A Pastor with Depression

The stigma around mental illness in the church, even in progressive churches, is crushing.

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TRIGGER WARNING: DEPRESSION, SUICIDE


I promised myself months ago that I wouldn’t write another post until I had written this one; and I wouldn’t write this one until I’d done something about it. Now I have. Since I haven’t posted since April, it’s taken me a long time.


The news came out a few days ago that the lead pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, completed suicide after battling depression and anxiety for years. It sparked a new round of conversation among Facebook friends about the challenges pastors face and the rising percentages of professional church leaders who report suffering from and being diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I know what they’re talking about.

I know, because I am one. I am a pastor diagnosed with depression. I see a counselor and I take medicine to help manage it. For a long time I was afraid to seek help, even though I knew I needed it. The stigma around mental illness in the church, even in progressive churches, is crushing.

As short as it is, it’s taken a long time to write this post as part of a process of overcoming the stigma associated with depression. I’ve mentioned my depression a few times in the last few months, but haven’t talked much about it openly. It’s time to.

What’s it like to be a pastor who suffers from depression?

  • It’s waking up every morning and wishing you could stay in bed rather than go to your office to work on a sermon.
  • It’s feeling your heart jump in your chest when the church door opens because in your depression you assume that the person coming in is only there to tear you down.
  • It’s being paralyzed when you try to schedule a social home visit because the idea of spending an hour or more pretending to be okay in front of someone whose attention is completely on you is an unbearable thought.
  • It’s getting to the end of worship and not being able to remember any of it.
  • It’s having holes in your memory of pastoral care conversations.
  • It’s staring at a blank screen that should be your sermon in the early morning hours on Sunday because sermon writing used to be your passion, and now, it’s sometimes impossible.
  • It’s lying through your teeth every time someone asks how you are and you say “Fine”, because you’re a pastor, and you’re not allowed to be anything else.
  • It’s having to fight through every bad day without support because to openly admit you’re struggling with depression is to invite people to question your effectiveness as a pastor.
  • It’s crying whenever you say/sing Morning or Evening Prayer and not knowing why.
  • It’s trying to provide pastoral care to others suffering from depression and leaving feeling like you need the same thing, and it’s not available.
  • It’s getting angry at the advice to “just love the people” when you can’t even love yourself. (Same thing with “love your neighbor as yourself”)
  • It’s feeling your relationships with the community, the lifeblood of your ministry, slowly fizzling out, because maintaining those relationships takes more energy than you have.
  • It’s not being able to talk to God because you feel like a failure, and you don’t want to hear God confirm it.

I feel most of these every day. Learning to get through them is an ongoing process. Some days, I take steps forward. Some days, I take steps back. Counseling and medication help. They really do. It’s a long road ahead, but every step counts; every step matters.


If you think you might be suffering from depression, please seek help. Check if your employer participates in an Employee Assistance Program that can help you find a counselor. Ask your doctor about different options, including counseling and/or medication. There is help.


Featured Image: “winter.depression” by Gerald Gabernig is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Where Are You?

Where are you in the story of Christ’s Passion?

Good Friday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI

Isaiah 52:13–53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1–19-42

I’m a sucker when it comes to certain books, movies and TV shows. We know that show-runners and writers include certain scenes and present them in ways meant to have an emotional impact, and I admit, most of the time, I get swept right up.

Often, it has to do with the music. The musical cues that play when both Yoda and Darth Vader die in Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi get me every time. The moment in Disney’s Inside Out when the character of Sadness finally gets to take control, allowing Riley to express her grief at having moved across the country, makes me tear up too. When President Laura Roslin utters the words “So much life…” in the last episode of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, I lose it. And yes, I will always cry when Mufasa dies in The Lion King, the greatest Disney movie ever made (and I will fight you on that!) It was even on TV this afternoon, and of course, I watched most of it.

It’s not just the sad scenes though. How can I not cheer when the eagles swoop down to help the armies of Gondor and Rohan in the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? Or when the horn of Helm Hammerhand blows through the fortress of the Hornburg?

Then there’s the same feeling of excitement during a scene in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, in the second book, The Subtle Knife, when Dr. Mary Malone manages to communicate with sentient dark matter through a simple computer chat program. Or the feeling of dread and terror reading, well, all of George Orwell’s 1984. Or the feeling of apprehension as the story of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno unfolds, the entire time thinking, “Something here isn’t right…”

Stories, when written well, draw us in to the point where we can imagine ourselves as actors and characters in the story. That’s what I love about my favorite books and movies and TV shows—they draw me in.

I must confess though that for the longest time, I did not feel that way about the Passion story. I’m not really sure why. Like many of you, I grew up hearing the story every year during Holy Week. There are other stories I love hearing over and over and over again and never get sick of, but the Passion story just didn’t click with me. I didn’t feel apprehensive when Jesus was arrested. I didn’t feel angry during his trial. I didn’t cry when he died. I just… I’m not sure why, but the story never really moved me like I know it moves other people.

Somewhere along the line that changed. I don’t exactly know when. All I know is that as the years went on, and I kept reading the story, I started to react to it. And my emotional reaction didn’t come when Jesus was beaten, or killed, or mocked. In fact, my emotional reaction came at a place that really surprised me: Peter.

Now, you’ve heard me talk about Peter. Not my favorite guy. Most of the time I’m thinking to myself, “You dunce, what’d you go and do that for?” Peter is not the model of discipleship, folks. When I read about Peter, I usually have a really tough time mustering up any sort of sympathy or empathy for him. He doesn’t listen, he doesn’t pay attention, he flaps his mouth before he thinks, every time he gets the smack-down from Jesus he deserves it–there’s just not a lot of sympathy in my heart for Peter.

So then I read the Passion story, and get to Peter’s part. Not the part about him pulling his sword and cutting off Malchus’s ear—idiot. Typical Peter. No, I mean the later part.

The part where Peter, one of only two disciples who followed behind Jesus after he was arrested, gets to the gate of the high priest’s house and waits. And there, while he waits, he’s identified as one of Jesus’s followers not once, not twice, but three times, the last time by a witness who places him right there in the garden. Each time, he denies the accusation, most likely in an effort to avoid getting arrested himself as a co-conspirator with Jesus.

The last time he does so, he hears the rooster crowing. Just as Jesus predicted, Peter denies even knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crows in the morning. In other versions of this story not from the Gospel according to John, Peter realizes what he’s done and flees the scene, weeping. He doesn’t do that here, but, after this point, Peter disappears from the story, only to reappear after Mary Magdalene finds Jesus’s tomb empty. While Jesus is put on trial, beaten, tortured, mocked, killed, and buried, Peter is nowhere to be found.

And every time I get to this part of the story, I choke up. Maybe it’s the way it’s written, the threefold point and counterpoint, the rising tension, the upping of the ante. Maybe I just feel sorry for Peter, who once again screws everything up because of his pride.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that my reaction to this part of the story has nothing to do with Peter and everything to do with me. I think this part of the story chokes me up for the same reason that other stories affect me emotionally—because it draws me in, puts me into the story. I find my place in the story. And here, tonight, I find my place in the Passion story: it’s in the place of Peter.

In Peter, I see my own pride and my own belief that I’m such a good follower of Jesus that nothing could ever change that.

In Peter, I see my own willingness to jump to the nuclear option (like cutting off a servant’s ear) instead of a more reasonable one.

In Peter, I see my own selfish desire to follow Jesus from a distance, just in case I get too close and have to pay the price for being a follower of Jesus.

In Peter, I see my own all-too-willingness to deny Christ when it’s more convenient to do so, or at the very least, not make a big deal out of it.

In Peter, I see the ever-present possibility that I’ll turn around and run away, abandoning Jesus, even if only for a time.

We all have a place in the story. It pulls us in because we can see ourselves in it. We can place ourselves right in the middle of it because we identify with it. Where do you see yourself in the story?

Are you Annas, the deposed high priest who can’t let go and still influences events from behind the scenes?

Are you Caiaphas, the current puppet high priest, who is so worried and obsessed with keeping order and not upsetting the balance that he thinks executing an innocent man is an acceptable price to pay?

Are you Malchus, just a soldier doing his job?

Are you one of the slaves, oblivious to events, just trying to keep warm in the cold?

Are you the relative of Malchus, angry at the man who cut off your relative’s ear and are calling him out on it?

Are you the police who brought Jesus to Pilate, but wouldn’t set foot in the palace, because you didn’t want blood on your hands before you went to celebrate the Passover with your family?

Are you the priests who, when asked what Jesus has done to deserve being arrested, evade the question by saying, “Well, obviously he’s a criminal, or we wouldn’t have brought him here, duh!”

Are you Pilate, the ruthless governor for whom order and submission is everything, and deviating from that order earns one a ticket to execution?

Are you the priests who, in order to get what they want—Jesus dead—are willing to give up everything they believe in, everything they are, and submit themselves fully to a tyrannical government?

Are you the crowd who, instead of saving a man dedicated to love and peace, demands the release of a terrorist who glorifies violence and armed uprising as the only solution?

Are you the soldiers dividing up Jesus’s clothes between them, before he’s even dead?

Are you the faithful women, Mary, her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, or the unnamed disciple, who are the only ones at the foot of the cross, staying with Jesus while he dies?

Are you Joseph of Arimathea, the respectable leader who has to follow Jesus in secret, because he’s afraid if people knew, his career would be over?

Are you Nicodemus, who goes from confused by Jesus’s words to a follower, and one of the few who is there to take care of his body after his death?

We all have a place in the story. For though it happened 2000 years ago, it happened for that time and for our own. The hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” puts it this way:

“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my teason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.”

We all have our places in the story. One of the remarkable things about the story is that not only is it because of all of us, but it is for all of us. Good Friday is for Nicodemus. And Joseph. And Malchus. And Mary, Mary, and Mary. And Pilate. And the crowd. And the high priests. And the soldiers. And Annas. And Caiaphas.

And Peter. And Me. And You.

Where are you in the story of Christ’s Passion?

Faces of Christ

Can we see God in humiliation? Can we see God in human brokenness?

Maundy Thursday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31-35

A few weeks ago I opened the mail in my office and found, to my delight, this year’s ELCA World Hunger Lenten study. Even though I don’t always use the Bible study, I’m always excited and intrigued by the study. Sometimes it provides good material for sermons, and sometimes it’s just an edifying study to read through on my own.

Cover of the 2018 ELCA World Hunger Lenten Study Guide. Copyright ELCA World Hunger. Fair Use.

This year’s study, titled Faces of Christ, has a cover that immediately caught my attention. The cover is composed of 30 individual portraits of Christ, and not all of them come from the same culture. It was interesting to see the different interpretations of Jesus, especially the Eastern, Asian interpretations of Jesus. We as white Americans in churches descended from Scandinavian and German ancestors are so used to seeing pale-faced, blond haired, blue eyed Jesus that it can be a little jarring to see a picture of Jesus not in our own image.

 

It reminded me of my visit to Israel and Palestine, the Holy Land of Christianity. In Nazareth there’s a huge cathedral, the Church of the Annunciation, built over the traditional location of Mary’s house. It’s truly a massive basilica, and all around the church and the grounds are artistic representations of the Virgin Mary and the boy Jesus donated by different countries. I remember walking through the church, looking at all of these different depictions of Mary and Jesus, and being in awe. Jesus was Mexican. Jesus was Japanese. Jesus was Ethiopian. Jesus was Thai. Jesus was Mongolian. Jesus was Irish. Jesus was Argentinian. Jesus was Palestinian.

I had never seen Jesus that way before. To put it plainly, even though I “knew” that the image of Swedish Jesus I grew up with wasn’t what Jesus really looked like, that was all I could ever imagine Jesus to be. Seeing Jesus depicted as a member of other ethnic groups was jarring. It didn’t match my expectations.

I imagine Peter felt very much the same way. This is the same Peter who in other Gospels sees Jesus transformed into a glowing super-person on the mountaintop. He listens to Jesus teach and preach. He watches Jesus heal and cast out demons. He sees Jesus walking on water and gets out of a boat to join him. He walks down the streets of Jerusalem as people throw their coats and palm branches on the ground, rolling out the “red carpet” for Jesus, so to speak, treating him like a king. Jesus was everything Peter expected the Messiah to be.

So when Jesus then gets on the floor, strips out of his outer clothing, and starts washing his disciples’ feet, it totally throws Peter for a loop. That was a servant’s job—the job of a menial worker. Think about how many of us like having our feet touched or, God forbid, touching someone else’s feet. It’s humiliating, what Jesus is doing. It doesn’t match Peter’s expectations, which leads him to protest. He just can’t see Jesus in this role, doing this work. He only sees Jesus in glory. He can’t see Jesus in humiliation.

What about us? Can we? Can we see God in humiliation? Can we see God in human brokenness? Can we see God in places, and in people, we would much rather ignore?

Very often I think we’re tempted to see God in “our image”, the way I remember seeing Jesus as I grew up in a Swedish Lutheran church. It’s tempting to see Jesus in the Peter Popoff’s Miracle Waters of the world, or in the smiling, never-sad, always-happy Joel Osteens, or in the military conquests done in Jesus’s name. It’s tempting to see Jesus as supporting the American upper-middle class that lives in the suburbs with sensible white American values. It’s easy to imagine someone we would admire and respect, and then project Jesus onto that, the same way Peter did.

We want Jesus to be strong. We want Jesus to be powerful. We want Jesus to be mighty. We want Jesus to be sensible. We want Jesus to be logical. We want Jesus to be military. We want Jesus to be respectable. We want Jesus to be respectful. We want Jesus to be clean-cut. We want Jesus to be pretty. We want Jesus to be successful. We want Jesus to be rich.

We want Jesus to be everything we wish we could be and more, because how else is he going to save us? How can Jesus save us if he isn’t better than us?

And yet here is Jesus, on his knees, half-naked, scrubbing people’s dirty feet.

Later, he’ll be dragged out of a garden and in front of a court. He’ll be mocked. He’ll be humiliated. He’ll be put on display and tortured, in public. And he’ll be put to death, executed by the state, like a common thug.

Can we see God in that? Can we recognize Jesus, the savior of the world, in all of that? I hope so.

I hope so because if I can recognize Jesus, the savior of the world, in a broken and beaten body on a cross, then I can recognize Jesus in so many more places and people than I thought possible.

Which is a good thing. As Martin Luther himself reminds us,

“God says, ‘I do not choose to come to you in my majesty and in the company of angels but in the guise of a poor beggar asking for bread. … I want you to know that I am the one who is suffering hunger and thirst.’”
(Luther’s Commentary on the Gospel of John)

It means that I can throw out all of those ideas about who Jesus is and where Jesus can be found and instead start recognizing where Jesus has been all along–

In the minimum-wage gas station attendant that sells me donuts and orange juice every Sunday morning for my Confirmation class.

In the members of our community that come to the Three Lakes Christian Food Pantry and are overlooked by the rest of the community.

In the overwhelmingly Native American population of the Vilas County Jail.

In the rising number of opioid users and abusers in our community.

In the homeless who try to survive the winter in trailers, cars, and tents without heat or electricity.

In the LGBTQ+ community, who has no place in too many of our Christian communities.

In the victims of human trafficking that pass through Vilas and Oneida counties under our very noses.

In those who don’t think or vote the same way I do in politics.

In every face, every person lovingly created in the image of God who is ever brushed aside, ridiculed, forgotten, humiliated, or deemed “unworthy” by those around them.

In them, I see the face of Christ. In them, the image of God, the person of Jesus Christ, the savior of the whole world, is given a real and tangible form.

And if I can finally open my eyes to the face of Christ that has been around me the entire time, the face that I have for so long been willfully blind to because it didn’t meet my expectations, then maybe someone else can see Christ in me. And they can see Christ in you.

Jesus getting down on his knees to wash his disciples’ feet in an act of personal humiliation was more than just a gesture of kindness for his closest friends. It was an explicit acknowledgment that Christ isn’t found in power, or might, or wealth; but is instead found in acts of service, acts of love, humiliation, demeaning circumstances, and everywhere else we’d rather not look. The people “out there”. All of you. Me.

When you leave this place tonight, you will be Christ for everyone you meet. Bless them, as you have blessed me.

Featured Image: “Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel 16” by Hoshvilim is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.