The news of a California pastor’s suicide sent shockwaves through the internet this week and rightly so. That news should stop each of us engaged in pastoral responsibilities in our tracks and drive us to our knees on behalf of his family and his church. Every day this week my Facebook feed has been filled with articles about his story and other posts about depression and learning to pastor through it. All this means that the rampant struggles of depression and anxiety are not restricted to any one person, but have become more and more of a common experience.
In that case, it seems right to stop for a moment and offer a few suggestions for any among us who may be attempting to pastor through anxiety and depression.
You’ve felt it. I know you have. You’ve experienced shame even asking the questions. “Am I depressed?” “Could I have anxiety?” The answer may very-well be in the affirmative and that’s okay. Too often, those of us who break open the Bread of Life on Sunday believe ourselves to be in less need of its nourishment somehow. We believe ourselves to be above the struggle and pain that every person in this fallen world experiences. Or, at the very least, we believe that we should be.
The first step to dealing with anxiety and depression is simply an acknowledgment of its presence in your life. We have to be honest with ourselves and we have to be honest with God. And every single one of us, if asked by a member of our church, would offer her hope in the knowledge that God is not surprised or offended by her struggles. God is not ashamed of his children mired in depression or anxiety. He is good and loving and gracious and offers us hope and healing. But we must first be honest with our need and we must be honest with our struggles. We must be willing to acknowledge our pain and take it to him in prayer.
Get Outside and Offline
Now this point is more anecdotal, but indulge me if you will. The present generation is wrestling with a lack of contentment and a lack of happiness despite innumerable advances in medicine and technology. No generation has ever been as connected or medicated as our own. And yet, the statistics reveal an increasing unhappiness. We are depressed. We lack contentment with our lives.
And I wonder how much of this can be attributed to our use of Instagram and Facebook. Now, before you write me off as a simple Luddite, I have profiles on both of these platforms. But, in doing so, I can absolutely see and recognize the temptation to compare my day with their day. Their day is picture-perfect, framed in just the right light, and presented in all its glory on my feed. My day is messy, hectic, and scrambled. And I have to force everything into just the right package to snap a quick selfie to look like I have it all pulled together.
I think the official word for most of what we see online is hooey.
Perhaps, then, one of the most important things we can do when things begin to turn sour is to reject the temptation to seek escape by scrolling through the perfect pictures in our feeds and to go outside and look at the horizon. Take a walk through the woods or in the park. Just let the sun do its thing and rain down that Vitamin D. If you feel extra-motivated, step the walk up to a run. Release some endorphins. Getting outside and offline prevents you from withdrawing from your life by escaping into the feeds of various social media, but instead places you in a specific moment in time and position in space. Be present and not distant.
Get in Community
Remember the last time your small group got real and the entire group began to open up about the very deep struggles everyone is facing? All it took was one person breaking through the niceties that keep everyone at a safe distance. One family’s children seemed to abandoning everything that they’ve been taught now that they’re grown. Another family was wrestling with the failing health of a child or a parent. One marriage that looked downright ideal on the outside was close to calling it quits. And that one family—maybe even the host family—with the nice house in the nice neighborhood is drowning in debt and doesn’t see any way out. And in that moment, when all pretense was stripped away, your small group began caring for one another, praying for one another, and helping one another.
That’s what real community can do.
But it takes gut-wrenching and terrifying honesty.
When you begin wrestling with anxiety and depression, the first impulse is to withdraw—withdraw from your relationships, from your schedule, from your life. And everything in you resists getting help. You become ashamed that you, O Man of God, need help from someone else. You feel the guilt of not being able to pray yourself through it. You feel the weight of knowing that you’ve been tasked with the care of souls and yet you cannot even care for your own.
Get help anyway.
Reach out to someone. I know how difficult it is to even consider. Get help anyway. Find a fellow-pastor and share your struggles. Find a solid, biblical counselor and schedule a time to sit down and get help. Recently, it struck me that even my family-members who are medical doctors go to a doctor when they become ill. They recognize their limited ability to self-diagnose—and as anyone who has ever visited WebMD should know, self-diagnoses are never good.
Break the Cycle
The story repeats itself over and over. Someone begins to wrestle with anxiety and depression and, in his struggle, denies the scope of his pain and tries to white-knuckle through a solution, keeping his pain to himself. As it festers and grows, he becomes ashamed that he can’t shake it and rather than telling someone, he hides it behind a pastoral mask and refuses to let anyone see how much he hurts until it overwhelms him and he only sees one means of escape.
You are not alone.
Pastor at University Baptist Church, San Antonio.
Professor. PhD in Theology.
Runner. Cyclist. 2nd Dan.
Roast Master at caffeinatedtheology.com.