Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I shouldn't have to choose between my calling and my life

PostSecret describes itself as "an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard." I check the site occasionally because I can find stark honesty from people. One caveat - the postcards are sometimes crude.

Recently found on PostSecret:

I shouldn’t have to choose between my calling and my life. I’m afraid the church won’t ordain me if I go to rehab for my depression but I’m afraid I’ll take my life if I don’t…
Those two sentences were all that was written on the postcard. While the comment obviously came from another religious tradition, not Southern Baptist, it expresses something that is true for myself and other SBC clergy: Serious depression, if made public, is probably a ministry killer.

Occasionally, LifeWay or Baptist Press will carry an article by or about a pastor who has experienced serious depression. I can recall just one fellow pastor who mentioned from the pulpit (he was preaching a revival in my church) his bout with depression. We get a prominent SBC pastor every now and then who will talk about depression.

Mostly, though, your average SBC pastor understands that unless he has a ministry death wish, he better keep his mouth shut.

It is really sad that we can get sympathy and prayers from our congregations and colleagues if we suffer with heart disease or cancer but get polite sympathy followed by unspoken contempt if we admit that we have depression serious enough to require medical treatment. Being hospitalized for depression labels the minister as damaged goods. It's not fair but it is the reality on the ground.

Part of the problem, and I'm offering pure conjecture here, is that even we ministers think that depression is evidence of a spiritual problem and if a minister or layperson is seriously depressed then he must be deficient in his walk with the Lord. We may not state it so plainly but probably give that impression in our preaching and teaching.

If I preach on a passage where depression is part of the text, Jonah is probably the most familiar, I always include an admonition to get medical attention, just like for heart disease.

But for SBC clergy, no, you shouldn't have to choose between your calling and your life but if you must, choose life.


Moses Model said...

I completely agree. There is a great difficulty in ministering, but knowing that you never really live up to their standards or your own. Being a minister can often be a lonely job. On Sunday morning there is nobody to preach to you. If the congregation ever found out that their leader is depressed they would most likely eat him alive from the inside out.

Likewise if they ever found out about the state of their marriages, they would lose clout. I forget the actual numbers, but a sizable percentage of pastors do not consider themselves happily married. These ministers preach about marriage and counsel couples, but they do not feel happy.

One small anecdote, I once started attending another church's functions with a friend, just so I could let my guard down and be myself. I wasn't being a hypocrite at my church, but there was only so much that I could say about what was going on with my life. Everything I said at my church had to be under the guise of leadership and the role that I had agreed to play.

Tom Parker said...

Sadly, most members of a church never realize how much depression goes along with being a minister.

Not getting treatment can have serious consequences for the minister and others.

As Moses said:"If the congregation ever found out that their leader is depressed they would most likely eat him alive from the inside out."

How sad but true, Moses.

The folks in the pew are allowed to be depressed but the man or woman behind the pulpit is never allowed to be depressed.

Anonymous said...

Tom Parker wrote: "The folks in the pew are allowed to be depressed but the man or woman behind the pulpit is never allowed to be depressed."

I'm not sure that any professional (outside of the arts community) is "allowed" to be depressed.

Anonymous said...

You are so right on so many levels. We are so similar to your pharisee cousins, that if we have something wrong we automatically jump to there being sin in our life. While that may be true at times, it isn't always true.

When I was in seminary, we were told in a pastoral care class that most ministers go through their ministry in a mild form of depression. This shocked me...but then again, I just "knew" that I would never be a pastor. Go figure.

However, there are other secrets ministers keep. Other things, whether they are personality related, skeletons in the closet, or even sin they've been struggling with for years. Either way, we feel that we can't be truly transparent with our congregation lest we get eaten alive.

Why does church work seem to be so hazardous?

Tim Dahl

Anonymous said...

Tim, I would question the data that most clergy go through their career with mild depression. Occasional depression, sure.

I decided long ago that I would be generally open and transparent with my churches rather than hold them at arms length. They probably know when something is wrong anyway. I have not found the practice to have harmed me.


Anonymous said...

It does not help the situation of which you write when SBC pastors pen counsel like that currently on display at SBC Voices: 10 Reasons Why You Should NOT Commit Suicide.

Tom Rich said...

William - Johnny Hunt has been very honest about the depression he suffered last year after his term as SBC president ended. Would love to see you do an article on that. Johnny Hunt I think did pastors a great service in being honest about what he went through.

William Thornton said...

I said this last November on Hunt: Johnny Hunt acknowledged depression and anxiety among other things after returning from 11 weeks off. Good for him. Sadly, most SBC pastors would receive an unlimited amount of weeks off if they broke the taboo of acknowledging some form of mental illness.

I have given him credit for being open on the matter but there is a very strong disconnect between a megachurch pastor and an average pastor on things like this.

We average SBC pastors don't get every July off, don't get sabbaticals, and will almost certainly not be given several months to recover from depression.

Those of us insured with GuideStone can purchase a modest disability plan that gives us some degree of security if we are debilitated by depression.