It didn’t work. So we tried a different medicine. Then another…and another. Eventually I started seeing a psychiatrist because I was tired of trying new pills every few weeks. My psychiatrist helped BIG TIME! The right medicine made all the difference. Looking back on my experience with medicine I’ve concluded that there’s nothing wrong with taking medicine for mental illness. When I have a sinus infection I take antibiotics. I take medicine every day to prevent gout flare-ups. I don’t hesitate to take ibuprofen when I have a headache. Whenever I have a physical ailment I’m not afraid to use medicine. My reaction to mental illness should be no different really. Why? because mental illness is simply a sickness in the brain. The brain is an organ like a heart, lung or liver. If medicine can help, take the medicine!
- I took time off – I didn’t do this at first because I wanted to keep up the facade that I was strong. Asking for help, going to counseling and taking medicine was helping, but I was not changing my lifestyle. Nothing was going to be enough to overcome the depression without significant personal change. Then something happened that really got my attention: I plummeted into the darkest depression I’d ever experienced. I fell FAST. The out-of-control emotional battle was hurting my marriage, it was affecting my ability to work, it was compromising my ability to lead and it was causing me to implode. I was angry. I was sad. I was confused. I needed to do something drastic. I took 7 weeks off. During that time I went to the 6-hour-per day program. This didn’t fix everything. It didn’t even come close. BUT it did start me down the much-needed road of establishing healthy life rhythms. Time off, play time and even sleep are as important to me today as earning a living. And what a difference this has made!
- I let God change my life – I had to look way down deep for things that were really doing damage to my mind, soul and life. God revealed attitudes and assumptions that I needed to abandon. He taught me more about humility than ever before in my life. I was broken. But instead of trying to overcome my brokenness, I realized that I needed to embrace it. That’s when I finally began to understand what the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.
…to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time He said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (NLT)
By embracing my brokenness I’ve become healthier, more-complete person. I’ve learned to accept that I need help and that it’s okay. By allowing others to help me, I’ve gained strength from them. Finding strength in my brokenness has been like a second conversion experience for me.
Today things are better. Not perfect, but better. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that recovering from depression and burnout isn’t a fast process; it’s like trickle charging a car battery. Only in the case of people recovering from depression it takes months to recharge. My family and genuine friends have helped me recharge and they are helping me stay charged. There are still times when depression pops up again. In fact, I’ve found that it’s always near the surface. But because of Christ, my second conversion and the strength of those around me, I’m better equipped to face it. You see, the Lord has not delivered me FROM my depression. He is delivering me THROUGH it. The things I value are changing, and my heart is being reformed. I’m happier, not because my circumstances have changed, but because the Lord is changing me.
Please make note of this truth: your depression is not about your situation. It’s about you. What steps do you need to take to really let God begin reforming you? What steps will you take for your second conversion?