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Anxiety and Depression in the Ministry

Another pastor has committed suicide as a result of the struggle with anxiety and depression. This tragedy occurred shortly after I saw a blog post by Thom Rainer from earlier this year describing five reasons many pastors struggle with depression. It is right that attention be given to this subject. Most ministers I know battle anxiety and depression at least to some extent, and I think this is a widespread reality among the population in general.

Full disclosure: I too battle anxiety and depression. Fortunately, mine has never been severe enough to require medication or on-going therapy. My anxiety, or sense of a threat either real or imagined, comes and goes usually without rhyme or reason. I will worry, have occasional panic attacks, get depressed, and then feel better after a time. I am deeply respectful of the fact that others suffer more than I do. My symptoms are painful but usually mild and not incapacitating. That is not the case for others. I also want to say that I am in no way convinced that my symptoms are connected to my spiritual life or walk with Christ. The two are not related. It is a mistake to attempt to explain the one by the other. Some of my lowest lows occurred as the Lord spoke clearly to me. And, in my darkest nights of the soul I have drawn closer to the Lord. Not always, of course. Sometimes I give in to the temptation to self-medicate and self-destruct. But my pain has, at other times, led me into the presence of the Lord.

It is important to understand that anxiety and depression are both acute and chronic. Acute anxiety and depression come on for a while and then go away, usually resulting from circumstances in our lives. Things happen that affect us deeply. Chronic anxiety and depression, by comparison, are ongoing and may or may not be related to circumstances. The chronic condition is always present to some extent. Circumstances can make it worse, but it was already there. Some people feel anxiety and depression all the time. When trials or difficulties come, the anxiety and depression become worse. These folks may find it extremely difficult to weather the storm. It takes time.

The Bible reveals that God called out and used mightily those who may have had some anxiety and depression. I see many possible examples. I think Moses suffered both acute and possibly chronic anxiety and depression. I would say that Joshua shows signs of acute anxiety after the death of Moses. While commissioning him, God commands Joshua many times not to be afraid but to be strong and courageous. Then there is Gideon, Jeremiah, King Saul, King David, Samuel, Elijah, Simon Peter, Paul the Apostle, all showing at least some signs of both acute and chronic anxiety and depression. Even Jesus may have felt these deep emotions. Just read again the accounts of his experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. With the exception of King Saul, God not only called out these servants, but He drew close to them and revealed Himself to them in extraordinary ways. Each had an important role in God's kingdom work. Their role was shaped, at least in part, by their emotional struggles.

Here are my suggestions for my ministry friends who struggle with anxiety and depression. How you deal with your condition can be a powerful witness and encouragement to others.

First, it is time to lay aside your pride. Too many of us struggle privately, through lonely days and nights, behind well-crafted masks we hope others will think are our real faces. The masks are not real but are carefully designed deceptions. We are not honest, we are hiding. Lay aside the idols of your pride, your image, your dignity, and come out of hiding. I'm not saying you should introduce everyone you meet to your emotional baggage, but it is time to bring some things out of the darkness and into the light.

Second, take the medication if it helps. Even if it makes you put on weight. Just take it and feel better. There is no shame in taking medication to feel better. We do it all the time for a variety of ailments. Stop suffering if something will help. I know people who would give anything to get relief from their chronic back pain, and nothing will help them. If the medicine will give you relief, take it and praise God for His mercy and grace.

Third, regularly talk to someone about what you are feeling and what you are thinking. It is important to separate my thoughts and beliefs from my feelings, but I need to acknowledge them both. Talk to a counselor, to a therapist, to your spouse, to your friends. Talk to me. I meet monthly with a friend who is a professional counselor. I also meet regularly with a small group of pastors. We all struggle in similar ways. It is refreshing and encouraging to talk about it with my peers.

Fourth, caring for yourself is not selfish. Eat well. Get plenty of exercise. Do the things that make your heart sing. Avoid the things that will numb the pain and perhaps make you worse. Do things with the people that give you joy. I once read a book entitled When I Relax I Feel Guilty. That may be a common sentiment, but it is not noble or commendable.

Fifth, do what you can each day and forgive yourself for what you were not able to do. There are times when the victory is simply getting out of bed. Celebrate it with coffee. Tomorrow is a new day. Each day I find there are things I simply cannot bring myself to do. I allow five minutes for self-hatred and then I focus on what I CAN do, and give myself grace for everything else.

Finally, I think there are some wounds, some conditions, some suffering that will only be healed in eternity. The Bible says this world is not my home, so my expectations for this world are low. God could heal me in this life if He wanted to, but He doesn't. So I exercise my faith that in eternity I will be healed of all my weakness, frailties, and sin. In the meantime I trust that the Lord will come and be strong in my weakness. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

I am interested in you and in your emotional/spiritual health. Let me know how you are doing. Please take care of yourself and seek the help you need.


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