Dealing with Depression as a Church Leader
by Art Greco
It was my day off. That meant I was doing one of my favorite things—working on a project in my garage. I was halfway through fixing the door on our spare refrigerator when all of a sudden my 34-year-old son Josh appeared.
He didn’t speak. Instead, Josh stood there with tears in his eyes and an awful expression on his face, with a cellphone held in his outstretched hand.
I took the phone and read the news. Robin Williams was dead, a victim of suicide.
Josh, like many of us, was a fan of Williams. But he also had a personal connection.
We live not far from San Francisco, and Josh had a friend who used to live next door to William’s wife Susan Schneider. Whenever Josh would visit his friend, he’d often see Williams and would wave greetings over the fence.
That wasn’t the only reason for his shock.
“Dad,” he asked, “when you were battling depression, did you ever seriously consider suicide?”
“Yes,” I told him. “Sadly, I did.”
After a silent and tender pause, Josh spoke again. “I’m glad you dealt with it a different way, Dad,” he said.
Josh’s response touched me deeply—partly because it was so different from what those of us who’ve been ambushed by depression often hear.
Things like: “But why are you depressed? You have so much to live for.” Or some version of, “Just fix it,” “Go watch a funny movie,” or “But people love you so much.”
That’s what I recall hearing most often when I first revealed that depression—this uninvited and certainly unwanted mental illness—had taken up residence in me. How can I convey the deep, throbbing ache I felt the first time a friend told me to “Snap out of it”?
His advice was: “Just trust God and be happy.”
Great. Here I was being sucked into the emotional version of a black hole, and he was encouraging me to simply hail a cab and get a ride home. His comments were well-intentioned, I suppose, but ridiculous.
No one else could see it, but in my world, it was as if I stood barefoot on a path, with a bed of white-hot coals blocking my way. The boots I needed to walk across the coals were placed just out of reach. I couldn’t get to the boots without stepping on the coals, and I couldn’t survive the coals without first lacing up the boots.
“Snapping out of it” seemed easy enough to my friend. He was watching from a distance, offering advice while comfortably seated away from the heat.
Meanwhile, I also felt trapped, imprisoned by depression. Every uninformed and unhelpful piece of advice only intensified the sense of despair I felt and strengthened the bars of my moldy, rat-infested, emotional cell.
What I needed instead was someone to come and help me unlock the door so I could get out of this trap.
Let me explain how depression first took over my life.
It was the summer of 1988. At the time, our family lived in Portland, Oregon, where I was a church planter.
One day, I sat first in line at a red light in our town, our family’s favorite Elmer’s Restaurant on the left, the Union Gas Station on the right. Everything around me looked familiar. At least, it should have since I lived only blocks from that corner and traveled the route each day. But this day something bizarre happened.
I arrived at the intersection feeling normal. By normal I mean stressed out. But I’d grown used to the sensation of stress, assuming it was just a necessary by-product of the ministry of a church planter. My chest felt like it was in a vice, my head felt pressured, and I was a little dizzy—all sensations I had grown accustomed to over the years.
Then that “bizarre something” came.
Its onset was quick, as though my senses were a PowerPoint and someone had just pushed the button that changed the slide.
Only in this case, the scene in front of me was unfamiliar and out of focus. I didn’t know where I was, where I was going, or where I’d been. I just sat there, dazed, until the car behind me honked and startled me into creeping forward through the intersection.
I recall thinking: I’ll just drive until something looks familiar. I think I live close by.
I turned left because it felt correct, then left again for the same reason.
I suspected that one of the houses on that block was mine, but I wasn’t sure which one. I’ll push the button on the garage door opener, I thought. Wherever a garage door opens, that must be my house.
Then I parked in the driveway of the house with the opening door, walked into the garage, climbed onto the freezer, and stared at the walls, trying to clear my head.
Not long after, I sat in a doctor’s office and learned that I’d been diagnosed with clinical depression.
But even more devastating was the doctor’s prescription for healing. Since it didn’t appear this uninvited illness was going to be leaving any time soon, he recommended I find another line of work.
“Sell cars, paint houses, work at McDonalds for all I care,” he told me. “But stay away from leadership in a church—any church. Otherwise, you’ll probably never fully heal.”
Cue those hot coals and move the boots a bit farther away.
Cue the simplistic, over-spiritualized advice of people whose idea of depression is the disappointment you feel when someone gets your parking space at the mall.
Cue the stigma of being seen as intellectually and emotionally suspect for the rest of your career.
God had called me to be a church planter, and to me that meant I wasn’t allowed to quit. But I wasn’t strong enough to stay in leadership.
Thankfully, God didn’t leave me stuck there. My family and leaders at our church rallied around me. They paid for me to get a second opinion from another doctor, who confirmed the diagnosis of clinical depression, and allowed me to get the professional help I needed.
They offered to give me six months without pay so I could get well. I didn’t stay away quite that long—a decision that delayed my healing process—but I did take some time off. God used the combination of time off, medication, and counseling to restore me to emotional health.
A New Day
A lot has changed since those days as a young church planter. I’m still a pastor, but I walk with an emotional limp.
The nightmare of clinical depression hasn’t been turned into a Disney fairy tale. But in a strange way, its destructive power has worked some good in my life.
I used to pray that God would release me from depression or at least help me survive it. Now I pray that God would heal my life and put to death some of the self-deception I still carry with me—like the fear I have that people will look down on me because of my depression. Or my oversized ego tempting me to pretend the illness doesn’t exist or insisting I can’t be sick because my church can’t survive without me.
I pray those who read this article will never experience the pain that comes with severe and prolonged depression.
But in case you do, I want you to know there is hope.
It won’t be easy. And you can’t do it on your own. But you can get better.
And you are not alone. There are more than a few of us who have outlasted and outmaneuvered this disease, and have even been made deeper, quieter, and better through it.
Art Greco is senior pastor of Marin Covenant Church in San Rafael, California. He’s the author of God Kills: Spirituality of a Christian Pragmatist.