My Secret Struggle with DEPRESSION As A Pastor (And 5 Ways You Can Battle It Too)

Depression is a buzz-word these days, but don't let that fool you.

Depression is a very real thing.

I've been in youth ministry for the past 10 years and I can't count how many students have come up to me in a prayer line, messaged me on Facebook or approached me with the prayer request for the healing of depression.

And because depression seems to have such a blurry definition, let me clear up for you the difference between situational sadness and clinical depression. 

We all experience difficult seasons of life. We all encounter loss, disappointment and discouragement. The sadness that comes along with these experiences is normal and humane. Depression is a different type of condition.

Someone who struggles with clinical depression is in a consistent depressive state, including a lack of energy, overwhelming sadness (for no reason), demotivation, a lack of sleep and even more extreme symptoms such as suicidal thoughts and actions. 

It's as if a depressed person's DEFAULT setting is sadness and hopelessness. And the very fact that there's no real reason for the sadness makes the person feel even worse. 

Many times, depression can be caused by a severe tragedy or loss, that eventually continues as a chemical-imbalance. A lack of or low-level production of certain hormones causes the constant state of depression.

This is what I have wrestled with since I was 14 years old. 

WHERE IT ALL BEGAN

I was first diagnosed with depression when I was 14. This was 3 years after my father passed away from cancer. I remember going to the doctor with my mom (who was a saint and did whatever she could to help me with my struggles) and having wires and computers attached to my head to test my brain, along with the needle-pricks of blood tests. I felt like a freak. 

For the 3 years prior, I had developed an "out-of-control" rage problem. To help channel my anger in a productive direction, my mom bought me a punching-bag and hung it in the garage. It just didn't seem to do the trick. 

I had always been a bit OCD (obsessive compulsive) and was a passionate kid, even before my dad died.

I've always had high highs and very low lows. 

After the doctor had finished running the tests, he came back with the results. The tests showed that I was struggling with clinical depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies. He recommended medication and sent us on our way. 

A PERSONAL DECISION...

After a few weeks of testing out the medication, I felt like it was really working, but I had lost my "edge." It was as if "things were OK" but I had a difficulty feeling anything. As a passionate person, this was almost worse than the depression. 

I remember exactly where I was standing - in front of the white cabinet doors in the kitchen of our little apartment, holding the medication in my hand. I opened up the cabinet doors and threw the bottle all the way to the back and slammed the door. 

I made a decision that day, that I wasn't going to take the meds anymore.

Now, before you call me admirable - let me just tell you, that I knew exactly what I was doing. I knew that refusing to take the medication meant having to deal and struggle with this thing head on. It wasn't an easy decision to make, but I felt that I would rather fight the feelings than not be able to feel at all. This was a personal decision, agreed upon by myself, my mom and my doctor. 

Only 2 years later, I encountered Jesus in a living and powerful way that gave me more strength than I ever knew was available to fight this battle.

MY BATTLE AT ITS WORST...

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there.

In fact, if I were to be completely honest, I don't really ever remember a season without the struggle. My four years in college held a special grace, shielding me from many symptoms that I experienced for years. But everything changed, the moment I moved to Abilene, Texas. 

I took a Youth Pastor position in the West Texas town and God moved in a powerful way. Our little youth ministry went from 12 students to over 200 in the first year. Lives were being changed, souls were being saved and bodies were being healed. 

And the majority of Wednesday nights, I went home wrestling with some of the deepest, darkest, depressive emotions, thoughts and feelings I had ever experienced. 

It was difficult to get out of bed in the mornings. I had no motivation to connect with people. I wanted to lock myself in my house and never come out. 

There were even moments I wanted to take my own life. 

Now, I know what you're thinking.

"How could you feel this way when you were living in your purpose, accomplishing so much for God and being the hands and feet of the Holy Spirit, ministering healing to others?"

One of the stories that brought me so much comfort in that season was the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. The mighty prophet of God had just come back from a victory on Mt. Carmel, proving the power of His God. And a few verses later, we see the same faith-giant hiding for his life from this woman named Jezebel. In fact, this is what he says: 

There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He said, "I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away. (1 Kings 19:9-10)

Elijah had just experienced one of the greatest victories in his ministry, yet we find him hiding for his life, even despising of it. 

This is exactly how I felt. God was using me, moving through me, but I felt like I was being left out. I was alone, abandoned and outcasted.

And I had no idea why. 

That season taught me a lot about myself. About 2 years in, I decided to start going to a counselor to process what was going on inside of my head. I found much relief and understanding, since my counselor was a retired pastor and understood the depression that often times comes along with the job. 

And I wish I could tell you that my struggle with depression ended there.

But once again, it didn't. 

Over the past 12 years, I have wrestled with depression on and off. Having struggled with it for this long, I know the triggers and signs of when it comes and I have learned how to manage it. However, I want to break the mentality that men and women of God never deal with issues like this.

In fact, I think we're more susceptible to it. 

HOW TO FIGHT DEPRESSION

It's because of this struggle that I have been able to make sense of certain things. I can tell you that I have finally gotten to a place in my life where I feel like I have gained control, freedom and power over something that still continues to try and creep its way into my heart and mind.

I believe that this is something you can have as well. 

And if depression is something you're struggling with, I want to give you some hope and some practical tips that have helped me over the years. 

1.
UNDERSTAND & EMBRACE SADNESS

Like I said earlier, sadness isn't depression. In fact, sadness is a natural human emotion that we are supposed to feel. Even Jesus wept and experienced loss (see John 11:35). Labeling your sadness as depression can lead to false expectations and incorrect solutions to a problem that may simply be momentary. Something that has helped me identify the difference between depression and sadness is:

  • Did something recently happen that would cause this sadness?
  • Am I in a lonely, isolated or upset state that could lead to normal feelings of sadness?
  • Has sadness become my default state, even when nothing is wrong and everything is going my way? 

Identifying the season you're in can help you make sense of your emotions. If you're in your 20's, chances are that you're experiencing some growing pains. This is normal - find someone who is going through a similar struggle and encourage each other. 

2.
DON'T LET SHAME SILENCE YOU

If, after you've identified the season and the struggle, you feel like you might be wrestling with depression, don't let shame silence you and keep you from talking to someone. The problem with Elijah's story was that he isolated himself in a season where he needed to surround himself with people who could encourage him in the right direction. 

Find a leader, mentor, teacher or pastor that can speak into your life and help you come up with some "next-steps." Getting help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a strength to know when you need it. 

3. 
PURPOSE A PLAN

I believe in the healing power of Jesus. I believe in the strength of the Holy Spirit to overcome and fight this battle. But I also believe that sometimes, things like counseling and/or medication is needed to deal with the overwhelming symptoms of depression.

There was a season, about a year ago, that I had to get back on medication because I was never sleeping. I was always exhausted and lacked any motivation. I finally moved past the shame and fear and decided to go see a doctor. He told me that it was a common issue from depression.

I was able to take a medication that really helped me overcome some of the symptoms I was experiencing. After a few months, I was able to get off of the medication and feel much better after establishing a regular sleep pattern. 

**let me make this clear: I am not against medication. My personal decision to get off medication was made after clear communication with my doctor, friends and family. My symptoms and issues are manageable without medication and I feel that it is my personal decision to fight through it. If this is a change you are wanting to make, and suffer with depression, you MUST speak to your doctor before any type of decision is made. 

I have also gone to counselors over the years. Being in high-level ministry positions at such a young age can cause serious levels of isolation. I felt like I had no one that was safe to talk to. There's no shame in setting up meetings with a counselor to help process out what's going in your life.

Whatever it is, figure out a plan. And don't come up with the plan alone. Find someone to help walk you through it - someone you know and trust, and someone who knows you very well. 

4. 
KNOW YOUR TRIGGERS

Over the years, I have learned myself. I know when I am most susceptible to depression creeping in and getting a foothold in my mind. Because of this - I have set up safeguards for those moments. 

For me, I am most susceptible when I get back from a trip or experience a great move of God. The high-high can easily lead to a low-low. So I make sure that I am not alone the night that I get back from a trip. I surround myself with friends, even if I would rather be alone, to help me deal with isolation and depressive states. 

Long periods of time alone are also not great for me. Though I recharge from alone-time, I am naturally an extrovert. If I go too long without spending time with people, I can sink back into the hole that makes me want to isolate again. It's MY job to be proactive about this, no one else's! 

I also know that discouragement and disappointment are literally one choice away. When I feel these emotions coming on, I stop whatever I am doing and start prophesying and declaring God's Word over my life. I speak His promises and remind myself of His steadfast love. 

5. 
FIGHT WITH FAITH

For many years, I slipped into the lie that I must INDULGE my emotions to be AUTHENTIC. Although it is important to face what's going on in your heart and mind, it is also vitally important to declare the truth of God's Word. The enemy will come in like a flood, but God can raise up a standard against him if you allow Him to (see Isaiah 59:19). 

I used to get up every morning, pour my coffee and put on some mellow worship music. I don't do that anymore. 

I follow the Smith Wigglesworth model: 

“I don’t ever ask Smith Wigglesworth how he feels!” I jump out of bed! I dance before the Lord for at least 10 to 12 minutes – high speed dancing. I jump up and down and run around my room telling God how great he is, how wonderful He is, how glad I am to be associated with Him and to be His child."

Sometimes, you've just got to fight back the PROBLEM with your PRAISE. We have so much to be grateful for, and even though you may be struggling with a real, chemical issue - I believe that the Word of God can be a weapon to fight against it. 

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I know that depression is something I struggle with from time to time, but I have faith that God has given me the strength to overcome. As a Pastor, I am not excluded from struggle. But it is my responsibility to be honest with you about them and share with you the tools God has given me to fight. 

The level of freedom and authority God has given me over this thing is a miracle. Not to say that I don't still struggle and go through seasons of intense battling, but I believe that I have struggled with depression to share my story and help others get out of the pit they feel they are in. 

I pray that this encourages you. If real depression is something you battle with, don't be ashamed and don't be afraid. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a SOUND MIND (see 2 Timothy 1:7). Remind yourself of God's promises and thoughts towards you. 

I leave you with this Scripture: 

He has filled me with bitterness; he has sated me with wormwood.
He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, "My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord."
Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me.

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:15-23


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jared Ellis was called into ministry at the age of 16 years old, after being delivered out of a life of darkness, depression and depravity. He has traveled all over the world, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ and has worked with some of the leading churches in the nation such as Bethel Church and Elevation Church. He also pastored in Abilene, Texas and grew a youth ministry of 12 students to over 300 - signs, wonders and miracles taking place each week. Jared is the author of "Yes: Simple Response | Radical Results." He travels full-time as an Evangelist, preaching at churches, conferences and events. He is also the GE Coordinator at Christ For The Nations Institute where he teaches and trains Youth Pastors and works as a church consultant. While at home in Dallas, TX, he serves as a worship leader at Trinity Church.

Learn more about Jared Ellis Ministries here.
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