Yesterday, a pastor friend of mine shared a post from a church I did not know, Inland Hills Church. The church was announcing the passing of their pastor from depression and anxiety. Their pastor had died by suicide.
Like the thousands of people that read the post, my heart broke for the congregation, for the family of this pastor, and for the pastor himself who had clearly suffered under the weight of mental illness. But unlike many who reacted to the news, I empathized deeply with the pastor. I too have suffered for years from depression and anxiety. This past February, I reacted badly to a medication change and within 24 hrs. was thrust back into the pit of depression, ideation and all. (Ideation is mental-illness speak for suicidal thoughts. Less scary to say outloud, or at least less shocking to the listener.)
My story obviously did not take the turn of the beloved young man that died this weekend. I do not know his circumstances and will not speak to his situation. I can only speak to what sustained me through that scary time, and past forays into the belly of the beast. I had the support of a mental health professional who carefully monitored my state. I had the rock-solid support of a husband whose eyes and arms are nothing short of lifeboats to me when I am lost at sea. I had parents who did not judge me or try to fix me, but answered my much-too-frequent calls just so I could hear their voices. I had a local congregation who continually expressed love to me, often in practical ways through meals and notes of encouragement.
But here’s the kicker: none of those things would have been accessible to me in my hour of need had I not made the difficult decision to be vulnerable*, to let the world into my hurt. If I would have persisted in perpetuating the image that everything was fine and I did not need help, I can only imagine where I would have landed. Isolation is deadly.
A few weeks after coming out of my last depressive episode (with help from a magnetic means of grace called Deep TMS), I chose to post a brief reflection on my blog that I had written during my darkest hour. It was raw, exposed, and honest. I did not hide the hurt or gloss over the broken pieces. My post ended, not with resolution, but with me sitting in the dark, much like David in the cave hiding from Saul, calling out to God for rescue. I chose to include a picture of myself during that time, and it was not pretty. My eyes were read from weeping, my face splotchy, the hurt pulsing from every pore.
The vast majority of feedback I received was positive, either notes of encouragement or expressions of gratitude for my vulnerability. A couple individuals even sent me messages saying my vulnerability gave them the courage to say yes to a call to ministry even with their own diagnosis of mental illness. What a grace those words were.
Others were less positive, unsettled by my rawness and the angry pain that came through in my words. There was concern that a pastor would be expressing such difficult things, and for the world to see. How can a church trust a pastor that not only deals with depression, but also allows people see some of the ugly underbelly?
I recognize there are generational differences that produce responses of that nature. My generation is much less willing to lie about what hurts (and I currently writing a book about that very subject). Generations past were most concerned with maintaining the respectable appearance, even at the expense of their souls.
What I know is this, vulnerability saved my life on more than one occasion. It has saved me from the deadly dichotomy of self, that split personality between public and private images that is so toxic, particularly to those in vocational ministry. It has saved me from suffering alone and has allowed me to experience God’s grace through the tender care of others. It has given me the uncomfortable gift of humility, as I can no longer pretend like I have it all together. If anyone doubted before, that post made it clear: I am broken too.
So, in light of the tragedy of this weekend, I say to my church, the denomination to which I have given my life, with which I have taken my ordination vows, let's be intentional in our response to the mental health of our pastors.
Denominational Leaders, pay attention to your pastors. Know them. Work together to create systems of response to pastors struggling with mental health. Can you partner with a counselors office in your area to offer discounted rates or even a few free sessions? Can you connect pastors with others who have been or are on the same rocky road? No one expects you to "fix" this problem, but it is right and just to expect leaders to educate themselves on these vital issues and explore appropriate responses.
Churches, care for your pastors. Encourage them to take their vacation time. All of it. Let go of those idolatrous expectations that your pastor have it all together, all of the time. Your pastors are human beings, marred by the wounds of Sin and Death, just like you. As holiness people, we sometimes squirm under that language, thinking it somehow discredits or nullifies the sanctifying work of God, that is somehow is a pass for ongoing sin. It’s not. It is rather the acknowledgement that, this side of eternity, we will bear the marks of the consequences of the brokenness of all of creation. Holiness is not sinless perfection; it is perfect love with our feet continually pointed toward the cross, heading towards Jesus. Let your pastor be on that journey too.
Pastors, drop the front. You are not immune to depression, anxiety, or any of their obnoxious cousins. Release the fear of what people will think, recognizing that regardless of anything you could ever do, you are now and forever the Beloved of God. As Henri Nouwen says, we are not what we do, and that includes pastoring. Be comforted, Beloved. Do not be ashamed to seek help. You are not alone, and you certainly are not the only pastor who has ever experienced this kind of hurt. If no one else will say it, I will: I’VE BEEN THERE TOO.
I am grateful for the support and love I have been shown on my journey with mental illness. My prayer is that every pastor can experience the care needed to seek health. May we all do our part in creating a culture that does not encourage pastors to hide in shame, but one that fosters love, hospitality, and grace as we journey together toward healing and wholeness.
* My statement on my decision to be vulnerable in no way passes judgment on the pastor who lost his life this weekend. I know nothing about his level of vulnerability with his family, friends, and congregation. I speak only to what I know, namely my experience and choices.