Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Depression: Pastors in Pain

David Treadway, pastor of Sandy Ridge Baptist Church in Hickory, North Carolina committed suicide in September. His tragic death is the fourth pastor suicide in the Carolinas during the past four years. Pastor Treadway was undergoing treatment for depression. In a USA Today article published October 29, 2009, Greg Warner addressed depression among pastors. He wrote, “Most depression does not lead to suicide, but almost all suicides begin with depression.”

The article identified impossible role expectations often placed upon pastors, together with their innate resistance to seek help when they become depressed. They fear, too often appropriately, that congregational leaders would understand their depression to be a failure of faith rather than an illness to be treated. So, pastors suffer alone while trying to care for others.

Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas said “The likelihood is that one out of every four pastors is depressed." Further, “Anxiety and depression in the pulpit are "markedly higher" in the last five years...The current economic crisis has caused many of our pastors to go into depression."

The author clearly cited the economic environment as a primary cause. Then he added, “Besides the recession's strain on church budgets, depressed pastors increasingly report frustration over their congregations' resistance to cultural change. When I read those words, a passing comment on a secondary cause of depression in the article, my heart leaped. For that is precisely what I repeatedly hear from pastors across North America.

“My congregation wants to return to the way things used to be. They are unwilling to accept the reality of cultural changes in our world. Further, they perceive culture, “the way we do things” as sacred. Even when those things are no longer working, they say we should just try to do them better. And when those old methods are not successful, the failure is perceived as being the fault of the pastoral staff. They are unwilling to allow our congregational culture to change so that we can be more relevant among a changing population.” This resistance to change is sometimes public. At other times it skims just beneath the surface like a private torpedo locked on target, ready to do massive destruction.

As pastors understand the marginalization of Christianity in contemporary culture, consequently perceiving the requisite adaptation of the church toward an incarnational missionary posture, their passion to lead toward such culture shifts is often met with resistance. Leading a conventional congregation to perceive the need for change is a massive undertaking, a challenge that will often result in things getting worse before they get better. Those who cannot accept the need for internal congregational change will voice opposition. Those who support internal change will then find themselves defending the need for change. Repeatedly I have seen the dialogue move from the issue of “changing the way we do things” to challenges of personal loyalty within the congregation. Instead of conflict about process, the conflict becomes personal.

In those moments, pastors are caught in the untenable position of loving, serving, and leading a flock that has become divided. I can recall the deep pain of having a man whom I loved dearly, but who did not agree with new directions in ministry, unleash a barrage of vindictive verbal assaults. He was mad. Plain and simple. And his words were not filled with grace in that instance. His words were fiery darts. I felt the darts tear through my heart, a heart that had given eight years of pastoral care to our flock. In my own immaturity I tried to reason with him while he was still angry. I so wanted to please. To make it all right. And when I could not, I walked away wounded. When I was alone, I wept bitterly. Over the next weeks, I was too bruised and weak to continue to lead toward the kind of changes that needed to be made in order for effective ministry to continue. And I walked into a dark night that lasted for months.

Ultimately I found solace through the counsel of Ken Sharp, the tallest Christian counselor I have ever known, who became a dear friend in ministry. Further, I warmed to my own condition as I read Don Baker and Emery Nester’s, Depression: Finding Hope and Meaning in Life’s Darkest Shadow, a wonderful treatment published by Multnomah Press. Not nearly every pastor is blessed with an understanding friend and counselor. Many do not find voices to accompany them through their pain.

As North American churches struggle in a changed and changing culture, the role of pastoral leadership is challenging. We constantly encounter brothers and sisters in ministry who are walking a tightrope as they lead. It is highly improbable that they will be able to walk the tightrope, lead toward a new way of being church in a changing culture, and keep everybody happy in the process. I pray that we can be fellow pilgrims on their journey offering support and encouragement where we can. And sometimes, our greatest help may be simply to walk with them through the darkness.

One thing I know. We must not let those who are suffering walk the path alone.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Coming from a family of ministers; my father was a pastor, and my uncle was an education minister. I am now married to someone serving God on a staff of a local church. With this in mind, I say THANK YOU! Thank you for voicing this. Let us pray for the body of Christ. There are many hurting pastors and their families. Unity in the body, kingdom life and God's glory is their passion and deepest longing -but the road is a difficult one and can be extemely confusing, even as one seeks the face of God.

Many issues can be spiritualized and/or marginalized to where the ones involved may begin questioning their very call at times.

Thank you again for speaking to this.

Anonymous said...

by the way(from above comment) - my uncle was one of those who took their life due to the pressure and expectations in ministry.

Curtis Ferrell said...

I've been there . . . in some ways I'm still there . . . but God is STILL good . . .

Pastor Paul said...

This is an issue so much larger than most people realize. I appreciate your willingness to address it in an exhorting way to the Church!