This month we asked our bloggers to share how they are caring for their bodies and souls in the midst of the demands of ministry. Here are their stories.
When I was eight years old I fell out of the tree in my backyard. In memory, I must’ve fallen 20 or 30 feet. The reality of a tape measure reveals I fell around six feet. Whatever the distance, I landed square on my back without getting an arm or leg down to help break the fall. Immediately the wind was knocked out of me.
This was the first time I’d ever had the wind knocked out of me. I did not even know that such a thing existed. And so as I lay there, trying to breath but being unable to, I legitimately thought this was how I was going to die. Even at eight, I knew enough to know that a person had to keep breathing to stay alive. Terror set in and my terror was only compounded when I also realized that there was no air in my lungs to be used to scream. Every other time in my life when I’d fallen or gotten hurt, I could cry out and my mom or dad or friend or teacher would come to my rescue. This time, though, my muted cries were heard by no one.
Last November, I started counseling for depression. When friends ask me what it’s like to be depressed, I’m never sure what to say. My depression felt consistently inconsistent. Even my symptoms couldn’t provide some stability.
My symptoms varied rather widely, though Tom, my counselor, has assured me they’re all responses to depression. Sometimes I would sink into the couch and not want to move. When such days occurred, I realized to my terror that ESPN’s morning programming resembles “Good Morning America” more and more each passing year. This only drove me deeper into depression. At other times, I could find some passion or excitement for a particular task, but only for that task. So I might lose myself in writing a sermon or playing a game on my computer, but I could not do anything else. And, I sometimes just became a ball of rage. All told, I was indolent, negligent and belligerent.
But this doesn’t describe my depression – only my symptoms. My depression was much more like falling out of a tree and getting the wind knocked out of me. Part of the terror is the pain, part is knowing that if the current situation continues I didn’t think I’d survive, and part is not having the voice to cry out for help.
If a friend ever asks you for proof of God’s grace, just offer up any person whose struggled with depression and actually found a way to reach out for help (especially with self-harm or other-harm involved). The conditions really can be all consuming and imprisoning. So much so that when one finds the means to seek help, such means were only possible because God’s grace cracked open the self-contained system that is depression.
In response to this grace, I was able to seek counseling and I found some voice to express my depression to others. (Though, this column may still surprise some people who are close to me but didn’t know what I struggled with. However depressed, I suppose I was still able to put up a façade. How sad that the ability to be fake persists long after the ability to be healthy has left.) Counseling and friends became not just the result of grace but the source of grace.
Eventually, I discovered that at the root of a lot of my depression was the weight of so many failures, relapses and other mistakes that I couldn’t let go. My dissertation work wasn’t progressing as I would’ve liked and my pastoral duties often left me feeling like a loser, a failure or a victim. I was smoking more than I wanted or knew I should. For the first time in my life, I felt pressures around my overall fiscal health. We still didn’t have that baby. As the failures mounted, my depression deepened.
Part of the redemption in this story also involves attending the Board of Pensions sponsored CREDO program for pastors early in their careers. To much of this readership, such a program will mean little to you personally because it is (quite regrettably) not open to general church membership. But if you have a pastor in your life whom you love (there’s also a version of CREDO for mid-career, so this isn’t just about new pastors), then you should also love CREDO.
It was at CREDO that I was first introduced to the “cycle of change” diagram. The cycle of change always follows the same pattern. First comes pre-contemplation, which is a nice way of saying that I wasn’t really thinking about changing what’s wrong. Next comes contemplation, where I started acknowledging that something needed to change. For me, calling Tom – the in-network counselor closest to my house – was contemplation. After this comes preparation, where strategies for how to actualize the change are formed. This was what Tom helped me do in counseling and what CREDO inspired as well. Next came action, where changes were pursued. The final step was maintenance, where the fruits of those changes are maintained.
But there is one more step, and it might be the most important one of all: relapse. Relapse is what happens when the maintenance breaks down, the actions are no longer active and I find myself back at pre-contemplation. On the surface, this looks like failure. It isn’t. At CREDO I learned that relapse is one of the steps.
I’m a generally skeptical fellow (a Mad Eye Moody personality, for you Harry Potter fans), and so I could easily see how “relapse” (or “any failure,” as I came to rename it in my mind) being called a step could just be the bedazzling of a turd. Thanks be to God, then, that my rational mind took over and recognized that if failure wasn’t part of the cycle, it had no where to go. Or, more specifically, it would mound up on my soul and press on my heart and beat against my mind until I was left gasping, alone and scared.
Clearly failure exists, but where it exists matters most. My self-care, which is a complex form of mind, body and soul attention, is most firmly rooted in accepting failure and relapse as part of life. When I did this, I also found that I started accepting grace as part of life.
Jeff Schooley continues to have failures and relapses (he enjoyed quitting smoking so much, he’s doing it again!), but is able to take more deep breaths these days than before. He’s also the new pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Marysville, Ohio, and just bought his first house. Even still, he knows not to hitch his emotional health to the delights of a new job and a new house. Instead, he places hope in failure, relapse and other forms of grace. If you want to share your own thoughts or stories with him, do so at [email protected].