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FIVE THINGS I LEARNED AS A SUICIDAL PASTOR

In 1992, I was the lead pastor of a growing church.

We were having a banner year. Highest attendance ever. More people committing their lives to Christ than any year prior in our tenure. Record financial giving. We were in a wonderful stretch of organizational momentum.

Life was good at home and in the ministry. But for weeks during autumn 1992, I had trouble sleeping, along with no appetite. (First time that ever happened in my life). Waves of sadness overwhelmed me, but I had no idea why. Panic attacks and uncontrollable crying spells became common. Eventually I became suicidal and contemplated the least painful way to end my life.

Surprisingly, major depression brought my world to a crashing halt. Up to that point, I thought depression was something weak-minded people struggled with, not a mature Christian . . . especially a pastor. But over time, I discovered it happens to all kinds of people—even to leaders who love Jesus. I noticed the Bible told stories of men who loved God wholeheartedly and yet struggled with emotional crises.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, here’s what this traumatic experience revealed: You can be experiencing amazing ministry success . . . and be suicidal at the same time.

Your story may sound like mine. You love Jesus passionately. You’re a pastor or ministry leader. And yet you’re crushed by depression and/or anxiety. You may even wonder if the emotional struggle means you’re a spiritual fraud. But here’s the truth: You can be experiencing amazing ministry success . . . and be suicidal at the same timeYou see, with depression and anxiety, 1 + 1 doesn’t always equal 2.

If you find yourself in the middle of an emotional hurricane, here’s some good news: there’s hope. You won’t get better on your own—you’ll need outside help. You’ll have to admit to people—people who have your back and are trustworthy—that you’re suffering. But you can get healthy.

Health starts by making better choices. If you’re suffering with depression and/or anxiety, here are five choices that will get you started on the road to health:

Choice 1: Love Yourself

As a pastor, I was clueless about this first choice. I shouldn’t have been; Jesus said in Matthew 22:37-40: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself…”

The most important command in the Bible is a three-parter: love God, love our neighbor, and love ourselves. Loving God is easy for most ministry leaders. Loving people is harder, but at least it’s on our radar. Loving ourselves is where many of us go off the rails. Loving yourself isn’t the same thing as selfishness. It simply means being kind to yourself with your words, embracing God’s opinion of you (you’re loved by Him unconditionally), and taking time to tend to your emotions.

Choice 2: Manage Your Anger

I used to stuff my anger until no room was left to stuff, and then I’d explode. Very unhealthy. Emotionally fit leaders have figured out how to get to the root of their anger and deal with it maturely. In Ephesians 4:26 the apostle Paul wrote: “In your anger do not sin.” Six simple words, which if obeyed, would drastically improve our emotional well-being. It’s possible to feel anger and not have it result in saying or doing something we regret. Choosing to express anger assertively (instead of aggressively or passively) promotes emotional health.

Choice 3: Protect Yourself from Abuse

As a lead pastor, I usually allowed people to walk all over me. I had no strategy to handle abusive personalities. An abusive person is one who harms you: verbally, emotionally, or physically. Developing the ability to spot them before they inflict damage enhances your emotional well-being. Pastors need to develop a finely tuned jerkometer, (the ability to spot jerks), to protect themselves. You can read about how to develop your jerkometer here .In 2 Timothy 4:14-15, the apostle Paul provided direction on Choice 3 to the young pastor, Timothy. “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.” Pastor, if you want to get/stay healthy, you have to learn to deal with difficult people using honesty and proper relational boundaries.

Choice 4: Refuel Emotionally

The longer I pastored, the less I practiced this fourth choice. My schedule got out of control. I carved out zero time for exercise and recreation. I forgot to laugh. My closest friends were nowhere to be seen on my calendar. We live in an adrenaline-addicted culture, and many pastors are hooked. Eventually, they run on empty emotionally. Jesus has a better plan: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Choice 5: Stay Alert

It’s good to feel good. Once I exited the long dark tunnel of depression, it was tempting to fall back into sloppy emotional habits: being unkind to myself, stuffing my anger, letting abusers take advantage of me, or running 100 mph with my hair on fire. Ongoing health requires ongoing vigilance. To keep choosing health even after you feel better. So if you’re doing well emotionally today, keep making the right choices so you can stay healthy.

Pastors and ministry leaders, you can love God with your whole heart, and be experiencing significant ministry success . . . and find yourself suicidal. If you that’s your current reality—it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you’re human. Reach out for help. With the help of a qualified counselor, mentor, and trustworthy friends, learn how make these 5 choices. If you do, better days are ahead.

If you feel suicidal, go to your doctor immediately. Get to a qualified counselor now. Don’t try to carry your burden alone.

Pastor or ministry leader, if you’re struggling, about to call it quits, and don’t know where to turn, I’m here for you. Please contact me at john@convergecoach.com and let’s start a conversation. Or click here for my book Unshakable You: 5 Choices of Emotionally Healthy People.

I’m rooting and praying for you!

John Opalewski

Author John Opalewski

John Opalewski is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He served as a pastor for fifteen years. He has worked in the business world for nearly two decades, serving in multiple leadership roles. John's experience as a leader in both the church and business arenas has made him a sought-after international speaker, coach and mentor.

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