Monday, July 25, 2011

Admit it. You've been depressed in your church.

Pastors get depressed.

Pastors’ wives get really depressed.

It’s Monday morning and I’m a little morose myself.

A steady stream of SBC folks write about pastors and depression. The latest is Thom Ranier whose recent article, When Pastors Experience Depression
offers helpful suggestions and informative links.

Ranier writes,
The articles [linked] note that the problem of depression in the ministry is not only real, but that it is growing. Further, the rate of depression among ministers is now higher than the rate of the general population.

He suggests ways laypeople can help their pastor: pray for him, make him take vacations and days off, pay him adequately. Good.

Other things I've read on depression recently are less helpful. A megachurch pastor who is depressed takes a several month sabbatical and some large church pastors near me get the month of July off.

Did I miss this trend in SBC life, where you get a month in the summer off? Guess so.

Average-sized church pastors don’t get a month off and they don’t have an ice cube’s chance in Gehenna of a sabbatical. They might live with a meager salary. They probably don’t have a staff to handle church things on his days off or vacation. Which leaves most of us without these options altogether.

If Ranier has good suggestions for laypeople, Plodder will step in with humble suggestions for pastors. No, I don’t have any special training or qualifications for such things, aside from observing some of my colleagues over the years:

1. Reevaluate how you handle ministry. Ranier suggests that one cause of clergy depression is unrealistic expectations. He's right about this.

Do you really need to be at the hospital for every type of medical issue for all of your congregation? I don’t think you can survive in a church if you try to meet everyone’s expectations.

There’s always one of your pastor predecessors who did more, more often, in ministry that you can possibly do. To some in your congregation he's a hero and you're lazy. Better to smile and ignore these people and do what you feel is proper in your ministry.

2. If called while on vacation, consider whether or not it is really necessary to cut it short. I like vacations. My wife really likes vacations. I like being away. I rather like not having the same weekly routine.

So, when on vacation and you get that phone call, is it really something that you need to get back for, immediately? How about a phone call? I admit to some anxiety when away but thinking back on almost thirty years of pastoring and vacations, there have been only a few times when I needed to drop everything and return. Most members will be understanding and considerate about this.

3. Rethink exactly what constitutes success in ministry. OK, neither you nor I can do anything to change the settled fact that the coin-of-the-realm in SBC life to many, perhaps most, pastors and laypeople, is church growth: Buildings, baptisms, budgets. If this is the measure of success, then since the great majority of SBC churches aren’t growing, most SBC pastors are unsuccessful. Depressing. Maybe we need to adjust our thinking on this.

4. GO TO THE DOCTOR. Ranier didn’t make this suggestion but should have. Depression can be a serious medical problem. Every community I’ve pastored in has a story about a pastor who committed suicide. A corollary to this is: DO WHAT THE DOCTOR SAYS. Sorry, but this one needs to be shouted. Men are stubborn about healthcare. Men pastors are doubly stubborn. If your doctor says you need it then get the prescription and take the doggone pills.

While Johnny Hunt can talk openly about his depression (and can get 11 weeks off), I don’t think most of us can. Maybe I’m wrong here but my view is that the church will view their pastor as damaged goods if he is under treatment for depression or asks for extra time off to deal with it. I'd like to think I'm wrong about this but I'm probably right.

I’d speculate that many members recognize when their pastor is in a funk and are kind and considerate enough to make allowances. They’ve been there and understand. Thank God for these people.

Of course, if one’s approach to pastoral ministry is that the pastor is superman, then ignore all this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am posting anonymously because I have been to the doctor, I take the pills, and I am certain that antagonists would take advantage of this information if they knew. For the record, I believe that we as pastors are guilty of creating many of our own problems (unrealistic expectations, ideas of success, not taking time off, etc.) and I believe we often complain too much about the wrong things.

The truth is, however, that this is a very serious medical problem and I appreciate your exhortation to consult a doctor and do what is necessary to get depression under control. It could save your life and save your family a lot of grief.

Thank you for this post, and for the wise suggestions that you have made.