But what if the depressed person is you?
Pastors are people that other people turn to – for answers, for support, for a connection to God. What are we to do when we run out of answers? – or when we are afraid even to ask the questions? Where do we find support? And as professional God-people, where do we turn when our own sense of God’s presence seems somehow empty?
Every job, every profession, has it challenges. Some of the challenges of parish ministry that make us vulnerable to depression might include:
· Relocation and distance from family – most pastors do not serve congregations in their hometowns, or near extended family
· High visibility – even for those who do not serve in especially small towns, we run into our parishioners everywhere, and there is a sense that we are always on call
· High level of unspoken – and often unconscious – expectations
· The community of faith tends to be a source of stress, rather than a resource for coping with stress
· Our own faith practices can begin to serve the profession rather than serving our souls
All of these challenges carry with them potential blessings: we are free and mobile; we have automatic access to a whole social system; there is a sense that what we say can actually have an impact – at least some of the time; we have a built-in position of authority in the church; and we get paid to pray. Sounds good. But every blessing has a built-in burden; and just telling yourself to “look on the bright side” begins to wear thin when you find yourself preparing for the third funeral you’ve had during Lent, the organist picks Holy Week as the time to have appendicitis, your 80-year old mother (who lives 150 miles away) falls and breaks a hip, and your 14-year old son tells you he thinks he’s gay.
Depression is generally not the result of a single event, but a piling on of events and stressors. We get overwhelmed. Some people are predisposed to depression, and others seem naturally resistant; but the feature that I think puts us most at risk as parish pastors is that there is usually a gap – and sometimes a chasm – between our public and private selves. There is a sense that we are not free – or it isn’t wise – for us to just blurt out whatever is on our minds, or tell people what we really think of them. We monitor and censor ourselves. On some level, that’s just part of being a grown up; but it is really part of being a pastor. And it is terribly important that we somehow deal with the thoughts and feelings and emotions that we do not feel free to express.
Depression tends to be a spiral, and it is important to catch and address the signs as early as possible: it is easier to get out of a shallow hole than a deep one. I need to be aware of:
· the kinds of thoughts I am holding onto or replaying – self-critical judgments, or the replaying of hurtful or frustrating scenarios tend to deepen the hole
· behaviors that are appealing but not actually helpful – sleeping too much or too little; eating too much or too little; working too much or too little;
· building a preventative support system – people with whom I can be completely myself, and process anything that is troubling me: that may be a friend, family member, intentional support group, therapist
· grounding in the present through some kind of physical activity – it needn’t be strenuous (it isn’t about exercise – although most of us could use some of that); it is about fully inhabiting our bodies and our lives in the present moment
As always, I welcome feedback and dialogue.