Whether you have a parish, a congregation, or a church, they are a river. Whether they call you Father, Reverend, Pastor, or Preacher, regardless of your title you are a stone in that river. The Duke Clergy Health Initiative indicated that the rates of depression among clergy were three percentage points (or 58%) higher than that of the average American. Erosion is a gradual sustained process. Erosion can smooth a stone and it can carve a canyon. And erosion is not limited to ministers. There is only so much any one person can give before reaching an unhealthy, even life-threatening, deficit.
Pastoring people through a legitimate crisis, while exhausting, energized me so long as I kept a sabbath. I confess to regularly breaking the fourth commandment (Exodus 20: 8-11). I failed to keep a sabbath saying “I’ll do it someday this week.” Someday, unlike Sunday, never comes. Yes, legitimate is subjective, but listening to the “crises” of some people was like being stoned to death with popcorn. September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Three years ago this rock got out of the river. Three years ago this rock tried to make damn sure that there was no way anyone could throw him back in. After more than a decade of caring for parishioners and not keeping a sabbath found me behind the desk in my office with my give-a-damn broke. And I no longer had the means to repair it. No one drop of water carves a canyon. No one parishioner made my give-a-damn break. Again, erosion is a gradual sustained process. But I do recall the drop of water that broke the damn/dam.
“Preacher… Today, I just got to give all glory and praise to Father G-d for saving me.” I’m thinking, “This sounds serious.” I said, “Really? How?” “Well preacher…it was raining…” She tears up. I lean in ready to comfort her. “It was raining and I was in the Walmart parking lot.” I think, “Oh what fresh hell is this?” “It was raining hard preacher… Real hard… Sideways hard…” I ask, “And?” “Again, all glory, honor and praise to Father G-d, I found an open parking space near the grocery store side of the Walmart and…” I finish her sentence, “and it wasn’t a handicap spot.” Struggling through tears, she manages to nod and whisper “yes.”
I thought: How great is our G-d! With a whole damned universe of prayer requests, the Almighty spends his afternoon holding a parking place for you. Saints be praised! Oh happy day, his eye was not only on the little ol’ sparrow, but also watching over your ass while you ran an errand. G-d, save me from your fan club!
I let her continue to share her mundane miracle. I was no longer trying to mask the agony I was in as I sat in front of her nodding my head in a sort of yes all while googling what dose and combination of my medication it would take to “get out of the river.” I am crying. To this day I believe that she thought I was moved by her mediocrity. (Yes, my words reveal that this wound is still healing. It is still tender.) I continue my googling. I empty a Rite Aid back of little red prescription pill bottles that I would shortly wash down with a bottle of prescription cough medicine. I’m crying. There is a pharmacy spilled out on my desk. She didn’t even ask if I was sick. She just kept talking.
“And the scariest part is that if you ask anyone in the throes of depression how he got there, to pin down the turning point, he’ll never know. There is a classic moment in The Sun Also Rises when someone asks Mike Campbell how he went bankrupt, and all he can say in response is, ‘Gradually and then suddenly.’ When someone asks how I lost my mind, that is all I can say too.” (Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation)
To be in ministry is to experience the gradual and the sudden. Ministry can be a tyranny of little deaths. If a minister sees enough Good Fridays, he/she might not want to a see another Easter Sunday. I am fortunate. I am married to the strongest woman I’ll ever meet. I am blessed by a daughter who wanted to help her Daddy find his happy. I have a loving mother and sister. I have supportive friends and colleagues. I have insurance that covers mental health and provides disability leave. I have a brilliant psychiatrist and therapist. I’m alive. I’m in recovery. But, I’m not everyone. A depressive asking for help is as likely as a choking victim shouting for the Heimlich. Neither can do it.
Suicide prevention is everyone’s responsibility. Know the warning signs: threats/comments about killing themselves, increased substance use, aggressive behavior, social withdrawal, dramatic mood swings, talking/writing/thinking about death, impulsive/reckless behavior, putting affairs in order, giving away possessions, saying goodbye to friends/family, and acquiring the means to commit suicide (e.g., firearm or prescription medication). If you think a friend or family member will hurt himself/herself or someone else, call 911 immediately. You could save someone’s life.