This is one in a series of posts I’m calling “Snapshots of my Depression.” These are memories of times in my life when my mental illness manifested itself in one way or another.
In my twenties, I spent five years as the full-time Director of Education/Pastoral Assistant of a Lutheran church. Fresh out of seminary, I made some rookie mistakes, and I learned a lot the hard way. I learned the importance of taking responsibility for mistakes, and of offering apologies. I have become adept at apologizing when someone feels I’ve hurt them, even those times when I myself don’t really see how my words or actions caused the hurt. I’ve learned that offense is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve also learned that when apologies are sincere, without conditions or caveats, they are often quite healing for everyone — the person apologizing and the person hurt.
But there was one mistake I made at that church that apologizing did not cure. And it wrecked me for quite some time.
It involved a youth “lock-in,” the bane of my ministry with youth. Lock-ins, if you’re not aware, are a staple of youth ministry, in which the youth group spends the whole night at the church, doing various activities. Sometimes these lock-ins even include sleep, but that can be controversial. There was an ongoing battle between a few of the girls in the youth group and me about the question of sleep at lock-ins. I felt that it was crucial to have a firm bedtime (3 am didn’t sound too draconian to me), partially because in those days I did not function well at all without sleep. Through a complicated series of events, the rules of this particular lock-in changed at the last minute. It was originally supposed to be sleep-optional; but just a few days beforehand, I changed that, and insisted on the 3:00 bedtime. Well, this did not go over well with the girls. By 3:30, there was passive-agressiveness and anger and yelling and all kinds of things. And that was just from me. I felt attacked, isolated, and worthless for days after the event. But that’s not what this “snapshot” is about. Because the sleep issue with the girls was actually resolved within a few days. I processed it with them, and we all took ownership of mistakes we’d made. It wasn’t pleasant in process, but it worked out in the end. We all grew a little bit. Nice, but not interesting enough for this post.
But there was another aspect of that lock-in that had bigger consequences. It involved two of the boys at the event, two brothers who had reputations as troublemakers. I had some experience with that side of them. As the lock-in began in the evening, I was already ramped-up and stressed-out about the whole event, already worried about sleep, already not in the best place emotionally. And so when the brothers arrived, I made the brilliant choice of telling them, “Hey, I don’t want any of your crap tonight.” Well, boy howdy. That’s a wise thing to say to teenagers, isn’t it? Guess how their behavior was that night. I’ll give you one guess.
I ended up scolding them and disciplining them in various ways throughout the night, trying to stay on top of this chaotic event that seemed to spiral out of my control. Like I said before, I later processed the issues with the girls and their families. I never did that with the boys. I didn’t see any reason to: they were poorly-behaved, and I dealt with it. I thought my only two options were: get them in trouble with their parents, or just let it go. I thought I was doing them a favor by letting it go. Wrong again.
A few months later, their mother came to talk to me. She told me that her sons were very angry with me, and she wondered if I could maybe take some sort of course in how to relate to teenagers better. She told me that her boys are good kids, that they’re not as bad as people say they are. She told me that they don’t want to come to church at all anymore because of me.
I tried. I apologized to her. She told me that it had been going on for some time, that it wasn’t just about the lock-in. I listened. I offered to write letters of apology to the boys. I did so. I followed up with phone calls as well. I never heard from them. I was never able to do ministry with them again. I left that church about a year later, and my failure to reconcile with them remains one of my biggest regrets.
But here’s the “Snapshot.” I told you that to tell you this: I took this so very, very hard. I remember crying. I remember being curled up in the fetal position on the floor of my house. I remember thinking that anything good I’d done at that church (or indeed, anywhere) was far outweighed by this. I remember thinking that I had single-handedly prevented a few young people from hearing the good news of Jesus. I remember thinking that this made me worse than ineffective: I was abusive. I had allowed my emotions and my selfishness to keep two young men, troublemakers or not, from knowing how much God loved them.
I know this is globalizing. When I think rationally, I know that I was not completely to blame for what happened that night. And when I think rationally, I know that I do not have the power to prevent God’s Word from reaching them. If God wants to reach them, he’s found another way. But I was unable to hear all that then. The Dark Voice inside me was able to take the raw material it had — the memories of the lock-in and the conversation with the mother — and convert that into a cocktail of self-directed anger and obsession and misery. You are worthless, it told me. You are worthless, and you are worse than that: you are evil. You have done something unforgiveable. And I believed the voice. My God, did I believe it. Nobody could say anything to convince me otherwise. By no means was this the first time I’d dealt with guilt in this way, nor the last. But it was a particularly bad instance. I internalized this so much, and ripped myself apart so much. I kept doing my job, but I felt severely broken inside, as though everything about me was a lie, or worse.
It took me many months to work through these emotions. Therapy, conversations with colleagues and mentors, prayer. And even today, this memory still stings. I just found some old documents on my computer from that era, which helped me remember the details of this event, and write this post. Among those documents were the letters I wrote to the boys. I haven’t re-read those letters, or even opened the files. I can’t. It hurts too much just thinking of opening them. A therapist once told me that I have to learn to accept that I can hurt people. That continues to be something I work on. There’s a part of me that always wants to be a hermit: I would rather run away and live alone than cause people pain. And yet — I continue to work in a career where I interact with people constantly, sometimes in spiritually intimate ways, ways that have the potential to cause pain. I sometimes don’t know why I’m a pastor — am I really cut out for this? Even if I have the skills, do I have the resources to survive what it can do to me? Or rather, do I have the resources to survive what I can do to myself? But…that’s another story for another Snapshot.