When Being a Pastor With Depression Is a Complicated Combination
I’m a Lutheran pastor and I live with depression. This is a complicated combination. There are times when it brings great struggle and times when it brings great comfort and peace.
First off, what does it mean when I say I’m a pastor? I work full time at a congregation with a few hundred families. I am responsible for preparing and leading worship each Sunday morning, including preparing a sermon. I am responsible for caring for the pastoral needs of members of the congregation, including visiting them when they are sick, helping them prepare for marriage, offering pastoral conversation when they’re going through difficult circumstances and burying them when they die. I am the “theologian in residence” and am expected to be an authority on scripture. I am responsible for seeing that the congregation as a whole has a vision and makes decisions in line with this vision. I am a resource and guide for the many committees and teams we have. I am responsible for much of the administration and organization of the congregation and assist in dealing with any conflicts that arise. I am kind of like a CEO, kind of like a coach, kind of like a teacher, kind of like a therapist and kind of like a cheerleader. I am often given more credit than I deserve and also more blame.
Secondly, what does it mean when I say I have depression? As long as I can remember, I have lived with low self-esteem. As a child, I was moody and annoying. As a teenager, I was even more “emo” than my classmates. As an adult, I discerned there was something in my brain leading me to consistent negative thinking about myself. I am worthless. I am no good. I am doing the wrong thing. Bad things will happen because of my actions. My depression often manifests as something of a dark voice living in my head, whose favorite mantra is “you should have known better.” The implicit meaning being, “because you didn’t know better, you are a failure.” I have found some help for this through talk therapy and through antidepressant medication, but the voice is still there. The depression is still there. The emotional and physical exhaustion is still there.
I’ve been at my current church for four years and I decided early on to be upfront about my mental illness. I started talking about my depression in sermons. I was nervous about bringing it up, but I found compassion and understanding. I found people began to tell me, “I know what you’re going through. I have it, too.” I found people who had other chronic conditions seemed to feel more comfortable telling me about them. I found sharing this gave me a level of authority and a level of intimacy with some people I would not have had otherwise. I found I was welcome in this congregation, broken as I am. I found my sharing helped others feel welcome as well. These are all good things and something I don’t think I would find in every congregation. I am grateful.
But it’s hard sometimes. One thing that’s difficult for me is managing conflict, which is part of every congregation. Like any group of people, there are conflicts here, some of which can become heated and personal. Everyone has their own way of dealing with conflict, some productive, others destructive. Some of the time, I end up caught in the middle of it. And it wears on me greatly. If someone is angry with me, it reinforces the dark voice inside me, confirming the fears I am not good enough, I am not worthy and I have really screwed up this time. If two people are angry with each other and it’s affecting the life of the congregation, this reinforces the dark voice. It’s my fault they’re fighting. I should have done a better job teaching them how to get along. In my head I know I am not really the parent of all these people, but my emotions tell me I am supposed to be. I feel as though I’m supposed to make this church a safe place for everyone, where nobody’s feelings get hurt. That’s impossible, of course. But the dark voice still scolds me. And I curl up. I break down. I am able to function, but there is a part of me that is broken. This part comes to the forefront of my mind when I am alone, in my office or at home. A part that rips me up inside and hurts my relationships with my family and friends.
Another thing that’s difficult is wondering whether I’m a hypocrite. As a good Lutheran, my preaching focuses primarily on grace, “God’s love freely given.” I often preach about how God’s love is a gift, given for you, completely free of charge, no matter what you do or fail to do. But I have a hard time believing this to be true for myself. I preached about this tension a few months ago. Here’s an excerpt:
“I have faith in grace, which is God’s love freely given. I have faith God loves every single one of you and not just in some abstract way, like ‘God loves everyone.’ I have faith God loves you, exactly who you are. You don’t have to do a thing to earn it. I have never seen this grace. I have no proof it’s true. But I have faith in it. And this faith is strong.
And yet, my faith falters when it comes to me. My doubts come in every time when it comes to me. Does God love you? Yes. No question, no doubt. But me? I just don’t know.
How can I believe God loves and forgives and calls every one of you, but not me? It makes no sense. It’s irrational. But this faith is for you. I have faith God loves you and I will proclaim it with my dying breath. And I mean it. God’s grace is astonishing. I don’t care who you are, what you’ve done, even if I don’t feel I can love you, I will tell you God loves you. God has depths of forgiveness and love far deeper than my own, far deeper than anyone’s. God loves and forgives and calls you. But say the same about myself? Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And I will tell you, I don’t have this assurance and conviction about God’s feelings toward me. And maybe that’s why it is so important to me to tell you how much God loves you. Because I don’t want you to feel the way I sometimes do. I don’t want you to have the same doubts I do.”
I preached this. I actually preached this from the pulpit. I phrased it so it sounded positive, but it’s negative. My faith is so darkened and twisted by my depression, I really can’t see the God of love has love for me. This makes my job so hard sometimes. So hard to call myself a pastor, so hard to call myself a Christian.
I’m currently taking a 12-week medical leave from my ministry. My depression comes and goes in waves and in the past six months, it hit me like a tsunami. The congregation was kind enough to offer me this leave, and I’m working with a therapist and a spiritual director to find new ways of being me, new ways of being a pastor and find out if I can continue. I am hopeful with the help of these gifted professionals, support groups and with networks such as The Mighty, I will be able to find the grace that seems to hover just outside my grasp.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.
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