After pastoring in a fog of clinical depression, I came very close to walking away from my church and the ministry five years ago. I had been pastoring for 22 years at the time, and was burned out and fed up—mostly with myself. Thanks to the help of my doctor and therapist, I would learn later what role mental illness had in my decision-making.
When I heard about Robin Williams suicide yesterday, my heart began to break for his family and friends. I also began to pray for the many people who struggle with mental illness in secret and isolation—especially pastors. Pastors often do this because we have a role to play, expectations to live up to, and people to please. Like Robin Williams, we learn to put on a smile and help others smile as well.
Clinical depression is serious, but there are so many other darker levels of depression. Honestly, I have never considered, much less attempted, suicide. But I have had two staff members over the years who have tried. One of whom succeeded this past Spring.
If you are a ministry leader who is struggling with ongoing depression, please consider these four suggestions.
1. Seek Professional Help
Self-diagnosis is usually a waste of time. My first conversation was with my medical doctor, then a licensed Christian therapist. It was a humbling, but rewarding experience for me.
2. Let Your Church Minister to You
The stigma of depression, or any weakness, tempts us away from seeking help from those who love us most. I meet monthly with an accountability partner/friend, monthly with a therapist and quarterly with a small group of supportive deacons.
Along with my wife, this is my “Dance Team.”
3. Trust the Lord for Healing
Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. Luke 22:31
Satan has plan for your life, but so does God! Although I don’t believe it was God’s will for Peter to fail, He obviously knew about and allowed Peter to go through the sifting and refining process so that he could grow in both strength and humility. He would need both later.
We know in retrospect that God had big plans for Peter, but we also know that God has plans for our ministries too.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11 NIV
My prayer is not for them (Apostles) alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me (us). John 17:20
Jesus is still praying for our good and His glory. Praying that our faith would not fail, even when we do.
4. Help Someone Else off the Cliff
And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers. Luke 22:32
Several pastors and deacons talked me off of that cliff of ministry suicide five years ago, and I will always be grateful to them. Stepping away from ministry and the church I loved and needed was neither in the best interest of my church, my family or my self.
I got a ministry recall and have used it countless times to help other pastors off that same cliff. There are many of us out there considering it.
I thought I could leap (or build) tall buildings in a single bound, until I realized that I was a man of flesh, not steel. Fortunately my depression was temporary and treatable, as most are if diagnosed early. I am still at that same church, which is healthier than it has ever been…as am I.