Of Spirit and Mind: A Pentecostal’s Battle Against Depression

bible_smThere was a chill in the night air, so we chose to sit indoors. We were at one of my city’s most well-liked pizza parlors in the hip, regentrified part of town. We had gone on dates for about two months and she obviously knew I was a pastor, which was a breath of fresh air since most women I encountered ran like Usain Bolt upon learning of my calling. She liked to talk, often much more than I, about my job, so when she brought up the subject of ministry while we ate, I was not surprised.

“So ministry is hard, right?” she commented more than questioned. “How do you deal with the difficulty?”

Thinking nothing of the question I responded, “Yeah, ministry is hard. But I have really good friends I talk to all the time who are also in ministry. We share each other’s burdens. I have other non-ministry friends whom I can just be me with. And I see a counselor every Thursday morning. Talking to him is the best thing I do for myself as well as the church. He also has me taking a low-dose serotonin booster, which is an anti-depressant.”

She stopped eating and looked at me. “Are you serious?” Again, she was more commenting than questioning. “Why would you go see a counselor? They don’t have any wisdom. They can’t help you. Are you depressed?” “Yes,” I said, “I have dealt with depression and do battle with it occasionally. My counselor helps me.”

“But depression is a spirit,” she retorted. “Why not just pray and praise it away?”

“If you mean a spirit as in a disposition, then okay, I can see that. But if you mean a spirit as in a demon then no, you are wrong. Depression isn’t a demon.”

“Sure it is,” she said.

“No it isn’t,” I replied.

“Yes it is!” she said.

The conversation carried on for a few minutes at a high level of intensity, culminating with her insinuation that if I was “more saved” and had “more faith,” then I wouldn’t struggle with depression. For some reason, she and I never went out again.

This was not, however, the first time I have encountered such attitudes from people within my faith tradition and broader Christianity. I grew up in and am ordained in a classical Pentecostal denomination. For many within it, the idea of depression and mental illness has been completely associated with the influence of the spirit realm. We learned phrases like, “Demons can oppress your body, depress your mind, and possess your soul if you let them.” And if some physical maladies are at times caused by evil spirits, as several New Testament authors lead us to believe, many people in turn believe that most if not all mental issues are the direct result of demonic activity. I happen to be of a vein of Christianity that still believes in a literal Satan and demonic spirits, but I don’t believe that they are the cause of all our problems. For the source of the vast majority of our issues, we need look no further than the mirror.

I began dealing with depression at an early age, though undiagnosed. I have always been a big kid. Weight has been a constant issue for me, and like most kids who are different, my self-image was affected by how others related to me as a result of my difference. I didn’t think I was as valuable or as important as other kids. I couldn’t imagine a scenario where a girl would want to date me, so I seldom made an effort. I carried those feelings and images of myself into adulthood.

I also sensed a call to ministry from an early age. I always knew this was my future and have never really considered doing anything else. When you are the kid who is sensing this leading for your life, you do act differently than other children. You try to be a good example and to do the right thing. Kids start noticing this, and it causes you to assume a pastoral role in their lives and carry responsibilities that you are not prepared for. You start to feel pressured to be a spiritual person in ways that you are not yet able, and the adults around you see it too. So they begin to lift you up as an example and give you more responsibility. Have you ever wondered what type of mental weight a kid like this could be carrying? How about the fact that the fat kid feels the pressure of his entire school going to hell if he doesn’t set a good example? Oh, and he needs to get good grades and get into college too.

That kind of pressure doesn’t go away when you enter ministry. It intensifies. Most of us have been carrying the weight of others’ spiritual conditions for much longer than we have truly been clergy. For all practical purposes, we were clergy before we ever graduated seminary, received our stole, or donned that white collar. We assumed a role in people’s lives before our denominations ever approved us to do so. And when we stepped into the pulpit for the first time, it began hitting us like a ton of bricks.

Herein lies the problem. As a result of our responsibilities—sermon preparation, hospital visits, leadership development, pastoral counseling, committee forming, etc.—we take on a role that was never ours. In many ways, we become God for some of our parishioners. Our job is supposed to help guide people to God, but instead we sometimes become God for them. The bricks started becoming too much for me in November 2011. A little over a year earlier, I left my dream job at my denomination’s headquarters to answer a call to my birth city to plant a church among urban people adjacent to one of America’s top-fifteen universities. I not only left my dream job but also said goodbye to the town where I went to seminary. It had become home. I left steady income. I left a support network of friends. I left a church that I enjoyed. And I moved to a place to do ministry with people whom no one else seemed to want.

To get ready, I went to church-plant bootcamps, read books, and started developing a launch team. I raised tens of thousands of dollars. At the same time I began to heap expectations upon myself. I was going to do what no one else had ever done. I was going to raise a godly church among people whose gods had been education and success. I was going to be an example for my denomination and a pattern for others to follow. I was going to single-handedly, with the Holy Spirit’s assistance of course, affect the spiritual climate of my city. I could do it all.

I was two months into the life of my new church when I returned to my former hometown to take part in a wedding. I was only there for seventy-two hours, but I came back from that trip discouraged. All but two members of my launch team were gone. We had no money. My new church was averaging a whopping seven people. And for seventy-two hours I was confronted with everything great that I had left behind. I was nowhere near where I expected or planned to be with the new church plant.

The space between expectation and reality is called frustration. Now my frustration got to hang out with what I had sacrificed, and the two had a baby named depression. My life, my church, my ministry wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I was a failure. I had heard of churches that launched their first Sunday with hundreds of people. We had thirty-seven on our first day. Thirty-one of them were friends and family who came to wish us well. I figured it was my fault. People weren’t putting their trust in Christ because of something I was doing wrong. We weren’t growing because of something I wasn’t doing right. I wasn’t praying or fasting enough. I needed to do more! It was all about me.

That’s a load we were never meant to carry. It can drive us to the bottle, the psych ward, or the grave. Thankfully, it drove me to a Christian counselor. I chose my counselor because my insurance would pay for him and because the clinic where he worked was about thirty minutes from the church I lead. I didn’t want to encounter any of the people from church when I went to sessions. I didn’t want them to know their pastor had problems. As far as they were concerned, all they needed to know was that I had it all together. I was their spiritual rock. Their eternal destiny hung in the balance of my hands. If they found out I went to a counselor, they would doubt Christ, become apostate, commit blasphemy, and burn baby burn!

So put yourself in my shoes. I hate myself because I suck at life: thirty-two years old, single, still chubby, and broke. I suck at ministry; my church is still small, finances are tight, and I’m bi-vocational, so I can’t devote all the time I want to the entire reason I moved here. I have been forced to get mental help and start antidepressants, so I feel like a weak and pathetic loser! I hit rock bottom, and that’s when God went to work.

When I first met Mark, I didn’t like him—not because of anything he said or did but because he physically resembled a guy I had had an issue with several years ago. I thought there was no way I could receive help from a guy whom I kind of wanted to punch in the face. That of course was another example of me being a miserable failure as a pastor, because pastors don’t punch people. It’s like the eleventh commandment or something. As we began to talk, however, things changed. I learned that Mark spent decades in the pulpit before becoming a therapist. He had also participated in a variety of denominational offerings that set him on course for stardom within his church. Then it all came crashing down, and he found himself in therapy and on antidepressants. I was so relieved to hear I wasn’t the only one. We started meeting weekly.

That is when God went to work through my counselor. Mark began relating to me in ways I didn’t think anyone else could. He understood what I was saying about my frustrations and suggested Scriptures that helped me understand that a number of Bible heroes such as Elijah and Paul went through similar seasons when they dealt with depression. He began talking to me about the role I was assuming in people’s lives. I am not God. I shouldn’t try to be. I am not the rock in which people put their faith. I am not the answer to their problems. I am not their protector. I am a companion on their faith journey. Even my own burdens don’t belong to me. Christ said to cast my cares on him. I also started a regiment of antidepressants. That was its own moral dilemma. Being Pentecostal, we believe in divine healing. Why couldn’t I have enough faith for God to heal me? If my brain is sick, then God needs to fix it! But I called a mentor and talked to him about what was going on, and his response was short and to the point: “Take the drugs!” God also went to work through the drugs. I feel much better when I take them. My low moments are not anywhere close to being as low. At one point I spent a week in bed not because I was sick but because I was sick of what was out there. I don’t have those days anymore. It’s not solely because of the antidepressants, but I know they help.

God continued to work through my circumstances, and I began to appreciate how much I like the job I do to pay the bills. I also began to appreciate the great things that are happening in my church. We have accomplished huge dreams. The very fact that we are still around is a testimony to God’s grace. God has blessed us time and again with influence, favor, connections, and finances. I began to see God’s hand on us as a church and on me as a pastor. God is doing countless good things all around us if we take the time to look.

So where am I today? My church is still small. But half the people in the church were not connected to faith or to a faith community before joining ours. I appreciate where we are and the relationships I am able to have with everyone who comes. I’m still overweight, but I am in a wonderful fitness cohort with other pastors and am addressing my health. I am also engaged—to a marathon runner no less. She has me running a 5K this spring! I still have dreams, goals, and hopes. Now I have a plan, a strategy, and a healthy balance of expectations and realities. Looking back, I am a better pastor, a better leader, and truthfully a better follower of Christ as a result of these experiences. I don’t think God put the roadblocks in my path; I think God used and is using them to grow me, mature me, and get me to depend less on myself and more on him. I’m still seeing Mark, still on the antidepressants, and still have bad days. Now, though, bad days don’t turn into bad weeks, failures don’t result in despair, and I’m not God in my own or in anyone else’s life. God is.

Ryan Beaty is the Founding Pastor of VillageHouston in Houston, Texas. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, he is passionate about reading good books, developing leaders, and supporting Houston sports teams. He holds the MDiv from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and a BS in Church Ministry from Southwestern Assemblies of God University. Sometimes described as “endearingly awkward,” he can often be found at the local indie movie theater, perusing record stores, or trying out a new restaurant while always wearing a pair of Chuck Taylors. A bi-vocational pastor, he spends his days joyfully serving as chaplain at an Episcopal day school.

PrintThis post appeared as the first chapter in Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil: Stories about the Challenges of Young Pastors, edited by James Ellis III.

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