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Posts Tagged ‘pastoral depression’

As some of my friends know, I’ve been rummaging through our old family photographs recently and posting some of the more interesting pictures on Facebook.

I’ve been startled by how happy I look in photos from forty and fifty years ago.  I had a wide, joyful smile that I exhibited freely and often.

But over time, that smile dimmed … at least, at church … largely because of certain individuals.

Kim and HBF Women Mid-1980s 001

This is a group of eight men from my second church ministry.  Six have gone home to be with the Lord.  George – the gentleman on the far right – is still living.

George and Wendell supported me for years, and when I think of them, I definitely smile.

But three of these men turned against me … and one is my all-time worst antagonist.  (Can you pick him out?)

Then I found this photo of some women:

Kim and HBF Women Mid-1980s 1 001

Two of these women were loyal, faithful supporters, including Bonnie on the right side, but three also turned on their pastor.  My wife Kim (third from the left) was smiling in this photo, but several years later, she wasn’t.

And neither was I.

This article isn’t about church antagonists … I’ve written plenty of blog posts about them … but about a question I’ve often wrestled with:

Should pastors be happy?

During my seven-year tenure at this church in Silicon Valley, I was not only unhappy most of the time … I was downright miserable.

Our church was the product of a merger.  I had read that merger math is 1+1 = 1.  In other words, if you put a church of 80 with a church of 50, you’ll eventually end up with a church of 80 … or 50 … but not 130.

There are many reasons for this: a clash of church cultures … differing ministry philosophies … a duplication of leaders (what do you do with two head ushers?) … varied shared histories … and a pastor who suddenly needs to become acquainted with 80 new people … which makes the group he came over with feel ignored.

My first pastorate was in the Silicon Valley city of Sunnyvale.  We met in a school, but after two years, the city planned to bulldoze it down for new home construction.  We needed a place to go or our ministry would be over.

A sister church (with 80 people) five miles away invited our church (with 50 people) to merge with them … provided that I became the pastor.

I didn’t want to do it, and looked everywhere for another ministry, but at age 29, I had few options, so on the day set as a deadline … October 2, 1983 … I reluctantly signed an agreement.

Our district minister predicted that our church … which averaged 105 people … would have 300 people within two years.

But two years later, most people who came with me from the Sunnyvale church left in anger, and our attendance … and finances … were in free fall.

And as attendance and giving dwindled, I sank into depression.

Every other Monday, I wanted to quit.  Most of the time, it’s because the Sunday before didn’t go well.

The smaller churches get, the more people just want to be cared for.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but carrying out the Great Commission is not on the frontal lobes of most people.

As the church shrank in size, so did my self-esteem and self-confidence.

By the summer of 1986, I was barely functioning.  I was constantly depressed around the house, and my wife finally said, “Jim, you need counseling.  I”m going to find someone who can help you.”  I told her, “Then find the best counselor you can.  I want someone with a string of degrees.”

My wife finally found a Christian counselor with two doctoral degrees.  I visited him twice a week for four months.  If there was something inside me that was keeping our church from moving forward, I wanted to know what it was so I could make corrections while I was young.

After taking all kinds of tests and discussing matters for hours, the counselor told me:

“You have your problems and idiosyncrasies like everybody else, but you’re basically normal.  Your problem is your church.  Get out of it.”

I ended up staying, but I wasn’t any happier.

_______________

During my time in that second pastorate, I found a book that helped me survive those difficult days.

The book is called Coping With Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions by Dr. Archibald Hart.  The book was published in 1984, but its lessons are equally relevant today.

Listen to Dr. Hart’s wisdom:

“Contrary to what many laypersons believe, depression is a major occupational hazard for ministers.  For many ministers, surviving the ministry is a matter of surviving depression.  Mostly the depression is not a positive experience.  It robs the minister of power and effectiveness and destroys the joy of service.”

Dr. Hart continues:

“It is impossible for anyone who has never been a minister to understand the loneliness, despair, and emotional pain that a large number of ministers must bear.  Not a few leave the ministry altogether because of the debilitation of depression.  Others exist in their pastorates in an unhappy, dissatisfied, and disillusioned state rather than leave their churches or change vocations.”

I read various parts of Dr. Hart’s book most Sunday nights before bedtime.  The book kept me going for years.

Why are pastors so susceptible to unhappiness?

Let me briefly offer five reasons:

First, ministry is often both slow and invisible.

Ministry is slow because people change at a snail’s pace, if at all.  The pastor-congregational dynamic usually entails less than an hour on Sundays and is confined to the pastor’s sermon.  The people have limited exposure to their pastor and he has limited exposure to their lives.  The pastor isn’t like Super Nanny who would stay in a family’s home and advise them on how to raise their children.

In fact, most people don’t want their pastor anywhere near their home!

I can recount many people I ministered to who never seemed to change at all.  Maybe God’s Spirit was working in them, but I never saw any visible progress.

Ministry is also slow because like most organizations, congregations change slowly, if at all.  Pastors usually know the direction they’d like the church to go, but they can’t wave a wand and make things happen.  Pastors first need permission from the board … staff … key leaders … and often, the entire congregation.

Pastors become absorbed with attendance and offerings because those are visible emblems of success.  But changed lives are much harder to measure.

Dr. Hart writes:

“People coming into the ministry from other areas of endeavor often say that it is far more difficult to set standards for evaluating their accomplishments in the ministry than it was in their previous employment.  I understand this problem because I experienced a similar one when I moved from engineering into psychology many years ago.  My engineering accomplishments still stand – bridges, reservoirs, buildings, and freeways.  They are easily recognizable, enduring, and satisfying.  But where are my psychological accomplishments?  Sure, there are many – healed hearts, homes and bodies.  But they are not as tangible and easy to pinpoint as those of engineering.  And pastors may find it even harder to identify their accomplishments once they get their eyes off money, buildings, and church attendance.”

When I preached or counseled someone, I knew the Holy Spirit was working … but He didn’t usually make His work evident to me.

Second, I rarely felt like I was done working.

I never finished my to-do list.  There was always one more call to make … one more email to answer … one more hospital patient to visit … one more sermon to research.

And if I didn’t do that “one more thing,” I often heard about it.

Many professions involve similar challenges.  But for me, as for many pastors, we never felt we could hit the “off switch” on our bodies, minds, or spirits.  We always had to be “on.”

For example, in my last ministry, I had to be “on” when I went to the grocery store because I’d always see people from church.  I had to be “on” when walking through the neighborhood … when going to the movies (I once sat next to a board member at an Adam Sandler movie) … when going to the mall … or when going to see the Giants or A’s.  I saw people from church in all of those places.

I remember one Christmas Eve.  We’d held two services at our church, and our family finally went home to open presents and relax.  But at 12:10 am on Christmas Day, I received a phone call from security that one of the doors at church had been left wide open after the second service.  Security couldn’t reach anyone else … only I answered the phone … so I had the privilege of going over to church to walk through the entire facility and then locking the door … something I did many times.

And that stuff happened all the time.

Third, I carried people’s problems around with me.

My counselor told me my greatest strength … and my greatest weakness … is my tenderness.  Wisely or unwisely, I feel what others are experiencing.

While my empathy made me a good pastor, I could not shake off people’s problems very easily.

The larger our church grew, the more varied … and difficult … people’s problems usually became.  For example, around the year 2000, three government inspectors were killed by the owner of a factory.  The story made national news.  The supervisor of those inspectors was supposed to be there that day and would have been murdered along with his colleagues.  This supervisor went to our church and had to speak at the funerals of his murdered colleagues.  I did my best to minister to him, but his sorrow sent me into despair.  How could it not?

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:29:

Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?  Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

Like Paul, I usually felt what my people were feeling, and carried those feelings around with me for weeks or months at a time … even when I was with family or doing something fun.

Dr. Hart claims that “compassion fatigue” is another term for burnout.  If a pastor doesn’t demonstrate care for people, he comes off like Dr. Ellingham on the hilarious British TV show Doc Martin: rude, surly, uncaring.  But if he feels people’s problems too deeply, he might end up burning out.

Dr. Hart writes:

“The work of ministry, when it is undertaken with great sincerity and earnestness, is bound to open the way to attacks of despondency.  The weightiness of feeling responsible for the souls of others and of longing to see others experience the fullness of God’s gift; the disappointment of seeing believers turn cold and pull away; the heartbreak of watching a married couple destroy each other, unable to utilize love and the grace of God in repairing their broken relationship – all will take their toll on sensitive and dedicated ministers.”

And in the end, they certainly took a toll on me.

Fourth, I never knew who was going to come after me.

Several weeks ago, I ran across a batch of photos taken when the merger mentioned above took place.  The photos were closeups of everyone in the church at the time.  I forgot I even had them.

Jim and Olive Webber at HBF 1983 001

This photo portrays Jim and his wife Olive.  Jim was the board chairman – and head of the search team – in my first pastorate.  Jim believed in me and lobbied hard for me to become pastor.  I’ll always be grateful for his support.

Jim was the “songleader” at the merged church at both the Sunday morning and Sunday evening services.  He led the hymns.  But as he aged, Jim began to lose it.  He started selecting the same songs constantly and repeating the same stale stories.  (“Can you smoke and be a Christian?  Yes, but you’ll be a stinking Christian!”)

One Sunday morning, I asked Jim if he would lead a specific hymn for the Sunday night service.  He refused, telling me that no pastor had ever told him which hymns to select.  I asked Jim again, and he became angry.

He went to the board with seven complaints about me.  For the good of the church, I probably should have sacked him months before, and now he was going after me.  He left the church the next day and I never saw him again until I conducted his memorial service.

This stuff happens all the time in churches.  Someone draws close to the pastor.  The pastor thinks, “This person likes me.  Maybe we can be friends.”  And a few months or years later, this person suddenly attacks the pastor verbally, or wants the pastor removed from office.

I can tell you story after story of men and women I thought were my friends … people I thought I could trust … who ended up betraying me.  In fact, every pastor can tell similar stories.

And it’s hard for a pastor to be happy when he’s constantly wondering, “Which of the people in our church are going to attack me next … and possibly end my job or career?”

 

Finally, I was too much of a perfectionist to really be happy.

I wanted everything the church did to go well … especially those ministries that required my leadership.

When I first took Sermon Prep in seminary, my professor would critique our sermons after we preached.  For years after I took that class, I’d get up to preach on Sunday and hear his voice:

“Don’t look to the left and gesture to the right … your looks and gestures need to match.”

“Don’t tell us that Sandy Koufax was a great pitcher because he threw hard.  A lot of pitchers throw hard and get rocked.  Koufax was great because his fastball moved.  Most people don’t know that, but a baseball fan will.”

“Be careful when you use irony.  Most people don’t get it.”

As a pastor, I heard a lot of voices in my head … the voices of professors, and fellow pastors, and critics … especially critics.

And those voices often prevented me from feeling happy.  They reminded me that my church wasn’t big enough … that our offerings weren’t strong enough … that I always fell short in some area.

If we had two or three Sundays of declining attendance … or poor giving … regardless of how well I’d written or delivered a sermon … I’d feel like a failure.

Even when our church was full … as in the photo below … I often didn’t enjoy it.  Instead, I’d wonder how long the good times would last.

BFCC Worship Center

Dr. Hart writes:

“I once asked a surgeon friend who every day made decisions that could affect the life or death of a patient how he handled the responsibility of his work.  His answer was most illuminating…. He replied, ‘You come to terms very early in your career with your fallibility.  It’s okay not to be perfect and to make mistakes!'”

But when pastors make even a small mistake, there are always people willing to magnify it into something horrendous.  It’s as if they’re saying, “Ha ha, pastor, you’re just like the rest of us!”

And, of course, we are.

_______________

My wife and I run a preschool in our home.  She runs the preschool downstairs, and I handle business matters from my upstairs office.

The Lord has blessed us significantly, and we’ll do this as long as we’re able.

I’m far happier doing the preschool than I was in church ministry:

*I can see children learn and grow much quicker than I ever did adults.

*My wife and I have our nights and weekends free.

*I only carry a handful of people’s problems around with me … usually those of family members or close friends.

*I no longer worry about people attacking me.

*I’m still a perfectionist about some things, but little bothers me anymore.

But in the end, I’m not sure that the happiness of pastors matters to the Lord.

Moses wasn’t always happy.  Neither was David … just read the Psalms.  Isaiah and Jeremiah weren’t all that happy.  And neither was Jesus.

God isn’t looking for happy pastors.  He’s looking for faithful ones.  But even when pastors are faithful, there’s no guarantee they’ll be happy.  Sometimes being faithful means that you’ll be unhappy.

And that’s not a happy thought to ponder.

_______________

By the way, when I took “The Pastor’s Personal Life” class from Dr. Hart for my Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Seminary, I wrote him a note at the end of my final paper, telling him that I believed he was a gift to the body of Christ.

I still feel that way.

If you don’t have a copy of Coping With Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions, I urge you to secure a used copy on Amazon.

It just might save your ministry … and your sanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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While cleaning out some boxes kept in storage yesterday, I ran across a photo taken of me at an event from my last church … and I instantly felt a twinge of pain inside.

Then I started to feel sadness behind my eyes … like I wanted to cry but couldn’t.  That feeling lasted for about half an hour.

I’ve had these feelings for years now, and I don’t like them.  They come upon me at unexpected times, especially when I focus too much on the conflict that propelled me out of church ministry seven years ago.

Even though I’ve written extensively about pastoral termination and church conflict over the past six years – having written nearly 525 articles – I haven’t written much about the feelings that a pastor has after he’s been forced out of office.

While I can’t speak for every pastor who goes through this horrendous experience, maybe it would be helpful to describe what’s healthy … and unhealthy … after a pastor undergoes termination.

So offering up my own experiences as a model, let me share five emotions that I experienced in the aftermath of my departure from ministry in 2009:

First, I was shocked by the viciousness some people demonstrated to get rid of me. 

Some people I served as pastor did everything in their power to destroy my position as pastor as well as my reputation.

And I mean destroy.

There is no way to sugarcoat what they did or said.  These professing Christians intended harm toward me, their pastor.

It was revenge … and personal.

Only I didn’t know then … and don’t know today … what I did or didn’t do to illicit such hatred from them.

That shock lasts a long time.  In many ways, I’m still not over it.

I never preached with a hateful tone nor a hateful manner, so those feelings did not originate with me.  They either came from an internal or external source.  My guess is that they came from someone outside the church who fanned the flames of anger inside the church.

The attitude of these people was not, “We disagree with your views on several subjects,” nor, “We think you’ve lost effectiveness and should go.”

No, their attitude was, “We hate you, Jim, and we want you to leave and never come back.”

These were people who professed to love Jesus, His Word, and His people … so how could they demonstrate such rage against their pastor who had served them faithfully for 10 1/2 years?

I have no idea.

When I was nineteen years old, I became a youth pastor.  One night, after finding out that two of my former Sunday School teachers were involved in sexual immorality, my pastor told me, “Jim, don’t ever be shocked by what Christians do.”

Over the years, I’ve tried not to be.

But sometimes, I still am.  Sometimes, the whole conflict invades my soul without warning, and I shake my head and say to myself, “I could never, ever treat a pastor the way I was treated.”

If I’m shocked at anything today, it’s that not even one person responsible for pushing me out has ever apologized for their actions.

Second, I engaged in a lot of self-reproach.

I have this really unhealthy habit of believing bad things people say about me while ignoring the good things.

It’s not so much a self-esteem issue as it is blaming myself for not being perfect.

So when the church board attacked me privately … and their allies attacked me publicly … I figured that I must be who they said I am: a horrible person and pastor.

Nearly every charge made against me was a partial or complete falsehood, and I knew that at the time, but I still blamed myself for not being everything they wanted in a pastor.

Whenever someone severely criticized me, I used to tell myself, “How arrogant of me to think that I can please all 400 adults in this church.  I can’t, and nobody else can, either.”

That’s a healthy way to view criticism.  But when your critics all align together, and pool their complaints, and fire them off into the ether, it’s natural to think, “They must be right.  I must be a colossal bozo.”

That’s why going to counseling was so important for both me and my wife.  We needed an outside, objective, different perspective.

We saw two counselors: one who practiced a few miles from that church, and another who practiced in another state.

Both told me the same thing: the way you were treated was wrong, and your critics failed to demonstrate any love or redemption, the tip-off that your opponents were not very spiritual.

Let me quote from Dennis Murray in his book Healing For Pastors & People Following a Sheep Attack:

“The attack on you is not information about you.  It is information about the handful of ringleaders who organized the battle…. Healing begins by recognizing that you did the right thing.  You were blessed with an incredible ‘manure detector’ that allowed you to see exactly what was happening.  You have been blessed with a perceptive intelligence that allows you to distinguish truth from lies.  Your intuition is highly developed and you were able to separate fact from fiction.”

Although I still don’t know why my attackers hated me so much, I no longer blame myself for the conflict, and realize that while I made mistakes in ministry, nothing I did justified the way I was treated.

Third, I experienced a normal amount of depression.

Dr. Archibald Hart is the best teacher I’ve ever had.  He taught “The Pastor’s Personal Life” class in Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program.  (And he told me that he would put my book Church Coup on his reading list.)

Dr. Hart believes that whenever you’re depressed, you need to find the core loss, and only then will you start to recover.

My wife and I lost so much after my resignation: my position, my income, my reputation, our house (it was underwater and was sold in a short sale), our church family, our credit rating, and worst of all, most of our friends.

That’s a formula for depression.

When my wife and I attended a Wellness Retreat sponsored by The Ministering to Minister’s Foundation the month after our departure, Dr. Charles Chandler and his colleagues stressed the importance of both going to counseling and taking antidepressants to aid in recovery.

Fortunately, my wife and I were both already doing those things.

After we left our last ministry, we moved to another state 750 miles away.  For months, I could either explode in anger or break into tears at the drop of a hat.  I spent weeks just walking around the neighborhood where we lived, wondering how I could ever pastor a church again.

My core loss?  In my view, I had lost my identity as a person … and in a very real sense, was lost both vocationally and personally.

Which means that to go forward, I would have to reinvent myself vocationally.

Here’s what I’ve learned about depression after a forced departure:

*Whenever I returned to the community where my previous church was located, I would become increasingly anxious and afraid.  I can no longer get anywhere near it.  It’s poison to my soul.

*Whenever I took a trip out-of-state, my depression lifted, probably because I felt safe.

*Whenever I’ve talked about my situation in public – like in a workshop for Christian leaders – I feel fine.

*Whenever I write a blog, I rarely feel sad because I’m trying to help others by engaging in something redemptive.

*When I wrote my book Church Coup, and had to look at documents that were created during the conflict, I could feel my intestines tie into knots.  If it’s a difficult book to read, imagine how painful it was to write.  (This is probably why there are very few books written by pastors about their own forced terminations.)

*When I became an interim pastor three years after leaving my last ministry, I felt great most of the time … except when I was drawn into several conflicts.

I’ve been asked if I’m willing to do any more interim work, but right now, the answer is “no.”  Whenever I even imagine myself serving at a church, the pressure behind my eyes builds again, and I start feeling a large degree of anxiety.

For me, healing involves working, and being involved in ministry … just not church ministry.

Fourth, I am completely open about every aspect of the conflict.

Years ago, I determined that I would be a pastor who would express his humanity and describe his feelings if it would be redemptive.  I grew up with pastors who never let us know who they were or what they felt strongly about, and I didn’t want to be like them.

So when the Lord allowed me to go through a 50-day conflict of which I was the focus, I resolved that I was going to make things redemptive by sharing what happened to me so that I could help others.

Many pastors have who been pushed out of their churches don’t want to talk about what happened to them with anyone.  They keep it all inside … for whatever reason.

Maybe they don’t want to relive it.  Maybe they don’t want to dwell on the past.  Maybe they figure they can’t change what happened.

Or maybe it’s all just too painful.

My ministry mentors are leaders like Archibald Hart, Bill Hybels, and Stephen Brown … men who are authentic and transparent about their feelings and failures.

So if someone wants to talk about our conflict, I’m glad to engage.  If someone wants to steer away from the topic, I’ll follow their lead.

Several months ago, I learned that someone who had supported my ministry during the entire time I was at my last church turned against me after I left … and she surely wasn’t the only one.

It hurt me for a moment, but then I figured, “Why should this bother me?  I can’t straighten out everybody.  Besides, the next time we’ll see each other is in heaven, so she can only hurt me if I let her.”

But I felt that sadness behind the eyes again, and had to wait for it to subside.

To write my book, I had to engage in hours of personal ruminating as well as many interpersonal conversations.  My hope was that by writing a complete account of what happened … with commentary from conflict experts … I could put the entire situation behind me.

Writing the book did help a great deal.  I don’t have to revisit any major events mentally because I’ve already recorded them.

I would say this: being open about what happened to me probably wrecked any chance I have of returning to church ministry someday, but it’s made me much more empathetic and effective in helping pastors who have undergone this horrendous experience.

And I think that’s a great trade-off.

Finally, I have felt a strong sense of isolation.

I love Sherlock Holmes, whether it’s Doyle’s original stories, the episodes filmed for Masterpiece Theatre in the 1980s, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s current take on Holmes.

Holmes was a consulting detective which means that people who wanted help with a problem had to seek Holmes out directly.  They came to him … he didn’t go to them.

When I was a pastor, people emailed and called me for help during the week. They made appointments for my counsel.  They sought me before and after services.  As an introvert, I loved it when people came to me for help.

I was a somebody at church.

But when you’re no longer a pastor, you suddenly feel like a nobody at every church you visit.  And God help you if you tell the pastor that you’re an ex-pastor who would like to use his spiritual gifts to make a difference.  Most of the time, you will be perceived as a threat and shunned just for saying that much.

The Christian community simply does not know what to do with its former pastors.

My wife and I live in a desert community.  We have many business clients but no real friends in the area.  We are not only each other’s best friends … we are each other’s only friends.

We do have some family around: 60 miles away … 75 miles away … 330 miles away … and 490 miles away.

And we do have some good friends we see several times a year.

But it’s not the same as when you have church friends that you see several times a week because they live in your community.  We’ve tried going that route, but so far, it hasn’t worked.

In case you’re wondering, I love my life right now.  The Lord retired me early, and I enjoy working with my wife, seeing our grandsons, watching sports, and going to concerts and ballgames.

It hasn’t been an easy road, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

This Monday marks seven years since the beginning of the conflict that pushed me out of church ministry.  As I do every year, I’ll be writing a special blog about that experience and including some things I’ve never shared before.

If I can help you or a loved one who has undergone a church attack, please let me know.  Either leave a comment on this blog or write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org

Sometimes reaching out to someone who understands is the best way to start your recovery.

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