A Straightjacket of Darkness: On the Pastor, Depression & Loneliness

So let me tell you about the first time I considered quitting pastoral ministry.

Fresh out of Seminary, I was pastoring a small church south of Indianapolis, and the weatherman was predicting an ice-storm on Sunday afternoon. I mean, the slogan of the TV network was the “most trusted name in news,” right? So slick roads and downed power lines was a rock-solid, 100% certain prediction. Take it to the bank. So I did any rational pastor who was raised in the winter-averse climate of central Virginia would do: I cancelled Sunday evening services. You might already see where my story is going: Go figure, the weatherman turned out to be completely wrong … No ice … In fact, no precipitation at all! That was the day I learned that weathermen actually consult magic 8 balls as their primary source.

Over the next few hours, I was inundated with angry and hostile phone calls from church members regarding the cancellation of our Sunday evening services. Keep in mind, my cell phone number was not published in any church directory or bulletin … It was just circulating amongst the angry mob of pot stirrers. The comments were surprisingly terse and abusive:

  • “Who gave you authority to cancel services?!?”
  • “Our last pastor never cancelled services.”
  • “Are you enjoying your evening off?”
  • “I’m going to bring this up at the next business meeting.”
  • And my personal favorite: “What am I supposed to do this evening now that services are cancelled?!?”

That following week, a representative of the peanut gallery of angry people strolled into my office, plopped down on my brown futon and impertinently shut the door. I knew by reputation that this gentleman considered himself the unofficial church spokesman, but he served in no official capacity in the church. Of course, I already knew how the “elder statesman” felt about me … At the end of each Sunday service, he would simultaneously gruffly shake my hand and grade my sermons from an incredibly generous scale of “not good” to “needs some work.”

So the spokesman opened up our impromptu meeting by asking if he could pray. I appreciated the move until I actually heard the prayer: “Father, please give me the right words to say, and please show Pastor Matt how wrong he is.” He then negotiated with the tactfulness of Tony Soprano: “Well, Matt … You’ve taken a good shot at this whole pastoring thing, but it’s probably time for you to pack up and leave.”

Honestly, I was too stunned to remember how that conversation ended, but I do remember a bleak sadness overtaking me. Of course, I wasn’t going to quit because one well-known church bully was rude, but the whole interaction still really hurt. I mean, I’d just moved my family half-way across to the country to be abused about the cancellation of one Sunday evening service?!? And the attacks seemed so personal … So non-sensical … So petty. Instantly, I become neurotic about my standing with the congregation: Did the people of this church really want me gone? … Was I making any difference for the kingdom of God? … Was any of this pastoring thing really worth the stress to my family and my personal health?

Over the course of my ministry as a lead pastor, this incident was not the last time that I felt like throwing in the towel:

  • When I was criticized for buying a “luxury vehicle” (a 2012 Kia Soul).
  • When church members told me I made too much money.
  • When a church member dropped by my house on Sunday afternoon to gift a 1956 Baptist Hymnal to me with the suggestion that I learn about “real worship music.”
  • When I returned from vacation to find an anonymous note was left in my office door giving me a letter grade for every aspect of my ministry. (Worship music was apparently an “F”.)
  • When friends quietly quit the church and refused to tell me why.
  • When people write thinly veiled complaints about you on social media.
  • When my wife was angrily confronted for not attending a sunrise service.
  • When I heard the words: “I’m just not being fed by you, pastor.”

Please know I’m not dredging up my dirty laundry for the sake of having a personal pity party. I bring up my background to make a point: Pastoring can be hazardous to pastors and their families. The life of the pastor is the ultimate glass house, where people feel strangely compelled to unnervingly leer inside and make judgmental comments about everything from your vacation time to your Sunday morning ties. And if you can ignore the running commentary, there’s also the pressure of an ever-expanding litany of time-consuming job responsibilities ranging from home visitation to janitorial services. In moments of temporary insanity, the pressure of the success/failure of the church seems to weigh on your shoulders, and you wind up working 70-80 hours per week to the point of completely ignoring your spouse and family.

I don’t want to spend a ton of time regurgitating statistics on burnout and depression in pastoral ministry. Those statistics are readily out there on the good old interwebs here and here. Of course, Ed Stetzer rightfully cautions in his 2015 Christianity Today article that many of the over-blown statistics are overblown, outdated and exaggerated. Fortunately, I know many pastors that have fantastic relationships with encouraging churches. On the other hand, I’ve also heard way too many horror stories from discouraged pastors about nightmare churches and soul-crushing heartbreaks. Case in point: Most of the folks that I started Seminary with ten years ago are no longer in ministry. Let that sink in. Every year, I seem to witness more friends or acquaintances drop off the map of ministry.

However, I do want to talk about how the experience impacted me: I sank into a stubborn depression that constricted me like a straightjacket. Depression is not simply an emotion of sadness easily cured by “getting happy” or “cheering up.” Depression is a tenacious, unrelenting black cloud of hopelessness that cripples you with waves of fear, bitterness and melancholy. I obsessed about my failures, and pushed myself to work longer hours to please more people. In utter paranoia, I began to worry about trivial minutiae and to parse every conversation to the point where I couldn’t sleep at night. I felt hopeless to change my situation. I turned to food and worldly pleasures in an attempt to try to feel happy. I felt like I had no one to trust. No one possibly understood how I felt. I wanted nothing more than to hide behind the thick curtains of my house and forget the outside world. Life seemed impossible. Withdrawal from the world seemed far more palatable.

The secret language of depression is loneliness. Depression is an estrangement from the world. The pain of depression drives us to avoidance and escapism from suffering. Perpetual, unrelenting bleakness and lack of hope motivates us to wall ourselves off from any potential enemies – including those that care for and love us. We believe that if we simply hide from pain then future pain won’t come. While we may desire friendship, we’re also extraordinarily cautious about the downsides of opening up: Rejection … Ridicule … Inauthenticity. I worried that sharing my troubles would simply lead to a multiplication of my trouble … And I just wanted the trouble to end. So I kept the numbness to myself and found solace in simply being alone.

In the midst of my hopelessness, an odd Bible verse was my rescue: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Pastors tend to use Hebrews 10:24-25 as a legalistic paddle to spank wayward church members, but that perspective tends to blunt the overall meaning of the passage: God has given us each other for our mutual encouragement. While my sinfulness drove me to wallow in inexhaustible alienation, God brought other believers into my life that repeatedly lifted me out of the mire.

God brought other pastors who shared similar experiences into my life. If you think you’re the only pastor shot by friendly fire, you’re sadly wrong.

God brought associational leaders into my life that offering a shoulder to lean on, sage advice and offers of respite and retreat.

God eventually gave me real sustainable friendships within my local church – particularly the retired pastor of my church. (By the way, those friendships eventually included the same “elder statesman” that asked me to quit … He’d offer me a cigar every time I dropped by his house.)

God gave me a spouse that talked me off the ledge every time I felt like quitting.

But the real turning point for me is when I sought out the help of a good Biblical counselor. I discovered the root of my depression rested in a deep-seeded fear of what people thought instead of a focus on God’s inexhaustible grace for me. While it did not happen with the snap of my fingers, the fog of depression eventually lifted. The numbness deep in my bones subsided and I could finally feel again.

I prayed for God to relieve me from depression. God’s answer was putting people in my life to encourage me and to stir me up to good works. 

So here’s the point of this entire blog: If you are a pastor and you feel hopeless, depressed or even suicidal, please talk to someone. Loneliness is not God’s design for you. God has also put people in your life to encourage you too. You part of an ever-expanding family of God with the giftedness to care for you and simply listen to you.

Reach out to another pastor.

Talk with denominational leaders.

Get honest with a church member that you trust.

Be vulnerable with your spouse.

Find a solid Biblical counselor here.

Contact me at matt@northwoodschurch.org

Know that the same God who called you out of darkness and into His glorious light wants to lead you out of this darkness too.

God loved you so much that He has not left you alone.