Road to Recovery
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve begun sharing some of the story of my struggle with depression. And I’ve come to a place where it’s time for me to share some things that I’ve felt have helped me, and I pray will be helpful to others also.
- A return to spiritual disciplines. I’ve said in previous posts that depression isn’t something that you just pray away, and I absolutely meant that. What I’ve also noticed, at least in my case, is that the greater the depression looms over me, the easier it is to get distracted from actually following Jesus as an individual. Like Peter trying to walk on the water, the storms of life can often be too hard to ignore, and our focus falls away from the one empowering us to walk over the tumultuous waves. Finding consistent quiet time, prayer, and Bible reading – not just sporadic and chaotically – has helped me immensely.
- Becoming open and vulnerable about my struggle. It’s been so good to talk about the thing that’s been weighing me down, and often, eating me up from the inside. Giving myself permission to “not being ok” has not only felt like dropping a heavy load off my back, but it’s brought so many people closer to me. I also have specific people I turn to, confide in, and am accountable to about my health.
- Leaning on my spouse. If there’s any one thing I have going for me in this life, it’s that I have a wife who has loved me unconditionally, and unwaveringly. Tiffany Markum is truly the embodiment of the love of Christ to me. And the love and grace she’s shown me through every season of our marriage only seems ever more evident now.
- Removing some of the pressures points. I admittedly allowed the ministry to become a source of idolatry for me. I was allowing the church I started to become so great a factor in defining who I was as a person, that if something happened to my ministry, it would throw me into a tale-spin of anxiety and identity. Every time I find my identity in something other than Jesus, it will fail me, and I will fail it. So I did what some would have considered a stupid decision – I left a full time role as lead pastor of my church to go bi-vocational. This forced me to divert a large portion of my attention away from the ministry that I was idolizing, and onto a different venture that I also love and can feel like my talents are being used productively. More on this later…
- Making room to rest. My mental and emotional health suffered massively in 2018, among other reasons, because I didn’t make time to rest, recover, and recharge at critical points. I didn’t go out fishing one time for the whole year, and that was one of the most rewarding, recharging activities I ever do. I still haven’t got on the water, but I’ve managed to make more time for my kids and my wife. I’ve enjoyed a few simple pleasures with dear friends. I’ve made space for God to speak to me – and for me to stop and listen. I’ve begun to pray more consistently – like I did before everything became so overwhelming.
Here are a few things I’m not doing yet, but trying to work on to continue to be healthier mentally and emotionally…
- Go fishing. I already mentioned this, but it is truly therapeutic to be in a boat, on my own or 1-2 friends, line in the water, surrounded by the sounds of the ocean. I miss it greatly and intend to hit the water soon in 2019 when it warms up a bit.
- Exercise again. In 2016 and 2017, I had gotten back into the gym consistently after years of not working out often enough. 2018 marked a departure from that discipline, and I intend to get back to working out regularly soon.
- Reading. My reading plan for 2018 became all but abandoned! I did listen to dozens of podcasts – hundreds of various episodes – but I intended to finish far more books than I ended up reading. I’m attacking that hard in 2019 and I’ll share my book reading list later.
One notable thing missing, is medication. I do not intend to go on medication for my anxiety – not because I think it’s wrong. I want to be clear: if you need medication to cope with your anxiety or depression, then by all means, please take care of yourself with the guidance of professional medical advise! I chose not to (up to this point) because I’m personally averse to all medication whenever possible. I feel that way about Advil or Tylenol as well, but I still take it when my headaches are unbearable. I feel the same principal is necessary when depression becomes too much to bear without medication. I have friends who say that antidepressants saved their life – I also have friends who have told me horror stories of how it’s messed with them. I believe all drugs carry risks, so I avoid them when possible, and take them when necessary.
That’s what’s been going on in my life and how Gods used different means of recovering and managing my anxiety/depression. I’d love to hear what has worked for you in the comments below!
Depression as a Pastor
I still wrestle with opening up about struggling with depression, because of one reason: I’m a pastor. I live in constant realization that my life is always on display, and people have assumptions and expectations of me. And while I know it’s often a poor motive, the pressure of those expectations are hard to ignore. Assumptions like, “Pastors are supposed to be close to God. How can you struggle with depression as a pastor?!” Or simply the fact that I have so many people who lean on me for support and strength – but where does a pastor turn when the weight of life is overbearing? We don’t want to disappoint our church family; we often feel ashamed of our private war. Other pastors? It feels risky. The fear of being exposed, ridiculed, judged, or worse – shunned by the very community you hoped would be there for you – is often too high a price to risk.
So how do we cope? We contain the pain. We bottle up the hurt we help others carry. We maintain the very facade we hate and call out in others as inauthentic. We pray to God for peace, while feeling like strangers to the people whom we lead. They don’t often know the real us, the broken us. The depressed us. And while we know God hears us, we often lack the human element of someone who understands; someone who weeps with us and mourns with us.
August 25, 2018, Pastor Andrew Stoecklein of Inland Hills Church in southern CA took his own life after a struggle with depression. I personally know many, many other pastors who have considered such a choice in the middle of their darkest battles.
Here are a few reasons pastors tend to struggle with depression…
- Pastors are exposed to some of the worst parts of the human condition. For me, and many other pastors I know, we’ve had some horrible, horrible things confessed to us in counseling. I’ve literally had every one of the ten commandments confessed to me. As a pastor, I get a front row seat to some amazing things God does in people’s lives. The worst part, by far – is that I still get that front row seat to some of the horrendous things people do to themselves and others. Adultery, rape, abuse, drug use, self-harm, eating disorders, rampant promiscuity, self-medication, suicide – the list goes on. And we try to help. We offer the most talented, experienced wisdom gained often over decades of study and practice. Yet successful outcomes seldom exceed 50%. And because of the rules of counseling, we don’t really get to share these burdens entrusted to us to shepherd. So we lay awake at night, staring at a black ceiling, trying to pray through the darkness around us and inside us now, because of what we’ve had to help others work through.
- We carry many, many people’s grief with us. I’ve buried elderly folks and people younger than me. The immense grief that you help others process is often very, very difficult to shake off of yourself. And over time, all the burdens you’ve helped others lift can seem to have a cumulative affect on the pastor who’s helped them. The pain of a parent who’s lost a kid, or a husband who lost his wife… it’s so raw and painful to watch even if it’s not your own family. And some of those bitter cries of agony stick inside of you. You never forget them.
- We have our own backstory and personal struggles. Pastors are people too. Many of us have been through so much, that we became pastors to compensate by helping others. It’s a good thing, but we still have personal struggles, scars, and sins we battle with. Often, we don’t get to share these struggles, or don’t feel safe sharing them because we feel like others need to see us as strong. We know our strength gives others strength. So what happens when we fall apart? Truth is, probably very good things – but it feels like a big risk. What if me falling apart makes someone else lose hope for themselves? Then what? Could I live with that anguish, if they gave up on their kids? Their marriage? Their sobriety?… Their life?
- Pastors often feel compelled to 24/7 self-censorship. God help the pastor who shows a moment of anger, frustration, or doubt. Some pastors seem cold, distant, or uncaring toward their own congregation. And they might be. Truth is, most of those “types” are afraid of their own people seeing the “real” them and rejecting them… again, pastors are people too.
- We’re never “off”. We don’t punch a clock in ministry. We get calls at midnight, on vacation, and during weddings, sermon prep, funerals, or lunch dates with our spouses. I’ve had people who were in my children’s ministry 14 years ago call me – now as adults – literally distraught about their life. At any moment, someone you married 10 years ago and haven’t heard much from since, might need help because their spouse is abandoning them. And the longer we do this, the longer the list of people who depend on us in times of personal crisis.
- We are recipients of a lot of criticism. Too many Christians will get mad at each other and instead of dealing with that person directly – you know, like mature Christian adults – they’ll complain to the pastor and make it his fault. Pastors get criticized if the music was a touch too loud, the room a bit too cold, their kids a little too rowdy, their wife a little too attractive, etc. Someone always wants to criticize a sermon, demand more personal time, and on, and on it can go in many churches. Seldom, do many pastors ever get acknowledged for the sacrifices they regularly make, the burdens they’re expected to keep confidential, or the constant demand on their time, energy, and family.
Pastors are at war with a real spiritual enemy, who hates us. I take refuge that “greater is He who is in us than He who is in the world,” and yet I know that every war has casualties. We don’t have to like that, but we do have to acknowledge it if we’re going to change it. For the Stoecklein family, that’s not a statistic – it’s a broken heart, a broken family, a confused and lonely childhood, and a deeply wounded church and community.
Every war has casualties. We don’t have to like that, but we do have to acknowledge it if we’re going to change it.
I pray that other fellow pastors find the boldness to talk about their struggles and get the help and healing to empower others to do the same. I’m trying to lend my voice to the conversation. And I’m grateful that so many others have reached out encouraging me in the process. Truly we really are better together.
What Depression is NOT
After attempting to commit some necessary thoughts to writing, I realized this was way bigger than a post – it needed to be more of an on-going conversation.
Recently, I confessed to my staff, church family, and those who follow me on social media that I have been actively struggling with depression and that it has been particularly difficult this past year.
I’m still not ready to get into most of the details of my battle, but I will share a few things about my story:
1. It’s been a lifelong battle.
2. I’ve been to the brink of suicide. More than once.
3. Talking about it has helped. Like, a lot.
4. Jesus is stronger than my struggle.
“Jesus is stronger than my struggle.”
Let me begin this conversation with a couple of thoughts on what, I’m convinced depression is not…
1. Depression is not evidence of being far from God. I’ve heard it all. Someone actually said I needed to repent of my depression. Oh, trust me! I would love to if that made it go away! I’m a pastor, Christian counselor, and coach to other pastors planting churches. One of the greatest ironies of my journey through depression, has been these rare moments, often when the darkness feels the strongest, that I feel the presence of God in more clear, compelling ways than ever. In many ways, depression has drawn me closer to God. And if that’s the price of knowing Him more intimately, I don’t just accept my depression, I rejoice in it. His grace is sufficient, and I glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. You see – these verses are fun to quote until the “thorn in the flesh” is taboo – like a pastor admitting to depression.
2. Depression is not an age issue. Yes, I struggled with suicide and depression since my teen years – but I’m over twice the age I was when I nearly ended my own life. I’m not a millennial – in fact I’m closing in on 40. Since sharing my depression publicly, I’ve had literally dozens of people – mostly men, and many of them pastors – who have shared their struggle with depression. A huge percentile of these people were older than me, been in ministry longer than me, and some had confessed to suicidal thoughts also.
3. Depression is not predictable. I consider myself very self-aware. I’m as comfortable with questioning my instincts as I am trusting them. And there’s few things as frustrating for me as feeling “wrong” on the inside, but not understanding why. Depression isn’t just limited to bad days, bad news, or bad memories. Depression can wreck your first day off in weeks. Depression can put you in a funk right before a date night you’ve been looking forward to all day.
4. Depressed people are not always sad. How does someone so full of life like Robin Williams commit suicide? How can a young, charismatic preacher with a beautiful family and great life end it all? Because often, those with the capacity to express the greatest joy also possess the capacity to feel the deepest pain. I’ll commit more energy to this subject in a future post.
5. Depression is not simple. Pray more. Read your Bible more. Exercise more. Eat better. I’ve been told all of the above, and those who struggle with depression will tell you that these things individually and collectively have immense impact on their ability to cope with, and even overcome depression. But it is almost never as simple as “gut health” or spiritual discipline. If you treat the symptoms but never get true rest and healing at the source, you’ll spend your life tired from trying to fix yourself, and getting frustrated – and more depressed. Once you finally get quiet and still, you find that the shadows of your soul still lurk, waiting for you to become even more fatigued.
• Depression is not unusual. Every kind of person struggles with depression. Christians. Atheists. Soldiers. Millennials. Boomers. Caucasians, African-descent, Hispanics, Asians, wealthy, poor, educated, uneducated, and every other variety or amalgamation of the above. It hasn’t been talked about enough. There’s been too much shame associated with it, and as a result, many people who could have gotten help didn’t. This has created two effects that I see: 1) People with depression have felt isolated and more alone than we know to be true, and 2) because of this, few people know where to turn for help.
It’s time we break the silence, and begin the conversation. It’s time to talk about depression. I still believe Jesus is the only Healer of our broken world and broken hearts, but we’ve got to be honest about the problems, if we’re ever going to accurately apply the solution.
I’m John – a pastor, husband, and father with a great life. I struggle with depression. Let’s talk.
Let me explain… Information is important, and willfully ignoring what’s right in from of you is fatal. However, the experts, the professionals, the tenured and most experienced people will often give counsel that is counter intuitive to the gut instinct building inside of you to break molds, attempt the impossible, and set a new expectation for what’s “normal.”
Sometimes, and I do mean sometimes, you must ignore conventional wisdom regarding what you know you’re suppose to do. The Bible tells us in 1 Corinthians 1:27 that, “God chose the foolish things of this world to confound the wise; the weak things to confound the strong.”
If I had listened to the “wisdom” given me at various points in my life, I wouldn’t have gone into ministry, found my wife, had kids when we did, live where we live, started a church, grown a beard…
On a related note, people are super nosey! Which is kind of my point. Anyone can have a strong opinion rooted in their experience. But that doesn’t make it law for you. For every worthwhile pursuit, there’s a thousand voices giving compelling arguments as to why you shouldn’t even try. But you know the alternative means going to work, paying bills, repeat, wait for the embrace of death. You can’t play it safe.
Live. Attempt greatness. Risk failure. Accept defeat. Rise again. Pray harder. Rest. Take a fresh look. Learn. Grow. Fail again. Rise again. Find your breakthrough. Overcome. Look back. Celebrate. 20 years have past. Someone calls you an “over-night success.” They’re inspired now. They don’t even know! It’s too late. There’s no stopping them now…
What can you say? Ignorance is Bliss. Sometimes.
Right now, if you’re a part of our church family at LifeCity Church, you know that we’re doing a big fundraiser/special offering for February 25, as we move into our new office, get ready for Easter, and plan for our future.
I wanted to take a minute to share more about why we give to offerings like this. Yes, it funds the work of our church. But it does something good for us personally as well when we give.
Every time in the Scriptures that God asks people for anything, it ultimately worked out to their benefit more than anything else. Because God multiplies whatever we give Him.
In case we didn’t get the word out now, you can now watch the services of LifeCity Church LIVE every Sunday, no matter where you are! Our live streaming began in full form the beginning of this year, and can be watched directly on our website every Sunday here.
Additionally, to help get the message of Jesus out across as many opportunities asa possible, our services are also live streamed simultaneously on our LifeCity Facebook page, my Facebook page, and our LifeCity YouTube channel. Isn’t that cool?!?
We’re also creating weekly highlight clips from the weekend messages, which you can watch in all the same places. So whether you are a part of the LifeCity family but unable to make it one Sunday because of health or travel, you’ve moved from the area and still without a new local church home, or if you just love what we’re doing and want to enjoy the service – we are happy to get the word of all God is doing through our live streaming!
If you love this tool, and are excited to be able to stay connected even when unable to attend in person, do us a favor – subscribe to our YouTube channel, like our Facebook pages, and share to help us get the word out so that our circle of influence grows and more lives can be touched by the transforming love of Christ! Thanks, and it is an honor to bring God’s word to you!