I’ve had the opportunity to speak about depression many times to many groups. I was invited once to speak with a group of prison chaplains from all over Virginia. They were gathered together at a conference and they asked me to talk about fatigue and burnout—two things I am unfortunately intimately familiar with.
So, I re-lived for them my journey through depression after living at an unsustainable pace for a decade. I’m glad to say that I manage my time and energy so much better today. But I’m saddened by the reality that many people—especially ministry staff, chaplains and pastors—are still trying to live much like I once did.
For those facing a similar battle today, I thought I’d share here the 11 things I’ve learned from my meltdown and my resulting battle with depression:
1. Not everyone goes through clinical depression, but everyone is a candidate for burnout and long-term fatigue.
During my meltdown, my doctor told me, “You cannot go as hard as you do for as long as you have and not break something.” That was a turning point for me. While there are seasons where I go extra hard, I pace myself today so that I can go the distance.
2. You cannot get healthy without changing something.
If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting. If your life is not going the way you think it should, or if you’re living at an unsustainable pace, something must change. In fact, something WILL change. Either you can be proactive or it can just happen “to” you. The former is far better than the latter.
3. Knowing your ‘yellow zone’ will keep you out of the ‘red zone’.
Once you’ve been through depression, it’s like an old injury that has healed, but just isn’t quite as strong as it used to be. It’s always just a little more susceptible to re-injury. So I have some mechanisms in place to indicate when I’m in the ‘yellow zone’. When that happens, I quickly make adjustments so that I do what I can to prevent spiraling downward again.
4. Every ‘Yes’ you say has a corresponding ‘No’.
When you agree to a new commitment, you are inherently turning down another one. I want to be intentional about what I do with my life. You and I have this in common: we each have exactly 10,080 minutes every week. No amount of money can buy more. So I want to be very careful with what I commit to.
5. Information is our friend.
While I know my own experience with depression, it’s been helpful to seek out others’ experiences and learn from them as well. When you are struggling with depression, it’s often hard to think rationally and sort through emotions. For me, I found a great deal of comfort in knowing that others I trusted had helpful experiences that I could learn from. Wayne Cordiero’s book, Leading on Empty, was – and continues to be – especially informative. I also highly recommend Replenish by Lance Witt.
6. Friendships cultivated and nurtured in good times produce friends that are most equipped to speak into your life during bad times.
My recovery was dramatically accelerated because I had a few deep friends who I completely trusted and invited into every corner of my life. They knew when to speak, what to say, when to show up, and when to encourage me or nudge me. Look for THESE friends if you’re in crisis. Avoid leaning on the friend that only says what you want to hear. Seek out those deeper relationships for truth-telling and sustainable support.
7. A gifted counselor is worth their weight in gold!
My counselor for two years specialized in working with pastors. Some professions have specialized therapists, like military personnel. But the point is for you to find a trained, licensed counselor who can help you. A word of caution: not all counselors are effective. Lean into a good referral, make the appointment and begin your journey to recovery.
8. There is nothing in life more valuable than a spouse who really gets you and a great marriage is priceless.
I never knew this more than when I was in the worst part of my valley and Susan was caring for me. Marriage is not always 50/50. Sometimes, you GIVE more than half…other times you GET more than half. In my darkest season, Susan carried her weight—and mine too.
9. Your support team can make or break you when fatigue and burnout happen.
One of the greatest gifts I’ve experienced through our church—beyond watching so many people come to know Jesus—has been the incredible relationships and support that have grown out of our leadership team. I know many pastors who are convinced that they’ll get fired if they tell their board that they are suffering from depression. And many of them are right. Like good friendships (see #6), develop and cultivate a healthy church leadership culture in good times so that it can respond well in difficult seasons.
10. There is no substitute for and no shortcuts to an investment in your relationship with God.
If God is not first in your life, everything else will be out of order. Because I knew spiritual truths and internalized them, I was able to combat my irrational feelings when my emotions were completely turned around. Having a strong foundation of solid faith helped me claim the truths I KNEW when my feelings were erratic.
11. Romans 8:28 is an absolute promise.
I remember one particularly difficult moment. I was crying and Susan was holding me. And I said this: “I know that God is going to use this pain to do something good.” And it was true. As I came out of that season, and began to share publicly about what I’d been through, a surprising number of people personally thanked me for giving them permission to ‘come out of hiding’. They realized that it was ok to admit their struggle and that they didn’t have to be ashamed. God will take the season of fatigue, burnout and even depression and make something good come out of it, if you’ll let Him.