The Pastor and Depression

By Deacon Godsey, a student in my MANT cohort at Northern Seminary.

THE CHALLENGE OF PASTORING WITH DEPRESSION

Deacon Godsey
Pastor, Vintage Church

I am 42 years old and have served in some form of full-time ministry for the better part of 20 years, including the last seven as the solo lead pastor of a small church in Lawrence, KS (the lone “blue” bastion in an otherwise ardently “red” state.) As such, I am both a veteran of local church ministry, while also a relative newbie at serving in a point leadership role.

As of last summer I started pursuing my masters degree, a venture that has been both encouraging and challenging. As a reader and committed life-long learner, I thoroughly enjoy loving God with my mind (Mark 12), and as a teacher-at-heart I absolutely love getting to include my ongoing education in the course of my weekly preaching.

Over the last several years I’ve also dedicated myself to a deeper study of the historical – and current – challenges faced by oppressed people groups in the U.S., specifically learning all I can about the experiences and perspectives of black people, the LGBT+ communities and Native Americans. I have always had a heart of empathy for those who bear the burden of systemic injustice, but have felt compelled to explore tangible ways of addressing those realities on a social level, while still maintaining my faithful commitment to the uniqueness of God’s kingdom.

In the midst of all this – pastoral ministry, point leadership, theological education, and social engagement – I am also a husband (21 years and counting!) and a father, and am persistently wrestling with what it looks like to be a life-giving partner to my wife and a good dad to our son. None of this, of course, makes me terribly unique, nor deserving of pity on any level. As a straight, married, employed, educated, healthy white male living in the U.S. at this point in history, I have access to virtually every form of privilege imaginable.

There is one reality I face, however, that has started to complicate things for me in ways I never anticipated when I was younger: my depression.

Chemical depression runs in my family, but is something I subconsciously resisted dealing with for years, and then outright intentionally avoided for a few more after that. You see, I was a young man with great ambition and dreams of setting the world on fire with my spiritual passion, intellectual insight and spirit-filled preaching and teaching. Acknowledging and dealing with my depression was a giant distraction I simply didn’t want to deal with.

I dreamt – and sometimes still dream – of pastoring a church, teaching at the college level, writing thoughtful, reflective, challenging books and traveling the world to preach and teach. Some days those dreams don’t seem too far out of reach. Others, however, I feel lucky just to finish my required class reading for the week, or effectively complete my message for Sunday, or to simply get off Twitter, get off the couch and tackle the basics of day-to-day life.

No matter how it manifests itself in someone’s life, depression sucks. You may not know that experientially, but trust me: it does. My personal depression is expressed in a number of ways. For instance, if I’m not on medication I feel constantly irritable; like I have one last nerve, and every single person and thing is on it. I have to constantly remind myself I’m not ticked off at everyone I interact with, either in person or on social media.

My depression also makes me incredibly prone to distraction and makes it extremely difficult to concentrate, something that’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. I love to read and study, recently experiencing the joy that came from reading N.T. Wright’s Paul and The Faithfulness of God and writing a 8,600 word summary of his contribution to Pauline theology. Getting through that project, however, felt like nothing short of a medically assisted and Spirit-empowered miracle, especially considering how some days just finishing someone’s tweet takes every ounce of persistence and concentration I can muster.

Primarily, though, my depression shines forth in all its frustrating glory in my complete and utter lack of motivation to do virtually anything, including the things I genuinely love to do. I have to will myself just to get out of bed, much less intentionally engage in the various practices I know will help mitigate the impact depression has on my daily life (i.e. taking my medication, taking my vitamins, getting enough sleep, getting some exercise, getting outside, etc.).

In light of all that, I’ve found myself wrestling with how to process this on a pastoral leadership level.
A series of questions have presented themselves:

  • If it’s a challenge for me to meet the basic obligations of day-to-day life (much less memorize and apply the “87 Helpful Tips to Being The Greatest Pastoral Leader This Generation Has Ever Seen”), what does “success” or “effectiveness” look like for my family, my church and my “career?”
  • What impact does depression have on my realistic “capacity” as a leader, pastor, writer, student, etc.?
  • Will I ever be able to live out these various dreams? If so, to what degree? If not, how will I deal with that spiritually, emotionally or intellectually?
  • How do I deal honestly with the reality of my depression without letting it function as an excuse to justify a lack of productivity?
  • How will God view my faithfulness with the gifts, privileges, talents and responsibilities entrusted to me in light of the potential limitations my depression might create?

At this point I don’t have any satisfactory answers to these questions, nor am I seeking anyone’s advice on how to “fix” things. I am, however, trying to be as brutally honest with myself as possible so avoidance and denial don’t get the better of me. I also hope that processing my thoughts like this in public can be a potential source of encouragement and solidarity for other pastors who might struggle with the same questions and need to know they’re not alone.

To my ministry colleagues for whom this is relevant, I say this: yes, depression sucks, but I am not going to live in denial, nor will I choose to give up. I will keep pushing, keep trying and keep failing in the right direction, and I encourage you to do the same.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.