Pastor, are you fighting in the dark?

January 8, 2020

Not that long ago, depression was rarely discussed in public. It was too embarrassing to talk about, much less admit. However, 15 years ago, our deployed soldiers started coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder, followed by severe depression, followed by a suicide rate of about 20 per day, according to the Department for Veterans Affairs.

Suddenly, we’ve taken notice. Now we often talk about it.

Well, almost…

Much to our surprise, the Center for Disease Control reports that white males between 45 and 64 are the fastest growing demographic for suicide. Guess who our pastors are? In the past quarter century, our Southern Baptist pastors have moved from a median age of 44 to 54, and are mostly white males.

After serving more than 20 years as a pastoral counselor, I’ve seen almost every kind of problem. Nevertheless, nothing has caused me more hurt and angst than the group of depressed pastors I’m now seeing.

But where is this depression coming from? I’ve stayed up at night, praying and wondering why. I’ve read and studied everything I can think of about this issue. I want to help others, of course, but also I want to know how I got there myself.

After years of pastoring a highly successful church restart that went from very few people in no buildings with no debt, to more than two services full of people in two buildings with millions of dollars in debt, I became increasingly anxious and depressed. This was completely out of character for me.

People asked what was wrong. I didn’t know, or at least I wouldn’t admit it. But I was suffering. I started making impulsive decisions. I felt tempted more than normal. I was angry at a few church members but wouldn’t tell them why because I wanted to be a nice guy.

People asked what was wrong. I didn’t know, or at least I wouldn’t admit it. But I was suffering.

Increasingly, I began to feel as if I wasn’t a person anymore. I was a machine for pleasing people, creating new programs, bringing in a bigger audience, making the church grow. Most of all, I was really, really burned out.

Amazingly, I didn’t even know what burnout was until I was too deep in to get out. I finally confessed to my wife that I had to leave that church before somebody pushed me. So I did.

Unfortunately, that would be the beginning of my clinical depression (depression with physical symptoms).

I eventually figured out I had done this to myself. The picture has become clearer as I have moved away from that thinking and behavior. I suspect my pastor friends may have unknowingly made many of the same mistakes I made; I can connect with them when they come to see me over their feelings of despair. God has wasted none of my suffering.

Here are some ugly results I’ve now discovered about the causes of depression:

  1. Burnout you cannot seem to recover from.
  2. Lack of genuine friendships.
  3. A health problem that won’t go away.
  4. No margins (no extra time, money, emotional energy or physical energy).
  5. Self-pride, even while claiming God is your strength.
  6. Sense of feeling trapped with no way out.
  7. Identifying as a pastor more than a human being or a child of God.
  8. Storing up anger and not being honest with people.
  9. Dealing with conflict in an unbiblical way.
  10. Misguided goals — not aligning them with God’s purposes.
  11. Ignoring symptoms and not seeking medical care.
  12. People-pleasing, while you remain miserable.
  13. Giving others grace but giving yourself none.
  14. Not realizing that God is attracted to weakness, not strength.

If you are a pastor, remember that depression is one of America’s top health problems. Many of your people may battle with depression but will never tell you or perhaps anyone. Bring it into the light and show them how powerful God is.

by Eddie Thompson  /  Pastoral Ministries  /  Baptist State Convention of North Carolina

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