Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

Suffering in Silence

Do you put on a hapy face on Sundays but agonize in the throes of despair the rest of the week

He's a man of God, anointed to preach the Word. He's a leader among leaders, a doer of exploits for the kingdom in his church, his city and the regions beyond. Yet he sits quietly in the dim light of his study--depressed.

No one viewing him in the limelight of his ministerial functions would ever conceive that behind the spit-shined, ecclesiastical smile lies a weary soldier. For him, the days are long and the nights even longer as the pressures of life and ministry that have built up over the months begin to erode his peace, joy and sense of confidence in his purpose in ministry and yes, even in life.

Only days before, he was one who appeared to be flying high, leading the balanced life of a minister with a family, a church and a home, walking in a posture of prayer and strutting with the gait of one with vision and destiny. But today, in his dark study, hands clasping his furrowed brow, the flying high has somehow become the uncontrolled tailspin of an airborne vessel on its descent toward an imminent crash. He wrings his hands--a visible sign of a heart that is already wrung and a spirit, mind, body and emotions that have been pushed beyond any acceptable definition of healthy.

Facing depression. Webster's defines depression as "a psychoneurotic or psychotic disorder marked by sadness, inactivity, difficulty in thinking and concentration, and feelings of dejection."

In my parents' generation, depression was not a topic of general public discourse. Little was understood, beyond the daily difficulties of existence, of the causes that lead one to a state of feeling dejected. And life was too hard to allow one the luxury of sitting around in analysis of their physiological and psychological states.

Individuals who were unable to function in "normal" society were sent to the "county home." While in a few short generations our society has come a long way in our understanding of and approach to depression, as ministers we are in many ways still living in the Dark Ages.

A balanced life. Many in the ministry continue with the attitude of my parents' generation. We generally do not talk about depression, or our personal struggles with depression, until one of us ends up exposed in sin and checks in to a "religious" county home: one of the few retreat centers for clergy who have lost the ability to function in "normal" society. We are so conditioned as public figures to lead and serve that even when our inner man is ailing, the outer man continues to push on in the Lord's work.

We are driven not only by the need to maintain our image and ministry and to meet the needs of our flock, but also by self-imposed doctrinal conflicts. How could a man or woman walking in faith and power admit that they are empty and bleeding on the inside?

The word of the day for the minister is a balanced lifestyle. There is a plethora written in the form of secular, Christian and even New Age self-help books dealing with how to balance your life to avoid depression and burnout. I will not even attempt here to restate in detail the points that by now should be obvious to all:

Maintain good eating habits

Exercise regularly

Balance between work and play

Spend quality time with family

Take time for relationships

Sustain a strong devotional life

But why, with so much being written about a balanced life, do so many of our colleagues walk on the edge of depression and burnout?

We despaired even of life. For many of us, our failure to walk free of depression is found in that we are too proud to admit that we are unable to handle the load of responsibilities that have been placed upon us. Often this load is handed to us by others, but too many times it is a load that we have personally procured along the way.

While ministry styles differ, too many ministers are driven personalities. We believe that all things are possible with God, so we go ahead and take on all things. The mistake is made when we fail to consult the Lord as to whether the plow in front of us has our name on it, or even if it is the right season to plow in that particular field. When we fail to consult the Master Gardener, we find ourselves out in the middle of a half-plowed field, sweating and straining and wondering why we are all alone.

Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:8: "For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life" (KJV).

Here is the great apostle of the church, our eminent role model who had more ministry exploits and pressures than most of us will ever see, admitting that he was pressed out of measure. Paul's trouble in Asia challenges our belief that God only gives us what we can handle.

The apostle obviously didn't give up his call or ministry, but statements like "out of measure" and "above strength" lead me to believe that he was at a desperate point physiologically and psychologically. And these troubles led him to despair even of life. His confession is an example of a leader in touch with his limits. We need to develop a similar honesty and vulnerability to survive in ministry.

The fear of slowing down. Many of us are never able to reach such a state of honesty because we never slow down and take stock of our lives. The pace of the modern minister can be full and quick. And if you are a high-energy personality pushing forward in the Lord's work, always giving and pouring out, the prospect of slowing down may be nothing short of terrifying.

If you've neglected any of the components of a balanced life, it will become painfully obvious when you stop the dizzying pace of ministry for a few days of rest. It is when the body and emotions slow down that the stark reality of neglected needs become apparent.

It may be the neglected needs of those you love, or it may be that you have left your First Love, or it may be that you failed to take time for play in the midst of your work. It is only when we become aware of the imbalance and can face up to our condition that we can begin to make the changes necessary to restore balance.

It's time to step out of depression and into the Lord's balance for your life.

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