Wednesday, August 20, 2014

When ministers battle depression

The suicide deaths of Robin Williams and last year that of Rick Warren's son has triggered quite a discussion in many Christian circles about depression.  Some have been highly critical of Christians who suffer from depression while others have called for greater understanding and more discussion in churches about the illness.  I fall in the latter camp.  I have also battled depression in my own life.

My first encounter was in the mid 1980s.  I was working full-time in a factory, serving as a bivocational pastor, attending a Bible college about an hour from my home, and trying to be a husband and father.  For four years I attended classes, and each class required about a 200 mile round trip drive from my house to work to school and back home.  A few months after graduating I began to have problems.  My doctor and a Christian counselor both diagnosed me with clinical depression.  For much of the next year I was in weekly counseling and on medication.  I continued to work and pastor the church, but it was a struggle.

The struggle was made worse because no one knew of my condition except my wife and our children.  I shared it with no one.  There were Sundays it took everything I could do to preach.  That summer I had planned to preach through the book of Daniel (not something I would now recommend anyone doing who is already depressed!).  I still remember the Sunday I was preaching on "Faith for the Fiery Furnace."  It took all I could do to not run out of the church that morning.  During the special music the thought kept going through my head that I had to be the biggest hypocrite in the world.  I was about to preach on faith for the fiery furnace, and I didn't have enough faith to blow out a match.

When I had recovered I shared with our congregation what I had been going through and apologized for not telling them sooner.  I admitted I should have told them sooner and asked them to pray for me and walk with me through my healing.

My healing took much of a year, and I consider that a year of my life that was lost.  However, there was much good that came from that experience.  For one, I have had many opportunities to minister to persons struggling with depression.  Because I have been where they are, they are willing to trust me. I have also been able to recommend persons to see their doctors when I have suspected depression in their lives.

I learned a lot about depression during that year.  I learned that it is an illness just like any other illness.  No one would hesitate going to a doctor if they had pneumonia so why should they hesitate to see one if they are depressed?  I learned that it is very treatable, and the quicker the treatment begins the quicker a person can often recover.

An important part of my education was about how to avoid future depressions.  Mine was caused from a lack of sufficient rest and living too much on adrenaline.  Because I failed to take care of myself my body shut itself down to protect itself.  I learned that self-care is not selfishness; it is stewardship.  It is stewardship of a very important treasure God has given you: you.  It is essential that we take time out to enjoy life, that we get sufficient rest, that we eat well if we want to stay emotionally healthy.

I also learned how to recognize if I am drifting towards depression.  Due to some unusual stresses a few years ago I found myself starting down that dark road again.  However, this time I was able to avoid it by talking to people, praying, and taking steps to avoid becoming depressed.  Thanks to the grace of God and the lessons I learned from the earlier struggle I was able to avoid depression that time.

Although I refused to talk about it when I was going through it, I have been quite open about it since my recovery.  We might be surprised to find how many people in our churches are struggling with depression and are afraid to say anything for fear of being judged.  I want people to know there is no shame in being depressed.  Again, it's an illness.  It's not a sign of spiritual immaturity.  It's not a sign of little faith.  It's not demon possession.  It's an illness that can be treated, and part of that treatment should come from the church as we love people and pray for them as they battle this illness.

The biggest mistake I made during my depression was not sharing my situation with our congregation.  They would have loved me, prayed for me, and protected me.  My healing may have been much quicker.  If you are a minister who is struggling with depression I encourage you to share that with your church.  If your church would not understand or think that there is something spiritually wrong with you then you are probably in the wrong church.  The second thing you need to do is to slow down.  Give yourself permission to rest.  Let some things slide for a few months while you recover.  Let others do some things you normally would have done.  Thirdly, seek the help of a trained Christian counselor.  I met with a pastoral counselor once a week and saw a Christian psychologist once a month which was required by my insurance company for the medicine I was taking.  These people understood what I was going through, and my healing was quicker because of their help.  Fourth, know that you will get better.  There were times I wondered if my depression would ever end, and one of the things that gave me hope was the constant reminder by those caring for me that I would get better.

If you are battling depression right now, please feel free to contact me and let me know how I might help you.  I care.  I really do.


Dustin Long said...

Thank you very much for addressing this serious topic. Too many people suffer through it without ever opening up. No one should be concerned about seeking help. I really liked your analogy about pneumonia. That is so true! I have seen depression destroy members of my family because they would not seek treatment. Thanks again.

In Christ,

Dennis Bickers said...

Thank you, Dustin. I'm sorry your family members would not seek treatment. My prayer is that as the church discusses this issue and offers help to people that more will seek the treatment they need to overcome this disease. No one needs to be ashamed to seek treatment for a medical condition, and that is what depression is.

R said...

Thank you for this! My husband has been a bi-vocational pastor for almost twenty years. Last winter, he resigned from his most recent pastorate due to burn-out and depression. Earlier in the year, he asked the church for time off and compassion. He received condemnation and judgement for taking off five Sunday mornings and two Sunday nights! Thus far, he has been unwilling to consider that he is clinically depressed, even though I see evidence of depression and have gently asked him to see a doctor. Some days are better than others for him and I hope I am seeing evidence of progress toward health. Currently, we are at least 18 months into this illness/burnout/mid-life-reevaluation. The whole family suffers with the afflicted.

Dennis Bickers said...

I am so sorry, R, that you and your family are going through this. The person going through depression is not the only one with pain; it impacts every person in the family as well as many outside the family. I am also sorry that the church he was serving treated him poorly in his time of need. Some churches seem to be unable to minister to the minister during his or her times of need and want to only condemn the pastor for being human.

The good news about depression is that it will often heal itself, but unless the underlying issues are addressed it will likely re-appear when those issues return. That is why I strongly encourage people to see their doctor and a skilled pastoral counselor when going through depression. Doing so can speed up the process and help keep the depression from returning.

Please ask your husband to DM me if he would like to talk. I would be glad to spend some time with him. I do care.