News of an area pastor committing suicide has reached us and it feels like my world has been rocked… again.
While I knew this particular pastor, I didn’t really know his situation, nor his struggles… whatever they might have been. I simply knew who he was and appreciated his smile and laughter on the few times he and his wife would join our breakfast group a couple of churches ago. But then I moved, and he retired, and, like so many other pastors, I sort of lost touch.
And I have spent the past eight hours since I heard the news just thinking and meditating, praying and just feeling down… sad… depressed.
While I don’t know his issues, I know mine. And, as the saying goes, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
I was diagnosed a couple of years ago with a severe depression. The therapist I went to called me “high functioning” which I guess meant that you couldn’t really tell from the outside just how depressed I really was. He talked about how people with scores like mine on the Beck Depression Inventory usually find themselves in the hospital ward just to make sure they don’t commit suicide.
I haven’t considered suicide as an option, not back then and not now. There were times when I hurt inside enough that I could understand Jonah’s words when he said, “Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than live!” I wouldn’t kill myself… but thought how nice it would be if God decreed that it was my time to go and ‘poof’ I didn’t have to deal with the ‘stuff’ anymore.
There were issues from my childhood, relationships that had never been healed, decisions (and lack of decisions) from college times that have followed me, and then, change and loss… and as a pastor I experience A LOT of change (after all, we move for a living, right!) and there have been A LOT of losses. Loss of financial stability, loss of hope, loss of dreams, loss of friends, loss of stability. And a lot of funerals. Mostly for parishioners, but there have been some family members in there… my Grandpa Mix, Gay’s dad Max, and her Grandma Beryl. And a miscarriage just a year before our son was born. And now-a-days, I understand much better the grief experienced with loss of health as I have gotten my first couple of tastes of arthritis, kidney stones, high blood pressure, gout, and recently, the cancer scare.
There are times when I feel SO alone out here in the hinterlands of rural America. I miss the comraderie and fellowship of having a group of us pastors that got together every week for breakfast. Sometimes it was more of a complaint session, but we could laugh about the messups and discuss what we might be able to do differently in this or that situation. And we weren’t “Rev. This” or “Pastor That.”
That’s why it’s been so important to deliberately seek out friends. People who aren’t reliant on me for their spiritual care. Even when I don’t feel like it, I know that there are times that I need to go to some activity just so that I don’t become too introverted and inward focused. Especially in times when things seem to go wrong with the other Christians one finds in the church… when it’s Christians who seem to be attacking or condemning or complaining. In the same way that our parishioners need to have encouragement, so do us pastors.
Part of my thinking and meditating this afternoon and evening is how far have I come? I feel better (as in better than I used to feel… not that I feel ‘all better’). How have I gotten there? Because I suspect that I’m not the only pastor out there to experience the ‘blues’ or outright depression.
I think the number one thing I did that helped me begin to heal was to find someone who took me seriously that maybe I had something going on. Out of fairness, my wife had said I was depressed and needed to see a counselor for several years, but the defense mechanisms were well oiled that I couldn’t hear her. It wasn’t until my physician, my medical doctor, gave me a prescription for an anti-depressant that I was finally able to start the process.
And even then, I was looking at the need to lose weight, and recognized that I probably needed help to step away from the comfort-food/stress-eating times. He prescibed a low dose of prozac as a way of ‘taking the edge off’ in order to allow me the chance to walk through some of the issues.
It helped… some. It helped me enough to let me see that I was dealing with A LOT of unresolved issues that were weighing heavily on me… not because any of them were super-huge dilemmas, but rather because there was such a vast array of undealt with emotions and unresolved concerns that the sheer volume of them threatened to drown me in a sea of grief.
And it took ALL of my defense mechanisms to ‘stay afloat.’ Thus the comfort foods, etc. (and A LOT of extra weight gain).
That low dose of anti-depressant allowed me to realize that I needed to deal with the ‘stuff’ so I began seeing a counselor, mine happens to be a Christian psychologist, but there are many fine counselors who aren’t Christian and many who come from a community counseling or sociology background rather than the psychology end.
With his help to unpack all the stuff in the closet of my mind and emotional storage center, I have been able to rethink through things that I hadn’t dealt with since I was a kid, or a teen, or a mixed up (often inebriated) college kid… only this time to think them through with an adult perspective and adult coping skills. Those events and feelings and stuff are still there… and always will be… It’s just that before I started this process, it was like they were haunting me and waiting for me from behind some hidden closet door in my mind. Now, after working through this process with medication and a counselor, those thoughts and feelings and memories are being sorted and rearranged and reevaluated and stored in a more orderly, understandable way… Rather than vague memories that haunt and hinder my growth, these rearranged and ordered thoughts and feelings can now serve as tools that help me find strength of character as I face the still unknown future.
Somewhere in the process, with the help of the counselor and the medicine, I began to be able to focus mentally enough again to be able to return to reading. And that, at least for me, has made a world of difference.
Some of the most helpful books have been:
- Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal With Destructive Conflict, Kenneth C. Haugk, Augsburg Fortress Publishers: 1988
- Becoming a Healthier Pastor: Family Systems Theory and the Pastor’s Own Family (Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling Series), Ronald W. Richardson, Augsburg Fortress Publishers: 2004
- Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack, G. Lloyd Rediger, Westminster John Knox Press: 1997
- Coping With Depression, Siang-Yang Tan & John Ortberg, Baker Books: 2004
- Pastors in Pain, Gary D. Preston, Baker Books: 2005
- The Wounded Minister: Healing from and Preventing Personal Attacks, Guy Greenfield, Baker Books: 2001
- The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, Henri Nouwen, Image (reissue): 1979
- The Other Side of Love: Handling Anger in a Godly Way, Gary Chapman, Moody: 1999
- They Smell Like Sheep: Spiritual Leadership for the 21st Century, Lynn Anderson, Howard Books: 2002
- Walking Through The Valley: Understanding and Emerging from Clergy Depression, Robert L. Randall, Abingdon Press: 1998.
Of course, there have been other books… some light easy to read books and some theological wonders… along with some C.S. Lewis and some J.R.R. Tolkein. But these were the biggies.
I have had to have my medication increased several times… I’m a big guy and it took a lot. I had to see my counselor pretty often there for awhile. But now, two and a half years later, along with some other healthier choices and a very understanding district superintendent that I’ve been able to be very honest with, I see my counselor only once in a while and am on the very lowest possible medicine dosage again.
Ultimately, it’s my wife that’s probably helped me the most… despite the times when I have all of the defenses going, thinking I’m being self-protective, it’s usually my wife that alerts me when I’m starting to bottle things up and keep my feelings inside… and that’s when I start to get ‘sicker’ with this depression. When she says she doesn’t know what’s going on inside of me, it’s a red flag that I’ve been keeping it all in too much.
I am not completely healed. I still need a lot of healing and help. But as long as I don’t isolate and allow myself to try and be some kind of a lone ranger, there’s hope ahead for me.
And I don’t believe I’m alone in the pastoral ranks in this realm either. Catch the words of Charles Wesley’s song from 1749 about the Methodist pastors who would come together in conference once a year…
1. And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!
2. Preserved by power divine to full salvation here, again in Jesus’ praise we join, and in his sight appear.
3. What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without, and fears within,since we assembled last!
4. Yet out of all the Lord hath brought us by his love; and still he doth his help afford, and hides our life above.
5. Then let us make our boast of his redeeming power, which saves us to the uttermost, till we can sin no more.
6. Let us take up the cross till we the crown obtain, and gladly reckon all things loss so we may Jesus gain. http://gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/hymns/umh553.stm