Our guest blogger today is Kelly Edmiston, a member of our board of directors. After a decade spent ministering to students and families in domestic and international contexts, Kelly has developed a passion to equip the church for works of ministry. Kelly, originally from Abilene, Texas, is currently the Student and Family Minister at the First Colony Church of Christ in Sugar Land, TX. Kelly is a frequent retreat speaker, bible teacher and writer. Her writing has been featured on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed and Sean Palmer’s “The Palmer Perspective.” She will soon complete a Master of Divinity from Abilene Christian University. Her areas of interest are liberation theology, practical theology and spiritual formation. Kelly and husband, Ben, enjoy “suburban life” with their three children.
I sit on a bench this warm summer day, watching as the sun glistens on the lake making crystals dance in a glorious ballet. The sparkle is so bright that I have to shield my eyes from its splendor. I hear the wind whistle through the trees, rustling the branches just enough to spill leaves onto the lake below.
The leaves disrupt the calm of the water and cause small waves to cascade back and forth … I find myself moving to their rhythm, and the birds begin to chirp and sing with their own contribution. If I listen hard enough, the song of the birds and the rhythm of the waves are all I hear and all I know.
All of the sudden, I am interrupted. Plop. Plop. Plop. Then Pit. Pat. Pit. Pat. Pit. Pat. The falling rain makes deep and wide circular formations in the lake. And then the smell; oh, that clean cool aroma of rain that fills the air with an intoxicating freshness. Familiar with nature’s song, I graciously anticipate getting soaked by the fresh cool raindrops.
But suddenly I realize my place in the experience has changed, and my anticipation is met with longing. The experience has become something occurring “over there” and I am “in here.” Sadly, I notice I no longer hear the birds’ songs; nor can I move to the rhythm of the waves.
My focus turns upward to the massive live oak that spreads its branches far and wide over the little bench where I’m sitting. I can see the effect of the rain on the world around me but I am left dry.
Perhaps many of us (especially those of us who have been in ministry for a decade or more) know the experience of sitting in the rain but not feeling its touch. We sit with people through the most defining and sacred moments of their lives, but like watching rain on the lake we are merely onlookers while those around us get soaked. We never actually feel the drops on our own skin.
Perhaps the weight of human emotion is too much to continually bear; we find ourselves in a paralyzing place with too many needs, questions and expectations.
Sometimes the branches intended to provide shelter turn into bars that constrict. The boundaries intended to provide structure for healthy living in a fallen world turn into walls of impenetrable cement. And the bench I sit on for enjoyment and observation grows thorny vines and thistles that prevent movement or departure.
This describes my struggle with pastoral burn-out and depression.
I do not pretend to fully understand the battle of clinical depression, having only struggled with circumstantial depression and anxiety. But I am aware that depression prevents people from experiencing the rain in the same way the branches over my little bench kept me dry.
The images used to describe depression highlight its inescapable characteristics. It has been called a “time-defying sadness” and likened to a cloud that follows its victims wherever they go. To these images I add branches.
As pastors, we can allow every petition to keep quiet, every heart breaking character critique, every hushed conversation that grows silent as you walk by, become the branches that reach further and grow thicker until all we see and all we know is the branches and the bench.
These branches – this depression –consumed a pastor in my community a few years ago. He pastored a church of thousands in an affluent suburb, and in his more than 40-year ministry became known nationwide as an influential leader in his denomination. He was a father, grandfather, husband and friend to many.
These branches also recently consumed a beloved colleague of mine in his early 40s. He was a charismatic leader, a fun and dynamic man with a heart for the broken. He was a husband, and a friend, a son and a brother.
Every day that I drive to work I am reminded of the remarkably high number of pastors who struggle with pastoral burn out and depression. According to the Schaeffer Institute:
• 70 percent of pastors constantly fight depression
• 71 percent are burned out
• 72 percent of pastors say they only study the bible when they are preparing for a sermon
• 80 percent believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families
• 70 percent say they don’t have a close friend
Maybe these colleagues who took their own lives got stuck under the branches. Maybe they closed in on them until they could not move. Maybe they were branches of loneliness, fear and exhaustion; of critics and fans; of sickness and hopelessness and despair.
Maybe they just got tired of fighting. Fighting branches can be exhausting, especially when you long for the rain.
I wish they had asked for help one more time. I wish a friend had come barreling through the branches, axe in hand, and carried them from the bench against their will. I wish that being a pastor didn’t make being pastored so difficult. I wish that it wasn’t, by nature, “lonely at the top.” I wish that pastors were known for having the healthiest and happiest families. I wish that all communities were as interested in their pastor’s spiritual and emotional well-being as they are in their level of productivity and ability to crowd-please.
In light of this tragic event, I sat around a table with our ministry staff and heard these words from our senior pastor:
“We are not a ‘from you’ culture. We are a ‘for you’ culture.”
He was pleading with us to care for our souls. He was encouraging us to not let any form of depression go unnoticed or undiagnosed.
So when the branches get thick and threaten to close in, call for help. Please.
And join me. I’ll be standing in the rain.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the First Colony Church of Christ.