My 10 Steps to Pastoral Depression

There’s a lake near my house where I go when I’m down to talk things over with the Lord. I pace up and down the dock, sometimes just stand and stare, but all the while praying for help.

I’ve been there many times. I’ve wept there more than any other place. One afternoon in a state of despair, my head thought, “I could just jump in the water and never come back up.” Before that thought scared me, it seemed rather attractive.

Pastoral depression is a thing. Actually, depression is a thing, doesn’t matter what your job is. Pastoral depression is like any other depression, it’s just more shocking because pastors are supposed to have everything together and know Jesus so well. “Knowing Jesus” in American Christianity is supposed to look happy.

Best life now, don’t ya know.

Depression, in some ways, is no big deal. We live in a culture that over-values happiness and anyone not sufficiently happy is deemed to have “issues.” Moses, Elijah, and Job all asked God to kill them. Paul said he desired to depart. Jesus asked “How much longer must I be with this faithless generation?”

Ministry is tough. It’s ok to acknowledge that. But if a pastor admits his struggles, he merely sets himself up for a lecture. “You gotta have faith, man. All things work together for good.”

Pastors spend all week listening to people complain, yet if the pastor dares complain one time, lectures fly. So now the depression is doubled. The pastor has the initial problem and now the pastor is told repeatedly not to be sad about anything. The pastor has no one to talk to.

The steps to my pastoral depression descend like this:

  1. No one shows up. Preaching to empty chairs truly sucks the life out of ministry.
  2. The reasons why people don’t show up. I know why people are gone, and frequently the reasons are devastating, knowing full well that the choices being made are going to have implications.
  3. Seeing the implications. There is nothing more depressing than fearing the worst for people based on their decisions and then being proved right.
  4. Watching lives crumble. I know details about everyone in my church: marriages, raising kids, money problems, health issues that no one else in the church knows. I know everyone’s problems, sometimes because they tell me, other times because I’m an observant, non-idiot. How many families can a guy watch fall apart?
  5. It’s my fault. Families fall apart and I did nothing, apparently, to help. None of my messages are heeded; none of my counsel is acted on. Am I an idiot? Do I not make sense? Am I using the right language? Do I even have a clue what I’m talking about?
  6. Expectations. Then my church has no one in it. I get judged by my extended family, other pastors, everyone at the grocery store, any random person who asks how many people come to my church, and when people ask “So where did the Jones family go?”
  7. Do I even have faith? It’s impossible not to take these failures personally. There must be something wrong with my faith. Is the Spirit even here? And here’s the thing: my faith is the only thing remaining for me to stand on, and now that is shaking.
  8. I now have no money. I don’t mind not having money for me. I could eat spaghetti every day and wear the same pants and shirt all week. I can walk, I don’t need a car. But my wife and kids go without. I can’t afford medical anything. My kids and wife suffer. And why? Because my faith is inept to help anyone.
  9. Pointlessness. I do all this stuff, preach all these words, and yet lives fall apart anyway and all I get from it is suffering and grief and criticism. Why bother?
  10. Heaven seems so delightful. This world sucks. There are times when even hope becomes depressing.

I’ve gone through this depressive journey I don’t know how many times. I’m still pastoring. I don’t know how. I’ve learned each time I’ve gone through this. The lows are not as low as they once were, and nor are the highs all that high. I’ve learned a bit what it means to set my face like a flint and do the right thing before the Lord.

I still weep and mourn for the lives that continue to fall apart and the family disintegration. I do what I think I can, I do what I think is right before the Lord. I carry on.

I’ve learned not to take stuff so personally. My faith is not the cause of other people’s demise. I’ve learned to separate as much as I can my personal faith from my church’s “performance.” I’ve learned more how to ignore criticisms and expectations from people who have no idea what they’re talking about.

And I pray. And I read the Bible. I have more faith now, now that it’s just me and Jesus Christ left. As long as the depression drives you to God, as long as you gain more trust in the sure foundation of His Word over the finicky words of others, as long as all this garbage leads you to grow in Christ, you can count it all gain.

If you need to talk; I’m here for you.

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