As a pastor, do you experience weekly periods of “down” moods following Sunday’s high energy tasks or after a season of intense ministry?
It has been suggested that depression is high among pastors. I don’t have reliable statistics that prove that one way or the other, but I do know that pastors are subject to many factors that can make them very vulnerable to mood disorders.
Recently, I was reviewing a program that suggested something I had not thought of. While clinical depression, according to the speakers, is a condition that incapacitates the sufferer and often leads to a person needing to take time off from work, they suggested that instead many pastors may experience a more common, but perhaps less recognized, condition called dysthymia:
“Dysthymia, or dysthymic disorder, is a clinical diagnosis of moderate, persistent depression. Sufferers do not routinely experience the extremes of major depression, but the duration can be much longer. Dysthymia does not often inhibit normal activities” (Depressiontest.com).
This resonated with me. Most pastors faithfully carry on their responsibilities, no matter what. But we know that ministry brings with it many demands. Just this week, we received an email from a pastor who commented on how the emotional needs of other people can be quite overwhelming and how he felt inadequately equipped to deal with them. I spoke recently with another pastor who has found the needs of people within his ministry to be unusually high, and I could tell that his reserves were being depleted.
I would suggest that there are two groups that are commonly found in ministry. First, there are people who do not usually have depressive symptoms but who occasionally find the demands of ministry heavy. This group needs to be aware of the demands being placed on them and find ways to alleviate the strain. Self-care in the form of regular sabbatical periods (weekly, annually, seasonally), spending time in prayer and alone with God, nurturing supportive relationships in and out of the church, spending quality time with family, and being aware of one’s personal limits will help this group get through most of what comes at them.
The second group, however, are those who may have some vulnerability to depression, and while not clinically depressed, may experience this condition called dysthymia. Able to function, they experience chronic low mood, may find it hard to have adequate energy some days, find criticism hard to take, might find relationships draining, and generally have to work awfully hard to accomplish what needs to be done some days. While all of the self-care options described above will be helpful for these people, too, they may find that even this is not enough. Treatment for this condition, often involving counselling and medication (low dose anti-depressant), has been shown to be very helpful to many. The best results have come from a combination of these treatments. When I speak with people who either have a family history of depression or repeated experiences of low mood, I usually recommend that they consult their doctor to determine if these symptoms may have a physiological basis, which could be helped with medication. Support groups have also been helpful to people dealing with this condition.
In Christian circles, there is guilt and perhaps some fear when our attempts at caring for ourselves (prayer, spending time with God, etc) do not seem to adequately address the need. We seem to feel that we should be able to overcome our feelings and push forward. Let me encourage you to pay attention to your feelings and discover what they are telling you about what you are experiencing. Sadness, low energy and irritability can be signs that we may need something more than self-care. We might need a caring counsellor to come alongside and help us sort out the ways we think about life; we may need a support group; we may need medication; we may just need some extra sleep or a day off. But let’s pay attention to what is going on inside us, so we can be available for God’s purposes for us.
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Wendy Kittlitz is the vice-president of counselling and care ministries for Focus on the Family Canada and the Clergy Care program director.