So today is the second day of my medical leave, and I have some very conflicted feelings about this. In one way, I am very happy to be able to let go of the pressures of leading the congregation for a while. That’s a good thing. But on the other hand, I’m not sure that it was the brightest idea to do this.
Some background for anyone who hasn’t followed along thus far (and to fill in the gaps for those who have)…I have lived with depression and anxiety for most of my life. It has been mild to moderate, and I’ve always been able to function with it. In the four years I’ve been the pastor of my current church, I have been open with the congregation about this, and have found them to be very supportive and compassionate. (My openness also seems to have given others permission and encouragement to open up about their own mental health struggles. If I accomplish nothing else at this congregation, normalizing and raising awareness of mental illness might be a good legacy.) About five or six months ago, I began to enter a depression that was lower than I can remember. I believe the catalyst may have been some conflict going on at the church, but that may have been coincidental. Either way, I began to lose track of myself. I slowly stopped caring about things. I stopped trying to get my 12,000 steps in a day. I stopped worrying about my diet, and just started eating more and more. I started napping in the middle of the day most days, a habit I never had before. I lost all patience with my kids, just walking out of the room when they would start to whine or complain, saying, “I can’t take this.” I started to dread going to church meetings. I dreaded going to social events. I stopped talking to my wife about what was going on in my life. I got completely absorbed in video games. In moments of clarity, I started thinking that I was in the wrong career. Whatever good I might be doing here…I needed a career with less stress. I know ordained ministry isn’t the most stressful job there is, but it’s certainly in the top 50%, and I would guess in the top quarter even. Certainly there’s something out there I could do that would be less stressful. After pondering the thought of leaving the ministry, and working through the implications of that in my head, it got more and more complicated to me. Especially the effect it would have on my family. The thought of suicide crossed my mind for the first time in twenty years. I just couldn’t see any light, any hope, any meaning. And I started wondering if my family would gain more from my life insurance policy than they were getting from me. I was just so tired. So very, very tired. Thankfully the thought of suicide passed.
But somewhere along the way, I started to see that there were other options. And one option that started to light up was the thought of leaving my job, but not permanently. Perhaps I could take an extended leave, and work on some things. Perhaps I could do some heavy-duty counseling with my therapist, and look into changes in my meds as well. As I started to talk with people about this possibility, it started to sound more and more reasonable, more and more hopeful. I would use this time to determine if I could indeed continue to be a pastor, and if so, how I could do it.
I was deeply touched that our congregation council so readily agreed to a plan of a three-month medical leave. I was floored that they wanted to continue to provide all salary and benefits during this time. I have been amazed at the level of kindness and compassion that I’ve received from the whole congregation since it’s been made public. So many people have told me that if I need anything, to call them. So many people have told me they are praying for me, and will continue to do so. God is receiving so many prayers right now, I feel like George Bailey.
Heh. Glad I made that connection. I guess maybe that’s what I’m hoping for from this medical leave. I’m hoping for my own personal angel to show up, and lead me on a journey that brings with it an epiphany. I don’t know if he needs to show me what the world would be like without me. Maybe there’s another sort of path I need to be on. But one way or another, I am hoping for something unexpected. Something miraculous. Something to make sure that this is worth it. Because right now, I’m scared that it isn’t. That’s what I meant way back in the beginning of this essay when I said “I’m not sure it’s the brightest idea to do this.”
I’m scared that I won’t accomplish anything. I’m scared that I’ll just use this time as an extended vacation, and read and play games the whole time. I know that’s not true, actually, but somehow I’m still scared of it. I’m scared that anything I learn through more intense therapy and spiritual direction will just add to the pile of stuff I already “know,” and I won’t actually put any of it into practice. I’m scared that I’ll get back to the church in a few months refreshed and ready to go, but the moment the chips fall again, I’ll be right back here. I’m scared that I will learn nothing in the long run, and that all this is for nothing. I feel like I’m not at rock-bottom anymore, like I was a few months ago, and that because of that, I won’t have the motivation to actually learn or grow much at all. I’m scared that I’m wasting the church’s money, time, and goodwill.
I don’t want any of that to be true. But I’m so scared because I don’t have a plan for these three months. I certainly have particulars I’m going to do: exercise, watch my diet, weekly therapy, regular spiritual direction, a possible “partial hospitalization.” But they all seem like individual tasks, not like an overarching plan. And I want to know that there is a Clarence who is making a plan for me, and will guide me. I want to know that this doesn’t depend on me, because I’ll just muck it up.
In other words, I want to know that God’s grace is real, and that it’s for me. You know, the thing I say in every single sermon. I want to trust that the nonsense I spout out every Sunday morning isn’t nonsense after all. I want to see a sign of God today and everyday for the next three months. I want the Holy Spirit to grab me and force me to feel God’s love. Boy, I’m not expecting much, am I? But I’ll tell you, if I’m going to continue to be a pastor, I need to know that it’s real. I need to see a new sign of it, obnoxious and faithless as that sounds.
It is so hard to tell the difference between depression and the dark night of the soul. Maybe I’m going through both right now.