Sunday, October 28, 2018

When the Pastor is in the Pits

“I guess that’s why they call it the blues…” Elton John

  October often triggers melancholia for me. There’s something about the coolness in the air, color changes and shifts in the season that find me a bit downcast. If I’m not careful, it can spiral downward into deep depression.
  I know that part of it is an “anniversary.” My birthday is in October, and when I was growing up, birthdays weren’t pleasant occasions. While I rarely think about the past, there is a cloud of regret of what might have been. For many years, I’d just deny those feelings. I’ve been very, very blessed in that Jane and my children have helped me move into “normal,” that a birthday is something to be celebrated, not dreaded. For many, that may sound simplistic yet when you grow up in an addictive/abusive home, nothing is simple and little is normal. Normal often becomes the abnormal.
  It might surprise some that pastors struggle with depression. It’s easy to forget that pastors are human, too. While we serve a “Super God,” there are no super Christians. It’s all part of a fallen world and what the Apostle Paul dubbed “common” (1 Cor. 10:13) to all of us. Most Christians struggle or have bouts of depression, and so do most pastors. While many pastors struggle with depression, most in their church have no idea their pastor is depressed. Too often they’re unaware until they’re awakened by the reality of some of the dramatic consequences of the depression: a fractured marriage, uncontrolled emotion (anger or sadness), a resignation and sometimes even suicide.
  Too many churches and pastors have been taught that depression is a sign of failure and is something that must be hidden from view. Apparently, those who purport such lies have never read the Psalms or Lamentations. 
  Noted church authority, Thom Ranier, suggests that there are five primary causes that pastors identified as the reasons behind their depression. Each of the causes is followed by a direct quote from pastors who shared with Ranier their struggles.
  Spiritual warfare. “I don’t mean this in a profane way, but there was a point in my ministry when all hell broke loose. I can’t explain the attacks any way other than spiritual warfare. The Enemy was intent on destroying my ministry, and I began to spiral downward emotionally.”
  The surprising reality of pastoral leadership. “I wish someone had told me how tough it is to be a pastor. My single counsel was to preach the Word, and I understand the priority of preaching. But, after a year or so in my first pastorate at age 31, I saw the underbelly of local church life. I was just caught off guard. And it took me some time before I realized I was truly depressed.”
  Sense of inadequacy. “My church is declining. While I don’t get hung up on numbers, my members started talking about the decline. And when we had to delete a position because we could no longer pay the person, I really begin to hit rock bottom. I felt like it was all my fault.”
  Critics and bullies. “Pastoral leadership really can be a death by a thousand cuts. It’s not any one person or criticism; it’s the constant and steady stream of criticisms. It wears on you. My depression came on gradually, so by the time I was in deep depression, I did not see it coming.”
  Loneliness. “It’s really hard to find a true friend when you are a pastor. And when you have no one to talk to about your struggles and questions, life can get lonely.”
  For me, I’d probably add, “Feeling that I’m not making a difference.” There are times that I second-guess myself and wonder if I’m making an impact. I have to remind myself that the harvest is the end of the age, not the end of the service or at the end of the year.
  No doubt many who are reading this also struggle with depression. While I don’t have all of the answers, I do know what helps me.
  I remind myself that God’s grace really is sufficient. That may sound like a pat answer, yet when I consider how that promise (2 Cor. 12:9) sustained the Apostle Paul who suffered more than I can begin to even fathom, then I seek to lean hard on that promise.
  I embrace it rather than seeking to escape it. I really love humor. I love to laugh. The valley of the shadow helps me be more contemplative. There are portions of Scripture that are more meaningful, music that touches me deeper, stories that resonate more when I’m a bit downcast.  
  I seek to look upward. I’m continually shocked at the darkness of my own soul and then I remember that my loving Heavenly Father knows all of that – and still loves me. He has given me grace upon grace. He is never surprised and loves me unconditionally. His grace truly awes me!
  I seek to look outward. When I’m depressed, I think about me, me, me…and then I’m really bummed. As I find ways to help, encourage and be a blessing to others, I find that I’m so encouraged. It can be simple things. The other day I was at a restaurant and learned my server’s story. Just listening to him as he shared the heartbreak of a divorce and seeking to encourage him, let him know that I would pray for him…encouraged me.
  I seek to express gratitude. I find that as I am thankful to God and others, my spirits begin to rise.
  Learn the seasons of your soul. I know that my “blue” time is usually the fall, so I plan a strategy. It begins with something simple – Get out of bed! Many years ago when I had a major bout with depression, I foolishly hid in bed, hoping perhaps I could sleep it away. That never works. 
  Then, I make myself go to the gym. I find exercise and socializing help.
  Even when it seems Scripture is dry, I make myself spend time in the Word and prayer. It’s not a spiritual marathon. Yet, since Jesus is the Great Physician and I’m having a bout with some soul sickness, I better spend time with the Doctor of my soul.
  Depression is a reality for many on this side of eternity. One of my greatest encouragements is that no matter how bad this world may get or difficult that life may seem – it’s all only temporary! I’m not Home yet!  

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