How Ministry Burnout Leads to Depression

ministry burnout, depression

I don’t know why depression brings such shame to its victims, but I’ll never forget how small I felt when I had to confess it out loud. To an answering machine.

In the throes of ministry burnout, I called to schedule an appointment with a therapist. The voicemail asked for my name and reason for my visit. “My name is Jathan Maricelli and I’m battling depression.” I wanted to crawl in a hole. Except I was already in one.

Ninja Depression

Depression snuck up on me like a ninja. Not only did I have no history of the disease, I had a lot to be happy about – three children, a loving wife, a good job, a nice congregation. Why then did the alarm clock find me wanting to pull the covers over my head and let the whole thing burn to the ground?    

Because that’s just the way mental illness works. Depression squeezed through a crack in my soul created by prolonged pressure. Once it got in it was hard to get out. And if it snuck into my soul, it can do the same to yours. That’s why you need to face up to your stress cycle and start taking steps to preserve your mental and physical health.

In this post, I continue the ministry burnout series. Specifically, I will address the role that ministry burnout plays in eroding one’s health.

To catch up on previous posts in this series, click here:

Why I Succumbed to Ministry Burnout Instead of Asking for Help

How Ministry Burnout Can Steal Your Relationship with God

How Ministry Burnout Weakens Your Resistance to Temptation

The Black Cloud of Depression

I was never clinically depressed or on medication, but I had a strong enough experience with the illness to respect its power.

If you’ve never gone through depression, there are two false assumptions about the disease that we need to get out of the way up front. First, depression isn’t about being sad. It’s much deeper than that. Second, you just can’t snap out of it and get happy. If only it was that simple.

Depression for me was like being slowly pulled into a black cloud. It would start out in the far reaches of my thoughts, like a black, roiling, cloud in the distance. Throughout the day, as it closed its distance, I would be pulled deeper and deeper into its darkness. Once engulfed, it was hard to get out.

The Fetal Position Response

I would go 2-4 days with the feeling of just wanting to get into a dark room, curl up in a fetal position, and deadbolt the door. I didn’t want my wife coming through that door. I didn’t want my three kids coming through that door. I didn’t want my church members coming through that door. I just wanted it all to go away. I was desperate for a reprieve from the searing emotional pain that was relentlessly sniping my emotions from an undetected position in my heart. (Tears come to my eyes as I write this. I’ll never forget this feeling).

Social science tells us fetal position response is due to the brain realizing that it’s powerless to protect you any longer. Realizing that you’re in immediate danger, your brain signals you to pull your legs up to protect your vital organs and tuck your head in your arms to protect your brain.

Funny enough, it does provide a little relief. And when things spin out of control, you’ll seek relief anywhere you can find it. That’s scary. Especially when you have a congregation, three kids, and a wife depending on you for guidance and strength.

No Way Out

But I couldn’t curl up in a dark room. I had too many responsibilities. So I would take the black cloud with me. I took it with me to the dinner table. I took it to my classroom.  I took it to the pulpit. I did an okay job of hiding it at work and at church, but I couldn’t hide it from my wife.

Sarah could see me sinking deeper and deeper. She grew afraid that I would go under one of these days and never make it back out. In fact, when I would be a little late in coming home from work or playing golf she began to worry that I was never coming home at all. It’s no wonder her hair started falling out in chunks.

If you read my earlier posts, you know that I resigned my church and moved home to get help from ministry burnout. My struggle with depression was one of the main reasons for my departure.

How Am I Overcoming Depression?

When the right amount of pressure mounts in my life, I can still feel that black cloud forming in the distance, a sobering reminder of the power of pressure. But I’ve kept that cloud at a healthy distance for over a year now. How have I done so?  

I changed things. Two big in things.

First – I Unloaded a Huge Burden

Resigning my church was a difficult decision but it lifted a huge weight from my shoulders. Switching roles from carrying the church to being carried by the church was a game changer.

Here’s how:

  • Instead of being the one helping others, I began to receive help.
  • Instead of giving out sermons of hope and grace every week, I began to soak in encouraging messages every week.
  • Instead of casting and pushing vision, I received the vision.

If you’ve never been a senior pastor it’s impossible to truly understand the constant nag and weight of responsibility that comes with the role. (Apostle Paul talks about that here) It’s a difficult enough calling to navigate when you’re well, you don’t have a chance if your health is poor. I have no regrets about walking away when I did.

Not all of you, however, can resign your church. And most of you SHOULDN’T resign your church. Just because that was God’s will for me doesn’t mean it is God’s will for you.

But here’s something else you can’t do. Nothing.

If your health is failing, you’ve got to do something to get out from underneath some of that weight that is crushing you.

I don’t know what burden you can unload, but God does. Ask Him. Then do what He says.

Second – I Dealt with Isolation

Loneliness was a silent killer that I accidentally stumbled into. Just like depression.

Loneliness was a product of slowly becoming isolated from relationships that had previously been a source of strength for me. There were two main culprits that led to a state of isolation.

  • Distance: I was in a city almost five hours away from my family and close friends. For several years this was a needful arrangement. Being away from our comfort zone allowed my wife and me to draw closer together. We were also able to really spread our wings in a place that wasn’t common to us.

It was lovely and exhilarating. Until it wasn’t. As I had more children, as I took a second job, as the strain of the church grew, as my son developed epilepsy, I began to need support. And there’s no support quite like the kind that you receive from the ones who know you best.

  • Busyness: Another contributor to loneliness was that I was too busy to cultivate life-giving relationships. I couldn’t go to conferences and meetings that would put me in contact with people who could have strengthened and inspired me. Furthermore, I couldn’t drive home and visit my family for a few days. I had a pulpit to fill on Sunday and Wednesday and a classroom to unlock Monday through Friday.

Someone asked me: What is the ONE THING you could have done to have prevented ministry burnout.

My answer has to do with this isolation issue and can be found in my free ebook.

What type of trap have you fallen into? You might need to take different steps than I did to get on the path to wellness, but for the love of your future and posterity, take a step.

More Equipped to Handle Stress

Don’t get me wrong, I still have plenty of stress in my life. I have four kids under the age of seven, including an infant and a son with epilepsy. Furthermore, raising all of them on a teacher’s salary gets very interesting at the end of each month. I’ve got stress. Trust me.

But I’m meeting the strain with stronger legs because I’m not carrying a millstone around my neck. Pressure still knocks me off my perch, but I don’t fall as far because my support system catches before I hit bottom.

To further strengthen my defense against the strain of this season, I’ve retained the services of a professional counselor.

I’m not saying that there is some magical, stress-free, utopia out there. If you find it, give me the address. What I am saying is that it may be time for you to cry uncle, and get you some help.

It’s Time for a Wellness Check

One thing is for certain, if you run your emotions through the wringer long enough, you’ll begin to pay the price in your body. As previous posts state, my life had careened out of balance and I was running way too hard for way too long. I arrogantly thought I was immune to paying the price in my body.

I wasn’t. And neither are you.

So where are you on your stress journey? How’s your health? Are you sleeping at night? Can you feel that black depression cloud forming in the nether regions of your mind? Do you have anxiety?

Perhaps your mental health is fine, but your blood pressure is through the roof. Any chest pains lately?

Do you have time to exercise or are you out of shape and overweight? Is that an ulcer forming in the pit of your stomach?

Continuing to stay on the ministry burnout cycle indefinitely is like driving a car with no oil. You’ll make it a few more miles, but your engine doesn’t stand a chance.

A breakdown is imminent.

Just as I thought depression would never happen to me, many a pastor that keeled over with a heart attack or hurt themselves due to ministry stress thought the very same thing.

The question is, what do you think?
Join the conversation in the “comments” section below.

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