When I began my first pastorate at Litchard Mission in July 2017, I had been theologically prepared for a lot of challenges, but experiencing depression wasn’t one of them. The first year of ministry was filled with encouragements. Then, completely unexpectedly, I ended up in hospital for thirty-two days with a perforated appendix and so began my journey with depression. My prolonged hospitalisation left me with a sense of failure. Failure as a pastor for not coping better (whatever that meant) and failure as a dad for not recovering quicker (even though that wasn’t my fault). Ongoing irrational thoughts of failure meant that I hid how I really felt and just got back to work.
It didn’t take long before my mental health started to decline. It became harder to concentrate on sermon preparation. I struggled to relax outside of working hours. It was difficult to look forward to anything at all. I wanted to escape. Thoughts of self-harm became a daily reality. Even when I was spending the song before the sermon telling myself to end my life, I didn’t get help. Instead, I became an expert in hiding my symptoms. A mixture of paranoia and pride led me to continue my pastoral duties. If I admitted my problems, wouldn’t that just prove I was an impostor? Wouldn’t that end really badly?
Thankfully, in a moment of clarity, I sat down with Hannah (my wife) and shared everything that had been going on. With her encouragement, I saw a very helpful GP the following day, who prescribed antidepressants and referred me to an occupational therapy team. That left me with the terrifying question: what about the church?
I sent an ambiguous text to one of the elders who was a GP. We met that evening, I told him everything I had shared at my doctor’s surgery in the morning and he persuaded me that I definitely needed a break.
My sick leave ended up lasting five months. Many of those days were very dark. At my lowest, I made a specific plan to end my life. For weeks, Hannah hid the house keys at night to stop me acting on my plan but my diagnosis helped me to understand that I was genuinely unwell and gave me some hope that things might get better. Gradually, with the encouragement of friends, the support of therapists, and the grace of God, things did get better.
Returning to ministry
I spent a lot of my sick leave assuming that I wouldn’t ever be a pastor again. It was difficult to imagine returning to church responsibilities. My memories of ministry were dominated by the final few months of pastoring, with their accompanying paranoia, sense of failure and thoughts of self-harm, but over time, by God’s grace, my health improved and my outlook changed. In July 2019, I was able to begin a phased return to my role. At a human level, my fellow elders played a crucial part in my return to full-time ministry. I had been very aware of their support throughout my sick leave. They placed no pressure on me in terms of recovery, but were happy to keep patiently praying and listening. In my thinking, I often returned to the description of Jesus in Hebrews 2:11 as the one who is ‘not ashamed’ to call me a brother. As the Man of Sorrows, Jesus understands the pain and darkness of this world, because he experienced it himself. He wasn’t ashamed of me in my struggles, even with my messy thoughts and antidepressant prescriptions. Instead, he was ready to offer strength and help with real sympathy and kindness.
Ministering out of depression
Another passage that has been helpful to me in my journey with depression is 2 Corinthians 1, especially the reminder that God works through the most hopeless situations in life to make us better able to comfort others. Two years on from my diagnosis, I can see something of how God is continuing to shape me as a pastor and preacher through my depression. Even those weeks where I was able to do very little were not wasted by him. At a basic level, my own experience of mental pain has left me better able to sympathise with those facing similar struggles and more aware of what it might look like to be a good friend to those who are depressed.
I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last few years as well. Depression is a very humbling experience. This led me to reflect on my own human weaknesses and made me more willing to accept my limitations. Pastoral ministry can be a perfect environment for setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others, but the Bible shows us how God’s power works through weakness. In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul’s trials were a lesson in learning to rely not on himself but on God, who raises the dead. Depression has helped me learn a similar lesson – although I am not learning the lesson as quickly as I might like!
Depression has also forced me to reflect much more on my emotions, which in turn has made me more willing to think and speak about emotions in my ministry. My appreciation of the psalms has grown a lot in the last few years, and I’ve become more thankful for the range of human emotions they express.
As I write these words, my journey with depression continues. I still take antidepressants every morning. I have some better weeks; I have some worse weeks. Thoughts of self-harm are now rare but other symptoms continue to be very familiar. At the same time, I am writing this after several months leading a church through a global pandemic.
By God’s grace, it has been possible for me to keep going in ministry with depression. An important part of keeping going has been learning to be open with God about how I am doing. The psalms give us a liberating example of openness in prayer, including with feelings of despair, fear and abandonment. There is no mental health stigma in Heaven and my Father knows I am only human. In my depression, I can sometimes forget this wonderful truth, but talking honestly with God is an ongoing source of strength and encouragement.
Speaking with other people has also been helpful, just as it was in my initial period of recovery. I am thankful for a few friends who I can speak with honestly and remain especially grateful for the continued support of my wife Hannah. As an introvert with depression, I’m not always in the mood for conversation, but when I am, it can help me to process my thoughts and give me a reminder that I’m not as isolated as I might feel. Short messages of encouragement from church members continue to be a blessing. In recent months, it’s been valuable to have the opportunity to hear from a few other pastors facing similar struggles with depression.
Above all of these things, when I look back at the last few years, it’s clear that I’m only where I am by God’s grace. When I’ve felt unable to keep going, he’s kept me. That’s a comforting thought when I look ahead into the future. I don’t know whether my depression will be a life-long struggle; I don’t even know what mood I will be in next week, but I do know that the Man of Sorrows will remain with me and, one day, all this darkness will end.
This article is taken from The Pastor with a Thorn in His Side, a collection of real-life stories from pastors who have suffered from depression published by Grace Publications. It is reprinted with permission.