Today's post is from a chapter I wrote for a book titled, Ten Count (2016), a collaborative work from pastors across the country sharing their stories of failure and defeat. The title of this chapter is: "When The Levee Breaks", and it is one of my many stories of dealing with anxiety and depression in ministry. You can read the first post in this "Unforeseen Lessons" series here.
If it keeps on raining, the levee’s goin’ to break“When The Levee Breaks” by Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie (1929)
If it keeps on raining, the levee’s goin’ to break
And when the levee breaks,
I’ll have no place to stay
She talked, I listened.
That’s about all you can do when someone is leaving the church. These conversations don’t come with reversals, only endings. People don’t usually go in a fit of rage. Some do, yes. But most don’t. Most go slowly, over time. For weeks or months or even years, they work up the courage to cut loose. It’s a slow fade. It’s the worst kind of breakup. And the whole time she was giving me the reasons why she and her family were moving on, all I could think about was how in the hell I was going to get into their home to get my INXS cassette tape back. “Live Baby, Live, 1991.” Gone forever.
I left the office for the rest of the day after that phone call. We’re a small shop. We all work in the same room. I didn’t want to be consoled, or fixed, or made to feel guilty with some quote from Galatians about pleasing God over people. I wanted to drink. A lot. But I don’t drink. Not anymore. So I went home. I stood there and stared at the Jerry Garcia poster on our kitchen wall, happy that my wife is the kind who lets that kind of thing hang on our wall. Jerry is gone. Died in 1995. I’m still around. So I had that going for me.
I don’t mean to sound flippant. I’m not. It’s just that that kind of shit had been rolling in at a steady pace for so long that it had become the kind of thing I had grown to expect. Two weeks after that phone call, I got another one from our landlord (we lease our space) who told me we had 60 days to get out. The property had been sold, and the developers wanted to get started straightaway. It’s one thing to move a family in two months. It’s another to move a congregation. Two weeks after that? I had to let a part- time staff member go.
I was on the ropes.
That’s the phrase for when you’re cornered and unable to get clear of what’s happening to you. It’s that feeling of being trapped in a blur of opposition, and with no foreseeable escape. You can’t move out of the way of the hits, and the hits keep coming. In boxing, it’s a literal station. You’re pressed up against the ropes that frame the ring, and your competitor has you contained, hitting you over and over and over again. You’ve seen it before. The guy on the ropes just covers his head and tries to lean far enough forward to change the situation. Sometimes it works. Sometimes he goes down.
There had been times over the last year when I just wanted to fall to the floor. That way the hits would have stopped, at least long enough for me to crawl out of the way. But when you’re on the ropes, you can’t go anywhere.
I had tried to quit.
Two churches reached out to me, and I applied to them both. In the end, they both said no. From the start I wasn’t really interested in going. Those were just short-term opportunities to feel needed, in control, and to escape my current situation, if only in my mind. But a rejection is still a rejection. And nothing makes your current situation seem worse than when your potential way out closes up.
Those rejections temporarily escalated my awareness of everything that was falling apart on my watch. Attendance was dropping. The finances weren’t improving. People were leaving. Small groups were folding. Marriages were breaking. People weren’t singing. Preaching was flattening. Classes weren’t getting off the ground. Events weren’t connecting. And I was more aware than ever of how our baptistery, like those empty and hollowed out cisterns at the wedding at Cana, just sat there, invisible like, and unused (except for hiding guitar cases on Sunday). It got to the point where I would walk in on Monday fully expecting to chart another loss by Friday.
I was on the ropes.
Depression is not an easy thing. It takes over in weird ways. I kept showering, and I didn’t stop eating. But I did disappear a lot. I would tell my staff team that I was headed home to work for the rest of the day, to work in quiet on my sermon or something. It was all a lie. I would go home mid-morning and sleep for the rest of the day. Sometimes two or three times a week this would happen.
I met with a pastor in another city. We both teach a course at the same university. He had become a friend of trust and encouragement. He had also been through all this himself. He was older. That’s key. Two pastors who are the same age are almost useless in mutual counseling. You need someone ahead of you, someone with scars from cuts that you’re only just receiving. He asked me if I was sleeping all day. I said I was. He asked if I was tired of living. I said no. He asked if I was seeing a counselor. I said it had a been awhile. He stared at me. I said I would make the phone call. I said that I just needed a win, for something to go in the right direction.
The weird thing was this: despite all that was going in the wrong direction, there were things going in the right direction. Yes, it was a long season of watching people move on, of things not working out financially, of ministry initiatives not getting off the ground, all of which led to a feeling of scarcity among the staff and leaders. But in the midst of all that, there were continuous displays of God’s presence among us, and of His dedicated work in and through us.
It helps when you take a rotation in serving the communion. In our services everyone comes forward to receive the bread and the cup. We speak to those who are served, “The body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, poured out for you.” If we know their names, we add those in: “Janet, the body of Christ, broken for you.” To say those words while looking into the eyes of someone has done more for me than I can explain here. To say those words to the addict, the divorcee, the couple that’s on the brink, the childless, the depressed, the guilt-ridden, the scared, the doubtful, the agnostic, and the people who never seem to wander from the Lord…it’s all too much to take in in 5 minutes. I often cry as a server of the communion, but just enough that I can still speak, still smile, and still hold up the line while I hug the person.
In 1 Timothy 4:12, Paul writes: “Let no one look down on you for your youth, but set the an example for believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”
The word for “example” here is typos (τύπος), a word that describes the aftermath of opposition. It means the “mark” of a hit or cut. Thomas used the same word when he announced his disbelief in the resurrection, saying, “Unless I see in his hands the typos of the nails, and place my hand into his side,
I will never believe.” (John 20:25)
Timothy wanted to walk away from his pastoral work in Ephesus. Paul wanted him to stay. There was still work to be done, and Timothy needed to sit tight and work it through. He was apparently under a great deal of stress, and it was coming from his own people, the result of his own work. I appreciate that Paul didn’t impose a possible leadership issue on Timothy’s part, but rather a call to consider what ministry was doing to him, not for him, or for his church.
Ministry will always leave a mark. It’s not possible to go through this unscathed. Scars, and the stories behind them, are to be expected. Even embraced. But it seems that we have the choice in the kind of mark ministry leaves on us. Look at that list again: the mark of speech, of conduct, of love, of faith, of purity. (And can we just agree on the genius of the sequence of this list? Isn’t it always the case that when we’re under a lot of negative pressure that the first thing to go is our speech? Which can open the door to destructive conduct. Which can erode our love. Which can bring conflict into our faith. Which can erase our calling to be set apart.)
We have the choice of the kind of mark ministry will leave on us.
Ministry is a sobering vocation, and must be embraced as such. Its leader is to stand on his own two feet, tall in the midst of whatever comes his way, unwilling to bury and hide the troubles underneath escapist behaviors. Ministry must be allowed to hit, and to hit hard. The velocity of suffering and pain and anger and doubt and confusion and insecurity is enough to leave one in the valley of the shadow of death, stunned and uncertain. But do not run.
It is here reliance emerges. The Lord again becomes the guide, the way through, and the way out. Resurrection begins with death, not life.
Epilogue: Leading With Depression & Anxiety
Depression and anxiety have been in my life for a long time, and my career as a pastor has been one in which I’ve had to learn to deal with, and work alongside, both. So in a kind of follow-up to my story above, I want to let you in on several practices I keep sacred. Perhaps these may be of help to you.
Being upfront with my congregation about the breakage in my life has done a lot for me (and I suppose for them, too), not least the assurance that I don’t need to steal away and hide behind some made-up story of a life of togetherness. It’s best to be an honest leader. My congregation knows that I’ve been to counseling. It knows that I take medication. It knows that worry can follow me around. It knows that I can disappear in certain situations. While I recognize this sort of thing could be a potential occupational hazard for some of you, I really hope you have people in your congregation who will allow you to unravel in front of them, and who will walk with you in your honesty and openness.
It’s been good for me to know, and almost make a list of, various scenarios and experiences that often impose extra stress into my life. This is not so that I may avoid them when they come. That’s not very helpful. It’s so that I may be conscious of what it is that may be causing me to feel certain things – often negative – about myself. Sit down and make a list of particular conversations or leadership situations or pastoral offices that cause stress and anxiety for you. Then build scripts to get through those, and reactions you may try in the future. Better yet, have your closest co- leaders (staff, elders, etc.) make the list for you. Trust me, they already know!
Our church funds the value of counseling. When a member of our church desires to go, we help pay the bill if needed. It’s also a “perk” of being on my staff. Everyone has that at their disposal. Sitting down with someone who is an expert on mental and emotional dynamics has been a necessary thing for both me and all of my staff. Sometimes they say, “You’re fine. Let it go.” Other times they say, “Let’s do some work on this.” Find a counseling center nearby and build that bridge.
I’m sure you already know this, but leadership doesn’t fix internal weakness. It irritates it. It draws it out. And simply “holding it together” in order to come across tidy and stable won’t do. Self-deception flows away from community, and the distance will only increase. As my wife says: “Crazy don’t hide for too long.”
Do what you can to stay healthy!
And email me if you need to at firstname.lastname@example.org
Next Post: Distrust and Fear