I'm a Pastor with Depression
I’m a Pastor. I have depression.
There, I said it. I didn’t want to. At least not on this platform. Or this publicly.
But, when I suggested three topics to write about somehow the editor of this blog decided against “The Gospel According to Punk Rock”, and “A Random Excursus on Kierkegaard” (go figure). Instead he asked me to write about being a pastor with depression.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression four and a half years ago. I was nine months into my first call as a pastor. My wife and I had just moved to the outskirts of Austin, Texas to start a church. She had just given birth to our first child. I was busy raising funds, pulling together a launch team, and trying to reach my new community with the gospel.
Depression took me by surprise, though, in retrospect, I should have seen it coming. As the pressure to “succeed” began to mount in my head, sleeplessness became a regular feature of my life. I spent hours trying to sleep, only to wake up moments later with the same racing thoughts.
For me, my insomnia led to a nearly constant state of anxiety that would occasionally spiral into moments of hyperventilating on my couch or on the side of the road in my car. I’m not the brightest crayon in the box, but after a few episodes like these, I figured something wasn’t right.
I remember when I met my counselor for the first time, I felt stupid for being there. Not because I think counseling is stupid or that people who get counseling are stupid, but quite the opposite. I think counseling is massively important and I'm honored when anyone allows me to counsel them. I felt stupid because counseling seemed out of place for someone in my shoes. I grew up in the suburb of suburbs. I had and still have an incredibly loving and supportive family. My life’s been about as hard as a Nerf football. So, I wondered, what am I doing in this office?
Regardless of how I felt about it, my counselor was very wise and recommended some behavioral changes that would help me rest and reduce my anxiety. So, I got to work. I exercised everyday. I started taking fish oil supplements (side note: I don’t care what the packaging says - there is ALWAYS a “fishy aftertaste.”) I had a journal by my bed where I wrote down every thought in my head before I went to sleep at night, and as I closed the cover I’d tell myself that’s where those thoughts were staying. And by and large these and other behavioral changes helped quite a bit. I thought, ok, a little bump in the road and now things are back on track...
Walking with a Limp
But then…it got worse.
I started to have these moments of crushing sadness wash over me. It was weird. I could feel it in my gut and then it would move up into my head. No matter what was going on around me I would suddenly feel alone and hopeless. These moments became more and more regular. I’d try to fight them. I’d try to push through them. And I just kept thinking…this is so stupid. What do I have to be sad about? What do I have to be hopeless about? I’ve got a great job. A loving wife and a healthy child. I have great friends. And oh yeah, Jesus! The love of the Father. The forgiveness of sins, the hope of eternity…
What kind of Pastor proclaims the hope of the gospel and can’t experience it in his own life!?
As I began to sink deeper into depression I remember having work to do, and just sitting and staring at my computer for hours unable or unwilling to do it. All I wanted to do was “get out.” My solutions for “getting out” ranged from driving a white Ford Bronco up to Canada and starting life over as a massage therapist, to “getting out” in more irreversible ways.
Finally, a breaking point came when I was in a staff meeting at the church I was training at. A staff member asked me to do a relatively simple task. I responded by sobbing and saying yes…in the middle of a staff meeting. It was awkward. For some reason it gets weird when a guy in his late twenties starts bawling in the middle of a professional meeting. Who knew?
After that moment, and with some encouragement from friends and mentors, I went to the doctor and was prescribed antidepressants. The medicine along with regular counseling and some significant behavioral changes began to help a lot. But I wasn’t there yet.
During my struggle, my dad, (who’s also a pastor) came to visit us. I remember one morning at breakfast telling him that I thought I was done with ministry. I couldn’t hack it.
After I said this, my dad - the Wisconsin farm boy who, at 60 years old just broke two of his ribs a couple weeks ago and after laughing about it drove 8 hrs by himself in a car the next day with no more than a couple ibuprofen in him - that guy, started crying.
He said, “Gabe, I can’t claim to have been where you are right now. But I know that you cannot make it in life and ministry if who you are in Christ isn’t enough for you. Your security can’t come from your success, from what others think about you, or from whatever skills you may or may not have. Your identity and security have to come from Christ alone.”
Of course, this was a message I knew, but something about this moment of vulnerability from my dad helped set me on a path toward the rediscovery of the gospel in my life.
The Christ Who Suffers With Us And For Us
If you’ve read this far into this article, first of all, good for you! Seriously, who reads this much in a blog post? Second, you’ve probably noticed that my treatment has been multi-faceted. There’s been emotional counseling, behavioral changes, physiological treatment with medication, and, of course, spiritual growth.
I point this out because it highlights something important that we often miss: depression is multi-faceted. Any attempt to say it’s just emotional, it’s just physiological, or it’s just spiritual is unnecessarily reductionistic. All of creation is fallen. And the message of the gospel is that all of creation will be restored through the risen Christ. So, like so many other areas of brokenness in our lives, the path to healing is holistic rather than compartmentalized.
I'd be lying if I ended this post by saying that everything is hunky dory. And while I’ve never returned to quite as low a place as I did four and a half years ago, it’s still a struggle. I take meds everyday. I go to counseling every week. I engage in regular physical and spiritual disciplines. I have an incredible wife who supports me every day. And yet…there are moments when the darkness creeps in.
When that happens, I do everything I can to find solace in the Jesus who suffers for me and with me. I do everything I can to find solidarity in the church, both my local community and the church universal.
My boy Martin Luther, who dealt with his own Anfechtung, gave us these words in his Fourteen Consolations:
Therefore, when we feel pain, when we suffer, when we die, let us turn to this, firmly believing and certain that it is not we alone, but Christ and the church who are in pain and are suffering and dying with us. Christ does not want us to be alone on the road of death, from which all mortals shrink. Indeed, we set upon the road of suffering and death accompanied by the entire church…All that remains for us now is to pray that our eyes, that is, the eyes of our faith, may be opened and that we may see the church around us.
This is my hope in sharing some of my story - that those of you who deal with depression, or have friends and family who deal with depression, or have been told that your depression is solely a spiritual issue and you just need more faith- I share my story so that you will find hope. I share my story for anyone who has moments where, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his prison cell, “It feels like an invasion from outside, like evil powers trying to rob one of what is most vital…that threatens to dominate everything.”
My hope is that the “eyes of your faith” would be opened and that you would see that you do not suffer alone, but Christ and his church suffer with you. There’s hope in that. There truly is.
Gabe Kasper is Pastor at University Lutheran Chapel in Ann Arbor, MI. He is also co-host of the Pint Glass Preachers podcast. When not in the midst of existential crisis he enjoys soccer, punk rock, and reading books. He and his wife Melissa have two grrreat kids.