“You worry too much,” ‘There are people who have it worse than you,” “All you need to do is pray and read the Word,” “Worrying only means you don’t believe in God,” “You’re a theology major, you shouldn’t be depressed or worried.”
Does this sound familiar to anybody? Well, it definitely sounds familiar to me since I heard it all before from the ones I call family and friends. Living with a mental illness as a fairly new pastor is not easy. You are expected to visit, equip, and oversee various departments depending on your position. Your church members expect you to have it all together physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. You are expected to be like Paul in Philippians 4:11 &12 to “be content in all things good and bad.” Sadly, it’s not easy to keep it all together when you are going through your own personal issues. Sometimes, the conversations you have with your members can be emotionally exhausting as you pour into them in their time of need and you wish you had someone to talk to. Granted, I am thankful to be able to vent out my family, close friends, and mentors in ministry, but I needed someone who is professionally trained in the mental health field to help me process and manage my anxiety and depression before I became another burnout pastor statistic.
Dealing with a mental illness causes me to shut down whenever I feel overwhelmed or distant because I don’t feel like being preached to or looked down upon by friends and family. Coming from a West Indian/ Southern Black American family, going to a therapist means that you are crazy and unstable. When I had a depression episode as a rising Sophomore theology major in college, my mother would tell her sisters that she was taking me to the doctors for a regular appointment because she didn’t want them to view me differently if they were to hear that I was seeing a therapist. The stigma is strong within the African diaspora. There were times when I would question God if He really called me into full-time ministry knowing that I battle with depression and anxiety on a daily basis. Thankfully, my father was able to assure me that God places people in the field of psychology to help others overcome their struggles with mental illness. He gave me examples of his friends in the mental health professional who also seek counseling for themselves. From hearing that, I became more at peace of seeking counseling. After just a few therapy sessions, I was able to have a better perspective on life. Throughout the rest of my undergrad experience, my depression was manageable through exercise, meditation, and prayer. I wasn’t able to continue my counseling while in college because being a student without a car wasn’t easy to get around the other side of town and I didn’t want to battle the hassle of taking the school shuttle, and I had a fear of disclosing myself and ending up having my business spread throughout the college campus. That fear traveled with me throughout my seminary career as well. Most of my friends were in the Counseling program and I didn’t want them to view me as “the struggling seminarian who needs to snap out of it.” Only a few people were aware of my invisible illnesses. By God’s grace, I was able to manage my depression and anxiety as best as I could while matriculating through seminary. Once again, through exercise, prayer, meditation, and drinking tea—the “go-to” remedy for every West Indian– I was able to manage depression and anxiety along with adding cooking and baking to my coping skills. What was also beneficial was cuddling with my housemate’s cat- the only cat I trusted lol- and dogs. I could see why “therapy dogs” are becoming a hit. The moment I found out that I had a job waiting for me upon finishing seminary, I felt a sense of relief. I thought that landing the job of my dreams would remove my depression and anxiety, but I was wrong.
The Last Straw
Recently, my church experienced a painful loss of a teen which resurfaced my anxiety. As a result, there were nights when I would experience my mind racing like a Kentucky Derby and I couldn’t go to sleep. The thought of going overseas to preach an evangelistic series within a month time would cause my heart to beat rapidly and pace around my living room many nights. These thoughts would cause me to lose energy while I process the loss of my teen, the unpreparedness of the upcoming trip and worrying about my own family. I would pray and ask God to remove the anxious thoughts and eventually asked Him if I should go forward with my trip or stick around home to be with my youth for the fear of a domino effect. After days of praying and soul searching, I had to step down from the trip because I was worried about not having dependable communication with my church in case something else happened while being away. It was the toughest decision thus far I had to make for the sake of my well-being, I didn’t want to bring any spirit of negativity to the church I was assigned to preach. As a result, I decided that I was going to see a therapist while my colleagues went ahead to preach overseas. I was able to connect with a therapist close to home and during my initial visit, I was diagnosed with mild depression and severe anxiety. I was referred to a psychiatrist for my severe anxiety, but I didn’t think I was ready to see one. So I went ahead with my therapy sessions every week to see if I am able to manage my anxiety without medical intervention and adopting a set of coping skills. I was able to learn about breathing exercises, addressing my negative thoughts and feelings, adapting new core values and advocating for myself thanks to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. With the help of my counselor, I was able to confront my thoughts of anxiety and practice mindfulness by acknowledging my current feelings about various situations and not judging myself for having feelings of anger, guilt, and sadness. The other benefit of seeing a counselor, especially a Christian counselor, is integrating psychology with spirituality. I have found myself surrendering my anxious thoughts to God and being able to communicate my emotions to Him.
I am praising God that I am presently in recovery from my severe anxiety by taking everything I learned from my therapy sessions to practice. I realized that I needed to form healthy boundaries for myself and treat myself with tender loving care. I am beginning to learn to understand the importance of having a mental health therapist to help me become a better pastor, sister, and friend. This process does not happen overnight; I am still taking it one day at a time. Recovery is not a destination, but it’s a journey. It’s like recovering from surgery or getting over the flu. I’m going to have moments of setbacks and I am okay with that since it’s a part of the growing process. Perhaps, this mental illness is “the thorn in my flesh” that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 and even though I ask God to remove it, He is using it to help me raise awareness in the context of ministry.
- Living with depression and anxiety has caused me to become more understanding and compassionate to my church members, young and old.
- I’ve learned the power of presence and listening nonjudgmentally by fostering a safe space for them to express their feelings and emotions without giving them a verbal sermon or questioning their spirituality. People want the assurance that they are not alone.
- I realized that the only person who can deal with my mental illnesses head on and change the paradigm was me. I had to take the initiative for the sake of my ministry and well-being to get the help I need and to apply those skills to my everyday life. It wasn’t easy confronting those thoughts of anxiety, but I refused to let them have dominion over me.
- I learned the value of surrender when things go downhill. I give myself the permission to communicate my feelings in a nonjudgmental manner. I am learning to turn my moments of anxiety into moments of worship, reminding myself that God is greater and giving Him full control over my problems. By doing so, I am experiencing true peace.
- There is hope! Having a mental illness does NOT discount my calling. Many religious leaders could attest to their stories with mental illnesses. Believe it or not, there are pastors who have even attempted suicide and have battle scars to prove it. There is no such thing as the perfect pastor, we all have flaws and we want our congregations to know that God can use any and everybody.
There was a song that I grew up listening to by Scott Krippayne that goes, “Sometimes He calms the storm with a whispered ‘peace be still.’ He can settle any sea, but it doesn’t mean He will. Sometimes He holds us close and lets the wind and waves go wild. Sometimes He calms the storm and other times He calms His child.” How beautiful are those words that remind us of God’s sovereignty and His peace that surpasses all understanding?
Take courage my friends, you are not alone in this journey called life. God is with you and He has already provided resources to help you live out your purpose with the help of His word and the people He has ordained to help you in the mental health professional field.
Forever Naturally Adorned,