Across this state, ministers are smiling on the outside while withering inside. Many don’t know what to call what they’re experiencing. They struggle even to put it into words.
Counseling professionals know precisely what to call it: depression. Research indicates as much as 68 percent of ministers are dealing with symptoms related to depression.
Ministers and depression has been the topic of increased discussion in recent months following the suicide of the son of Rick Warren, possibly the nation’s most prominent evangelical leader. Warren indicated his son battled depression. The pastor and his wife also have admitted to struggling with depression. In recent years, Texas Baptist life has been dotted with ministers who have committed suicide following extended bouts with depression.
Ministers help others through trying situations daily, whether it’s marital strife, financial struggles, addiction issues or a variety of other troubles, noted Katie Swafford, director of Texas Baptists Counseling Services. It’s easy for them to begin taking on the weight of those problems without realizing it.
The situation is compounded by the nature and perception of serving as a minister, Swafford noted. Church staff members sense that people want to believe their spiritual leaders have all the answers and have their lives together.
“Ministers get depressed for a variety of reasons,” Swafford said. “It could be long hours, periods of high stress, family issues or the emotional toll of serving. They’re susceptible to the same pressures as the rest of us.”
Kelly Petty, whose husband John Petty, former chairman of the Baptist General Convention of Texas Executive Board, struggled with depression for a number of years. In 2011, the senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Kerrville took his life.
“It’s a dark terror of a disease rising to epidemic proportions in our country she said. “I believe it’s one of the most common emotional problems in America and it must be addressed by people worldwide.”
John, a psychology major at Baylor University, took all the suggested steps to fight his depression. He was following the proper protocol to fight the disease by consulting with medical professionals, counselors, taking the prescribed medications and exercising regularly as to help regulate serotonin levels. He was doing all that he could do and yet was not able to win this battle.
Yet Kelly watched as this disease altered John. The leader and pastor many Texas Baptists knew was loving, gregarious and warm. He made friends most everywhere he went and made people feel they were special – to him and to God. When the depression was strong, John became withdrawn and distant.
“It changed him, and I saw the light in his eyes disappear,” she said. “It overtook him.”
Ministers may be particularly prone to depression because or the myriads of problems they deal with daily. And that very nature helps them connect with people and feel deeply.
Despite the sometimes significant internal changes, depression is often difficult to detect even for ministers’ closest friends. Particularly in Christian circles, some individuals feel a stigma remains in admitting someone of faith – especially a faithful leader – is struggling with the disease. Ministers worry that admitting struggles with depression will lead some to wonder if they’re qualified to lead.
While it’s relatively easy to find ministers and ministers’ spouses who are dealing with depression, those who are and currently serve on church staffs did not want to be quoted in this story. They feared the impact it would have on their ministries as well as their families.
Through Swafford’s office, Texas Baptists offers confidential help for those who would like it. The convention can point individuals to tools, resources and professionals that may help.
Swafford and Kelly Petty each encouraged people dealing with depression to seek help. If a person had diabetes, they would seek help. Depression is simply another issue.
“The illness of depression is a total different ball game for each individual,” Petty said. ““I think it is a very complex disease and it is very hard to understand all that goes on in the brain. I think it needs to be brought out in the open and discussed just like cancer or heart disease or anything else because there is such a stigma that surrounds it. It takes lots of lives, I know that – whether that’s suicide or ruining lives. I look forward to the day when there will be answer to this devastating disease that took my husband’s life.”
For more information about depression as well as resources to fight it, visit www.texasbaptists.org/counseling or call Swafford at 800-388-2005.