Post Author: Name Withheld
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:39b
I remember the first time someone pointed out that Matthew 22:39 assumes that you love yourself. It’s a simple nuance to the second most important commandment, but it impacted me profoundly.
It is in our nature as clergy to desire to reflect God’s love into the life of others. We provide pastoral care, support the disenfranchised, and walk beside people in their grief. Generally those who feel called to ministry get to that place because on some level they like people. My pastoral care classes in seminary provided vocabulary, resources, and framework for this work, but the desire to help others and inclination to listen were already there.
Self-care is another matter entirely. If you’ve been to seminary you’ve likely heard professor after professor advocating for proper boundary setting and self-care. You’ll hear adages such as “you must fill your own cup before you can fill others,” and “you must be the people of God, in order to do the work of the people of God.” But taking that time and space is counter-intuitive to most pastor types. We feel selfish spending time on ourselves and scripture reading can easily become just another work related task. Even when we seek out Sabbath time it can be nearly impossible to set aside the concerns of the parish. We don’t get to walk away from work at the end of the day. We are always on call. Even when we make special effort to be on vacation we will still be contacted in the case of a congregational death or tragedy. We never stop being a pastor, which at sometimes is great, and at others can be suffocating.
As a pastor in my first call I thought I was doing okay self-care wise. I was eating relatively healthfully, got a massage about once a month, met with a spiritual director once a month, went on regular walks with my dog, spent great effort and was able to find non-church friends in my area, and had even recently become engaged! On Facebook I looked like not only did I have it all together, but I was genuinely happy and living a joy-filled life. Behind those pictures of me with my handsome fiancé, sweet dog, and smiling friends, however, was a much darker shadow. As the television show Portlandia all too accurately said, I was “cropping out the sadness.”
In ministry we learn to be adept at small talk, to reveal just enough about our personal lives to make a connection, but not too much as to be inappropriately vulnerable or make our congregation feel like they need to take care of us. When we’re used to doing this work of protecting our vulnerabilities, presenting our personal life in a professional way on Facebook is second nature. The trouble with this, however, is that we take so much time crafting the mask, we ourselves can forget what is underneath it.
Depression filtered into my life like a slowly rolling fog. If I squinted my eyes just right I didn’t even notice it was around me. And once I realized it was there it was nearly too late. I was crying at committee meetings and crying myself to sleep. When I tried to support the church council’s ideas for establishing financial accountability, members would angrily oppose the simple filling out of vouchers. While I knew these actions were motivated by their own fear of new things and their desire for control (in a part of their life that would lend that to them) — it eventually became impossible not to take things personally.
I never felt like I was doing anything right, and so many church members would confirm my perceived inadequacies and add their own criticisms to the list. When consulting with the church leadership on a technological update that the secretary had requested, a member e-mailed back saying that more technology in the church would just be an excuse for me to spend more time with technology and less time with people. While this particular technology wasn’t anything I was going to be interacting with, the idea that technology was more comfortable to me than some of the personal interactions cut me deeply. As a constant outsider in the community it was frequently difficult to connect with the members of the church in the ways they connected to one another. It was easier for me to work on the technological aspects of ministry because it was where I did have confidence in my gifts.
Finally my regional denominational leader approached me after he had received a call from a parishioner of mine complaining that I was not pulling my weight. He asked what was going on and all of my attempts at professionalism failed. I told him that I couldn’t even articulate the helplessness that I was feeling. While I pleaded for some sort of a break, he said, not very gently, that a medical leave for depression would have serious repercussions for me professionally. He wouldn’t give me an easy way out, but he did point me in the direction of the hard working way forward. He insisted that I go and see a doctor and find a way out of the fog.
If someone with my story came to me, I know what I would say. I would read them John 10:10 and tell them of Christ’s promise to provide abundant life. Perhaps I’d read Jeremiah 29:11-13 and remind them of God’s plan for them. I would pray for healing, peace, and comfort. But when it came to my own life, I was not so assured.
Three medication changes, 12 therapy appointments, and 20 gained pounds later, I’ve begun the climb out of the mire. I discerned that it was very necessary to move on from this place that has been so toxic to me. I have now accepted a position with a new congregation; one that will be on a multi-pastor staff rather than the solo pastorate I am leaving.
Part of me wishes I could’ve stuck it out here, but the other part of me is just so grateful to have a chance at a new beginning. As I begin saying painful goodbyes and packing boxes, I feel like a survivor. On the surface level, I’ve survived the congregation’s cruelty and anger. On a deeper level, I continue to survive depression’s fog. I pray that I may listen to the advice I would give to another, and that the stories of God’s love and care and redemption will once again permeate my heart. Most of all, I pray that I relearn to love myself as God has called each of us to do. May it be so.
Photo Credit: “Fog City” by David Yu. https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidyuweb/8735012351/ Accessed June 18, 2014. Used under Creative Commons License.