When Depression Tries to Suck You Under
Hilsen fra Norge – Greetings from Norway!
Our kids asked if I actually did kiss the ground when I landed Monday afternoon, but no need – I watered it with my tears instead.
My grandparents left Norway for America a little over a century ago, and coming to make myself useful in the land of their birth feels like coming home. I brought my father’s parents’ photos along in my Bible, and I think my farfar and farmor would be pleased to know Mike and I are here for a time to serve the land and the people they loved so much.
As we prepared to conclude 43 years of full-time pastoral ministry last year, one priority became crystal-clear for our “retirement” years: our desire to come alongside younger pastors with help and support. Our own mentors, Gordon and Gail, have modeled the imperative of building into the lives of those behind us on the journey. We feel the best way to assist other pastors is to be there for them as well as their people.
Nothing means more to parents than to have others love on their kids. Nothing means more to pastors than to have others love on their spiritual family. The tragic news this week of the suicide of a tremendously gifted young megachurch pastor in California underscores the pressures pastors experience from within and without.
We get that. We’ve been there.
Almost 25 years ago, Mike became acutely ill with a medical condition that was initially misdiagnosed. Prescribed the wrong medication, he developed chronic insomnia leading to weeks with little to no sleep. His normally sunny disposition went into a cloud bank. In desperation, he tried to resign from our pastorate of five years, thinking the church deserved better than what he felt himself to be, a “whacked out” pastor.
He clearly recalls the response of our church leaders when they met in our home to consider his request. The chairman of the board, Bob, fixed his gaze on my distraught husband and said with a compassionate twinkle in his eye, “Mike, this is a Baptist church. No pastor has ever resigned here. We tell you when we are through with you.” The others nodded as Bob added, “We’re sticking with you through whatever this is.”
That incredible group of leaders granted Mike a paid medical leave, and following emergency surgery for a ruptured colon and multiple hospitalizations in the months to come, surrounded our family with love and support as he made his way back to health.
We went on to serve that church for another eight years, and were present to witness the greatest growth the church had known in its 170 year history.
I’m weary of hearing the old saw about “the church is the only institution that shoots its wounded.” Sure, those stories get passed around, even among pastors, and sadly sometimes they’re true. A church that stands with its pastor in sickness or in health doesn’t make the news, but I’m grateful to have been part of one.
And now we’re here. Mike will preach his first sermon this Sunday while the senior pastor is traveling in support of other church plants throughout Europe and Africa. Mike just returned moments ago from his Bible study, brimming with joy at the intense spiritual interest exhibited by men representing a dozen different countries and nationalities.
Yet we know what it’s like to be spread so thin your soul begins to shred. Mike’s illness happened to be physical in nature, but medication wrongly prescribed caused a chemical imbalance leading to intense depression and yes, even suicidal thoughts.
While on his leave of absence we visited Nantucket for some R&R. Mike recalls taking a walk late one night and standing on a dock near Nantucket Sound. He was so depleted from lack of sleep he was unable to think coherently, and a strong impulse to simply disappear into the water seized him. He’ll never forget what happened next.
He had thought himself alone on that pier, but as he contemplated the dark waters of the sound, he felt a hand tug on his collar firmly and he distinctly heard a quiet male voice say, “Get off this dock and go back to your wife.” Startled, Mike looked for the speaker. There was no one there.
He shared this story with me again today as we grieved over the suicide of the pastor in California who lost his battle even as his social media posts sang an anthem of hope to others afflicted with mental illness. Mike doesn’t know why he was pulled back from the brink, but he knows what it’s like to suffer from an illness that can loom so large over a man it threatens to pull you out to sea.
We have tremendous respect for the global ministry of Ed Stetzer, now a teaching pastor at the Illinois church from which we retired last year. In a thoughtful opinion piece that appeared online yesterday in Christianity Today, Ed wrote:
The reality is that pastors struggle psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. They struggle sometimes with physiological realities in and around depression, and becoming a follower of Jesus and becoming a pastor does not necessarily make those things disappear. Charles Spurgeon was well known for his deep bouts with suffering and depression. Wheaton College president, Philip Ryken, transparently shared about his own struggle with depression.
To this day, Mike remains grateful for the illness that led him, however unwillingly, to experience what so many others do. It made him a better pastor with a deepened empathy for those who suffer.
If you or anyone you know has ever entertained thoughts of ending your life, it’s not enough simply to tell you to kick the intruders out. You would if you could. Please call the National Suicide Prevention hotline: 1-800-273-TALK.
You are not alone. Not even if you are a pastor.