Navigating the Emotional Impact of Covid
As Covid disrupts our lives at virtually every turn, people’s emotional lives are also taking a hit.
In an era of “social distancing,” believers are especially mindful of the ancient truth that “it is not good to be alone.” This is why solitary confinement is still considered the worst possible thing that could happen among the incarcerated and prisoners of war. Likewise, children who are deprived of social contact tend to experience mental illness in adulthood at a disproportionate rate.
Add to the isolation the economic impact, the loss of vocational flourishing, and the grief of loved ones lost to illness, and you have one, long stretch of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The season is longer than the standard three-month winter, almost like Narnia when the White Witch was in power (“always winter, and never spring”) — and yet, in the midst of even what seems like an endless winter, we have an anchor that holds us — the anchor of the risen Christ.
For those who are feeling especially low at this time, even thought it’s from a different series of circumstances in years past, I am sharing (again) my story of anxiety and depression below. I hope that there is something in my story that might help bring some extra hope and encouragement into yours.
I am one of those ministers who has endured a handful of seasons of anxiety and depression. Most of the time, thankfully, the affliction has been more low-grade than intense. On one occasion, though, it pretty much flattened me physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. I call this particular season my ‘living nightmare.’
That season, as well as others, occurred while serving in ministry.
How bad was the living nightmare? I could not fall asleep for two weeks straight. Even sleeping pills could not calm the adrenaline and knock me out, which only made things worse. At night I was terrified of the quiet, knowing I was in for another all-night battle with insomnia that I was likely to lose. The sunrise also terrified me, an unwelcome reminder that another day of impossible struggle was ahead of me. I lost nearly thirty-five pounds in two months. I could not concentrate in conversations with people. I found no comfort in God’s promises from Scripture. I was unable to pray anything but “Help” and “Please end this.”
Why would I tell you this part of my story? Because I believe—no, I am certain—that anxiety and depression hits ministers disproportionately. And a minister who suffers with this affliction, especially in isolation, is a person at risk. When I was in seminary, two pastors committed suicide because they could not imagine going on another day having to face their anxiety and depression. Both suffered with the affliction in silence. One wrote in his suicide note that if a minister tells anyone about his depression, he will lose his ministry, because nobody wants to be pastored by a damaged person.
Or do they?
For those of us in ministry who have suffered (or are suffering) from this affliction, I think we need to do everything we can to discover and embrace an applied theology of weakness. Even the Apostle Paul said that it is in weakness that we discover the glory, power, and grace of God. This is how God works. He is upside-down to our sensibilities. Better said, we are upside-down to his.
Anne Lamott recently said that it’s okay to realize that you are very crazy and very damaged because all of the best people are. Suffering has a way of shaping us as people and as ministers. It has a way of equipping us to lead in ways that are helpful and not harmful. A healer who himself has not been wounded is very limited in his ability to heal.
The ‘very crazy, very damaged’ people in Scripture seem to be the ones through whom God did the greatest things. Hannah experienced bitterness of soul over infertility and a broken domestic situation. Elijah felt so beaten down by ministry that he asked God to take his life. David repeatedly asked his own soul why it was so downcast. Even Jesus, the perfectly divine human, expressed that his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death. Each of these biblical saints, in her/his own way, was empowered by God to change the world—not in spite of the affliction but because of it and through it.
Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, experienced depression for many years of his ministry. William Cowper, the great hymn writer, had debilitating, paralyzing anxiety for most of his adult life. CS Lewis lost his wife to a violent form of cancer. Joni Eareckson Tada became paralyzed from the neck down when she was a teenager. All of these and others have God’s chosen instruments for bringing truth, grace, and hope into the world. The best therapists and counselors have themselves been in therapy and counseling. It’s how God works.
So if anxiety and/or depression is your affliction, I am sharing this part of my story to remind you that there is no shame in having this or any other affliction. In fact, our afflictions may be the key to our fruitfulness as ministers. ‘Damaged’ does not mean ‘ineffective.’ It does not mean ‘done.’
Anxiety and depression can also, ironically, be a conduit of hope—an opportunity for the foolishness of God to be put on display in our lives. Recently a member in our church (where I have been senior pastor for two years now) told me that he thinks I am a great preacher…and he is entirely unimpressed by this. He told me that the moment he decided to trust me, the moment he decided that I was his pastor, was when I shared openly with the church that I have struggled with anxiety and depression and that I have seen counselors for many years.
As ministers, in the end we may discover that our afflictions had greater impact in people’s lives than our preaching or our vision.
Anxiety and depression are also invitations into Sabbath rest. When you are laid flat and there’s nothing you can do except beg for help, Jesus tends to meet you in that place. It is there that Jesus reminds us that Matthew 11 is for ministers too. He invites weary and heavy laden ministers to come to him and find rest, to learn from him, to experience his humility and gentleness of heart…that we, too, might find rest for our souls. For an anxious, depressed person, there is nothing quite like an easy yoke and a light burden under which to process our pain.
Many times when I have encountered this affliction, it has been through or because of something related to ministry. Usually anxiety and depression have come upon me because I have lost my way temporarily—leaving the easy yoke of Jesus and looking to ministry for self-validation, to make a name for myself, to gain applause and acclaim and respect from the crowds. This is a dead end street, but in moments and seasons of weakness my heart has gone there.
Anxiety and depression have been God’s way of reminding me that I don’t have to be awesome. He has not called me to be awesome, or impressive, or a celebrity pastor, or anything of the sort. He has first and foremost called me to be loved, and to be receptive to that love. He has called me to remember that because of Jesus, I already have a name, I will be remembered even after I am long gone, because he is my God and I am his person. He is my Father and I am his son.
Kierkegaard said that the thorn in his foot enabled him to spring higher than anyone with sound feet. The Apostle Paul said something very similar about the thorn in his flesh. The thorn kept him from becoming cocky. It kept him humble. It kept him fit for God and fit for the people whom God had called him to love and serve. There is glory in weakness. There is a power that is made perfect in that place.
Though I would not wish anxiety or depression on anyone, I am strangely thankful for the unique way that this affliction has led me, time and again, back into the rest of God.
“All the fitness he requires is to feel your need of him…”
Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them
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[…] the two pastors from St. Louis are not rare. Many of us pastors, including Spurgeon and including me, have fallen into the emotional abyss—not in spite of the fact that we are in ministry, but […]
[…] the two pastors from St. Louis are not rare. Many of us pastors, including Spurgeonand including me, have fallen into the emotional abyss—not in spite of the fact that we are in ministry, but […]
[…] I have been anxious and depressed. I have doubted my calling and been through a vocational crisis. I have questioned the meaning of life and begged God to end it all. I have contemplated the inevitability of my own death. I have, at times, been made vulnerable—having been involuntarily “lifted up” by the Creator who, as C.S. Lewis faithfully reminds us, is always good but never safe—and have been struck by Him. […]
[…] felt hate and we ignored that. Three four five If you were gay, would you believe that? Mr. One. Anxiety and Depression, My Strange Friends – Scott Sauls. Not long ago, I was given an opportunity to share at a ministers’ dinner about my personal […]
[…] I prayed daily that God would either heal the affliction or end my life (you can read that story here). While I was going through this awful season—a season in which I could not sleep even while […]
[…] I have been anxious and depressed, sometimes in a deeply crushing way. I have been (rightly) critiqued for being racially blind and insensitive by a handful of racial minorities. I have been publicly criticized for certain aspects of my teaching and approach to ministry. I get worked up too much, because my personality is on the intense side. I have lost a job and been unemployed for a time, struggled with body image issues and overeating, and during certain times felt like a failure at ministry, friendship, parenting, and being a husband. I live with insomnia regularly. If I don’t take melatonin at bedtime, I don’t sleep. […]
[…] was then reminded by a friend of a prior reflection I wrote called “Anxiety and Depression: My Strange Friends,” and upon revisiting that reflection I became convinced — ironically by my own words […]
[…] Anxiety and Depression, My Strange Friends A pastor shares his story of how God has blessed seasons of anxiety and depression in his life. […]
Just. Thank you. Your blog posts have been a source of life and hope.
[…] Anxiety and Depression, My Strange Friends: This is all too real of our family right now. For those of us in ministry who have suffered (or are suffering) from this affliction, I think we need to do everything we can to discover and embrace an applied theology of weakness. Even the Apostle Paul said that it is in weakness that we discover the glory, power, and grace of God. This is how God works. He is upside-down to our sensibilities. Better said, we are upside-down to his. […]
Good words of encouragement. However, the last church I served, which was the last one I’ve wanted to serve was a place of shame and condemnation. At one brainstorming meeting, one of the elders and a defacto leader (who had his own bouts of depression) stayed a few minutes afterward to voice their “concern.” They said that they had noticed I seemed to be discouraged and that was a concern. I told them I was not merely discouraged but depressed. The two of them seemed quite surprised. The elder said there was no room in the church for a depressed pastor. It was unacceptable and I needed to snap out of it. The leader said he could not figure out why any pastor would ever be discouraged or depressed and I needed to get with it and never give anyone in the church any indication there was anything wrong. For the next twenty minutes, they scolded me and lectured me about how bad it was, how wrong it was to be in my mental or emotional state. After all, they never heard of any good pastor who dealt with depression.
At the end of their shame-based scolding, they wanted to know if I had anything to say. I told them there were two things. The first was their rebuke only discouraged me further and giving me an emotionally charged beating was wrong and harmful. The second was the fact they came to beat me down rather than to come alongside as brothers to boost me up. Shaking their fingers and wagging their tongues was not the biblical way to address someone who was discouraged or depressed. It would have been far better and more life filling if they said they noticed a problem but were ready to help.
They got up and left.
I’m so sorry that this happened to you. Truly.
Thank you, brother
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Pastor thank you so much for sharing. I am coming out of a year long struggle with anxiety and depression. Through it I believe God was breaking me and calling me into missions. However I fear (some times very strongly) wondering when I know I will be ready to move my family and be fully over it, or if that it even something to expect. God has made me so much stronger through it. I still have same fears and anxieties yet I’m much stronger and can manage them. When will I know I’m ready to? When I’m fully fear of my anxieties and fears or should I not expect them to go away and go in the strength of the Lord? Pastor I was wondering if I could somehow ask you a question in regards to that. As a man who has experienced it, is highly value your opinion!
[…] Sauls shares a very candid testimony from a pastor suffering from mental illness. It could just as easily been written by a missionary. You need to have a good understanding of […]
I’m involved with a ministry that helps churches welcome families impacted by mental illness and other disabilities. The folks at Lifeway Research did a study a few years ago and found that more than anything else, family members wanted their pastors to speak openly about mental health-related topics during their weekend worship services. Your willingness to be transparent is an incredible blessing to the 20% of Nashville residents experiencing a mental health condition at any given time who need to be in a church where they will be accepted.
Our daughter at Belmont has been attending your church’s Music Row campus. My wife and I are greatly encouraged that she’s part of a church with wise and authentic leaders.
Scott, Your transparency in preaching & in writing remain endearing, encouraging, and one of your major strengths. Thank you for including your battle with mental illness. The harsh judgmental stigma as a defective weakness persists & especially among Christians.
Clinical or Major Depression & Anxiety Disorders are no respecter of persons or position.
I am now a 70 year-old retired psychiatrist. I experienced my first “Episode of Panic Attacks” and subsequent 2 year episode of Major Depression (with suicidal thoughts) while in medical school in 1971. I felt like I was going crazy. An antidepressant & an anti-anxiety medication helped decrease the Panic Attacks, but did not help the depression for 1.5 years. This was at a time when medication use for depression was mostly guess work on dosing. Therapy & counseling offered some comfort with encouragement. My first bout with Major Depression was a 2 year nightmare. I loved what I was learning in medical science, but definitely felt impaired & terrified. “My plan” had been to train as a family physician thinking toward medical missionary work. “God’s plan” was different. Through recommendations of a family practitioner mentor I reluctantly did 1 year of General Psychiatry to better prepare for general medical practice. After an internship at Vanderbilt U. Medical Center I did 1 year of General Psychiatry residency as a recovered depressive. I was fortunate to complete a full Psychiatry residency once I accepted “God’s plan”. After several years of private practice, I slipped into another episode of Major Depression, but responded more quickly to an antidepressant with counseling counseling. My sharing my personal experience with Major Depression & Panic Disorder with many of my patients helped greatly in overcoming the guilt that goes with Major Depression & Anxiety & needing to take medication. As I sought my Savior & Rock with His many promises He used my weaknesses & wounds to help others find The Savior always faithful. Your transparency encouraged me. I have found a number of books such as “Why Do Christians Shoot Their Wounded ?” very helpful.
I pray that the fact that you are living this and sharing it by God’s grace will change many destructive situations of condemnation.
Eg, I met and married at Bible College and we pastored together for several years until my husband started a business. I homeshooled our six children. For 23 years of marriage my anxiety and post-natal depression was never once seen as something valid to be diagnosed or treated, but as a personality problem I just needed to “obey God, submit to my husband and get over”. I ended up in a horror five years of panic disorder, digestive system shut-down and a husband who threatened to leave me if I didn’t “change”. I went to our pastors for help, they blamed me entirely and said I was demon possessed. My Christian husband swiftly used that impetus to divorce me and is getting remarried to a capable, wealthy, non-depressed (Christian) woman next week. I am 44 years old, struggling to work provide a home for what children I have left. All our children are confused, devastated and some have been convinced their father is justified. Jesus is on the throne and His eternal love never fails. He will lead me through and I do look forward to Heaven.
All I can do is cry for you/us and ask Father God to rescue His children
Some good thoughts, however, not sure, but for those of us not in ministry, it may not offer much encouragement. It’s great that you can find encouragement in the idea that it is something that “hits ministers disproportionately” and that it happened to “ones through whom God did the greatest things”. Not being minister a minister though, when you go through an extended period of the deepest darkest despression, and you are struggling with the question as to why God is allowing this in your life, you can take no comfort in the idea that it is due to being in God’s service. Neither do you have the relationships available to you that a minister might have. It is in fact extremely difficult to find an understanding Christian to share your struggles with. So you just suffer alone with little hope, and in your bewilderment try and understand what the reason for it all may be, until better days come along.
I appreciated this so much, thank you. Though my faith is not explicitly Christian, I related to most every word. I am emerging from the woods of anxiety with some depression and have often thought that it is changing me into a more useful human being. I also took comfort in the call to rest. Thanks again.
The phrase that stood out to me the most was “Damaged does not mean ineffective”
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