Depression in Ministry

driedvineMinistering while depressed feels a bit like going to an orchestra concert with earplugs in your ears. Life and ministry go on, but it is not entirely felt or experienced as others might be experiencing it.

I remember a time when nothing seemed to calm my difficulty with anxiety. I tried praying more, reading more, and eating better… but for a season, nothing seemed to help.

More and more, I hear from other pastors, missionaries, and other full-time ministers with similar stories. My heart goes out to them and I am always happy to share my own experience.

I have no quick answers and no promises. I have no idea how or when you might feel better. I only know that for me, it took a long time… years of it building up and a few years for it to improve.

Here are a few things that I learned along the way that may be helpful to others.

  1. Ministers do get depressed and deal with anxiety. In fact, they are likely more prone to depression and anxiety because of the unique vocational and relational dynamics in ministry. And, it doesn’t matter how confident, charismatic, talented, or successful the person.  There is no such thing as strength outside of vulnerability in the Kingdom of God.
  2. Most ministers avoid admitting they are depressed. It is difficult to voice your depression when you are a leader or have other people counting on you. But, beware; this can keep a person in the grips of depression even longer if your avoidance is contributing to false thinking causing your depression or anxiety.
  3. It may require a hiatus or full ministry stop. This is probably the most frightening thing on the list for individuals in the midst of depression or anxiety. Some situations may be able to be remedied in private and without a full stop. In my case, not wanting to stop ministry or admit my state of burnout only added to my level of anxiety and false thought patterns.
  4. Sharing your depression and stopping may be the best thing that ever happens to you. Although frightening to admit our weakness and need to stop, it can create the necessary space for you to process brokenness, anger, and fear that you may have been “stuffing” while resisting a stop.
  5. It takes time… sometimes a lot of time. Consider 10 weeks of counseling a minimum. Even 10 weeks is considered ‘brief’ in the counseling world. In my case, I worked with a new graduate assistant who had little experience and was younger than me. However, I owned my diagnosis and we worked a treatment plan together as brothers in Christ. Several weeks in, I felt I was on a good path, but my symptoms did not go away. Several months in, I experienced improvement in my symptoms. Over a year after, I could finally look back and appreciate how far I had come.
  6. In seeking help and focusing on your needs, you will gain valuable experience and skills for helping others. I regularly have the opportunity to encourage others through my experience and direct them to helpful resources.
  7. God’s plan may not be to heal you from your depression; rather, he may be healing you through your depression. Today I am thankful for my depression and my journey. God did not repair me back to where I was before depression… he brought me to a place further along in my journey. He brought me to a more developed sense of self… one with a healthier capacity for relationships and ministry.

Going through depression hurt so much during the process, but it was not a punishment, an attack from the enemy, or a weakness to be ashamed of.

It was a part of God’s sovereign plan for me. I simply could not grow more spiritually without intentionally addressing underdeveloped areas including how I responding to stress. Depression and anxiety were the outer pushback my body and soul were giving me. It pushed me to finally stop, take inventory, and work a treatment plan with the help of an empathetic caregiver.

Now, I am at the point of appreciating this as something positive… something I needed to do… something without which, I simply could not be the person I am today.  If you are struggling with depression or know someone who is, maybe the following suggestions could help…

  • Schedule time to have a conversation about your depression with someone you trust. Have a coffee or take a walk together.
  • Take the time to voice where you are and ask God together how he might be working positively through your depression.
  • Make a list of what action steps might build on where you are.
  • Write down names of people who you trust to pray for you or who may be good resources.
  • Research a licensed counselor, spiritual director, or counseling center with experience in cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Be a good student of your depression… learn what you can about what you are going through. This is actually a basic intervention technic itself called psychoeducation.
  • Keep a chart of your depression. If you engage in therapy, doing weekly inventories on how you feel will likely be a part of your treatment anyway. Charting your “ups” and “downs” builds awareness and can help you recognize patterns, contributing factors, as well as activities that bring you relief.
  • Try to take an ‘appreciative’ approach to your depression. Avoid seeing depression and anxiety as spiritual attacks or punishment for disobedience. There is a spiritual dimension to depression and anxiety and you should give yourself space for confession of sin and addressing addictions if that is a part of your story. However, God wants what is best for you and provides good things for his children. Think of depression and anxiety as responses and warning signals helping us know what needs our attention. In this way, they are God’s grace getting our attention and we do well to hear the alarms.

If you are in ministry and going through depression or anxiety… I am pulling for you!  May the presence, peace, and hope of Christ be with you.

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. – 1 Peter 5:10

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