Confession of a Depressed Pastor (Or, How I Learned How to Work Better by Resting Easy)
filed under: work better
I was frustrated, stressed, ashamed, and depressed. Completely normal feelings for a pastor, right? I was three years into my first job as a pastor at a mid-size evangelical church. I knew it was what God wanted me to do, and parts of it were wonderful, but at the end of most days I felt like a total failure.
It took about 18 months and some serious counseling, but I emerged from this experience, more certain than ever that 1) God has called me to be a shepherd and 2) I was equipped to do it.
To get there, though, I had to walk through the depression and anxiety, discover the ability to rest easy, and gain the tools to work better.
I had a calling from God! I had a passion! I had no idea what I was doing.
After three years on the job and in the seminary classroom, I could read Greek and Hebrew, preach a sermon, and lead a Bible study, but I had been given precisely zero training on the nuts and bolts of how to actually plan and… ya know, get stuff done. My calendar was a mess, I was constantly forgetting commitments, and I always felt unprepared. I struggled to keep my head above water and a smile on my face, hoping deep down no one would discover how lost I really was. I labored under the dread of someone revealing that I was a fake.
On top of it all was my self-imposed isolation from not telling anyone what was really going on. After all, I was the pastor. It was my calling to have my life together so I could be the one others were going to for direction.
Thus the depression.
7:00am – Wake up, ready to conquer the world.
8:03am – After the seventh time fumbling for the silence button on the side of my phone alarm, get out of bed feeling guilty for sleeping in again. Secretly glad no one knows what time I wake up. Promise to do my devotional later.
8:30am – Hurriedly depart for church office, already stressed, but ready to make up for lost time and rehearsing a long mental to-do list.
8:45am – Get lost in email.
10:00am – Resurface, wondering how it can take so long to accomplish so little. Attempt to write sermon. Do not feel very creative or inspired. Feel worse after typing two paragraphs than I did when I started.
12:00pm – Lunch meeting. Ditch my pledge to eat a salad because I’m stressed and I want a burger.
1:00pm – Get lost clicking links and browsing articles. Lord, lead me not into YouTube, and deliver me from Twitter links.
3:00pm – Leap of chest pressure as I realize I forgot to call a person I had assured would hear from me first thing this morning, "because I deeply care about your struggle." I do truly care, but feel too ashamed to call now. Decide to call first thing tomorrow morning.
5:00pm – Urge to go home and be with my family, regardless of how much is left to do. Feel the weight of mental to-do list. Jealous of 9-to-5ers.
5:01pm – Decide to do “just a few more little things.” Text this to wife.
6:45pm – Arrive home late (again), apologize to family, try to squeeze in a little quality time.
10:00pm – Leap of anxiety in my chest as I realize my sermon for this week has barely been started.
11:00pm – Go to bed feeling ashamed at how little I accomplished today. Apologize to God and swear to do better tomorrow. Again.
7:00am – Wake up, ready to conquer the world.
After a few dozen laps around that track, I was ready to give up. There was something seriously wrong with me, I just knew it. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a pastor. I sure loved Jesus and people, but when it came to the daily tumble of getting stuff done, I was a wandering sheep without a shepherd.
I reacted to things throughout the day, putting out fires instead of being proactive about the most important things. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a pastor anymore, especially if my future held more nights attending committee meetings than reading goodnight stories to my kids. At least once during each of my first six semesters of grad school I came home, flopped on the bed, and told my wife I wasn’t going back. The thought of everyone I would be letting down by quitting plunged me further into the spiral of self-pity and hopelessness.
There was something wrong with me, I just knew it.
Anxiety is often the flipside of depression. While the depressed mind goes inward with unmanageable thoughts and emotions, the anxious mind flails outward.
My anxiety surfaced (ironically, I thought) over the summer when I had absolutely nothing to do. It was the slowest part of the church year – after conferences, retreats, and mission trips, but before school started again. I had no seminary papers to write, no sermons to deliver, no events to plan. This calm was my first chance to catch my breath after 36 months of running and gunning.
It freaked me out. I couldn’t sleep. My mind raced constantly. I’m pretty sure I had a panic attack about which machine to use at the gym.
I had been crazy busy for three straight years (plus plenty longer before that), and now that I had the opportunity to slow down, my brain didn’t know how. It seized on every possible thing to maintain the previously hectic pace of my pastoral schedule.
I had been looking forward to some downtime so I could relax, but I was mentally and emotionally unable to slow down. I knew I had a real problem when the decision of what to have for lunch totally overwhelmed me and I spent the rest of the day in bed.
I began reaching out to my family, friends, and pastors. They told me it was OK to take a break.
I’m pretty sure I had a panic attack about which machine to use at the gym.
It was clear my ministry wasn’t going to provide a break by itself. So I started choosing to take fewer meetings. When stopping time came each day, I fought the urge to bring it home or perfect every last detail. I learned to say “No,” to the nonessential things constantly clamoring for my attention. I read from the contemplative Christian tradition, which emphasizes silence and solitude.
I rediscovered that the pattern of Sabbath ceasing from our work is a blessing God designed for us, which we neglect to our own harm. I began taking a full day off each week. I returned to the simple joy of agenda-free time together with Jesus.
It was hard at first. I felt the pressure of my to-do list. I felt guilty for doing nothing at all. I would set aside a couple of hours just to sit and reflect, sip coffee and journal if I felt like it. Immediately, my mind would kick into high gear, desperate to find a task or distraction.
With time, though, I learned the immense joy of doing nothing. I can rest content, merely being still and basking in the love God has for me as his child - completely apart from how much or how little I am accomplishing.
I thought I needed to learn how to do more, but it turns out first I needed to learn how to do less.
I fought the urge to bring work home or perfect every last detail. I learned to say “No.”
When I had regained a bit of my sanity, I was motivated to begin improving my work practices. I started reading everything I could find about productivity. I didn’t find much Christian reflection that was also practical. Matt Perman blew me away, though, with “What’s Best Next,” which condenses a lot of the standard material and interprets it from a Christian perspective. He defines productivity as being “proficient in good works.” I like that. It makes everyday work efficiency seem like a real part of my calling.
I slowly began putting some basic principles into practice. With time, I was meeting more deadlines, which lessened my anxiety. I was setting measurable goals and reaching them, which made me feel like I was actually doing the job God had called me toward. I had been given the tools to go from depression, guilt, and anxiety to proficiency in good works.
I believe many Christians are just like I was - they have some sense of what God wants them to do, but they continually fail to live that calling. This leads to widespread depression, anxiety, and a sense of resignation over the futility of their work. Sometimes we feel like being stressed out and behind schedule is normal, even inescapable.
I believe a huge, yet overlooked, cause for failing to meet God's call on our life is the lack of concrete tools and practices for productivity. Everyone wants to do their work as to the Lord, but how on earth do we actually do that in the real world?
I want to help you answer that question. I want to give you the skills you need to work better. We can combat anxiety and depression by learning to be more effective at what we do. Those skills will only increase our stress, though, unless we learn to stop, relax, and unwind. The more you learn about working better, the more you need the ability to rest easy. The two always go hand-in-hand.
Counterintuitively, rest comes first. Work follows.
We first must learn to rest easy in the work of Christ, and only then can we learn to work better in our own calling.
Does my story sound familiar? Do you have your own cycle of calling from God, cluelessness about work productivity, rushing around, then feeling shame and stress when you hit the pillow? Are you anxious, constantly feeling you are not doing enough, even though at the same time you feel overextended? Would you love to find some rest, but can’t seem to enjoy even the brief downtime you get?
You’re not the only one. We all have a meaningful calling from God, and none of them are exempt from the need to take a break as well as grow in skills of efficiency and productivity.
That’s why I created this blog - as a space to explore resting and working together. If you have your own story of frustration and stress, please share it. If you have experienced the liberating rest of God, please share it. If you have a tip or trick that has helped you work better, pleas share it.
The yoke of working for Jesus is indeed easy, and his burden is light.
Come rest easy and work better with me.
Hi, I'm Jacob! I'm an at-home Dad and pastor in Fort Worth, TX, writing about productivity and rest. I'd love to hear from you about how I can write things that will help you specifically. You can talk to me via Facebook, Twitter, or email. And don’t forget to grab my free e-book!