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My Dad Spent Years in Suicidal Depression —as a Pastor


My dad spent twenty years in suicidal depression, and seven of those while he was a pastor. Among other reasons related to his childhood, he couldn’t come to grips with all he was “expected” to do for God and people. He couldn’t bring himself to put on a pastorly face, knock on doors and invite people to church, all the while hating everything that meant.

Empathizing with the begrudging people who opened their doors, he imagined saying, “Hello. I’m a Christian. I’ve come to invite you to church so you can become a Christian like me, and then do what I’m doing. ‘Cause I love it so much’.”

Sarcasm and resentment were always beneath the surface of Dad’s pastoring activity. And anger was buried deep. Anger at the notion that to get God or anyone to love him, he had to work, and work hard. 

Fast forward forty-some years later, and there’s another little church, and his daughter is the co-pastor. Another firstborn. Same German blood. Same driven personality. Same seed of resentment taking root. This time, it’s not a fear of not personally being loved by God. I got that. Got it ten years ago.

Rather, it’s a belief handed to me by my culture that says “an uncool church is no church at all.” And of course “cool” is defined in all kinds of ways by all kinds of church people–to some by a hip worship band and laser lights, and to others (like me), by “community outreach.” To get anyone to “love us” enough to stick around, we have to work in the community, and work hard. 

This of course requires hard-working bodies. And when those bodies get sick, or are already busy just trying to make ends meet, or when they leave (for good and valid reasons, or in search of their version of “cool”), then the would-be community-loving church’s coolness factor goes way down.

And the pastor finds herself in a funk. That’s where I was when I called my dad on the phone this morning.

After I laid out my hopeless, frustrating case before him, he said these words: “The reason you aren’t in love with pastoring is because you have forgotten the purpose of the church.”

The purpose of the church? Of course I knew the purpose of the church! Wasn’t it to “go and make disciples?” Those were Jesus’ words, not mine! We “save souls” who will in turn “save more souls. ” Because we ‘love it so much.’

Truth be told, I wasn’t going to love this for too awful long, this expecting more work from everyone in order to help us be cool. 

Then my dad laid it on me, the truth I knew but seemed to have forgotten: The purpose of the church is fellowship. That’s church-speak for “relationship.” Hanging out. Enjoying one another. Chilling. The ancient Christian Greeks called it koinonia, a sort of “communion of souls.” It’s a creation of atmosphere that allows one to be safe, transparent and ridiculously clutzy or flawed without anyone raising an eyebrow. This unique community is rooted in the unconditional (agape) love of God. You can walk into a church or group and instantly know if the social thermostat is set to “koinonia.”

I cried with relief when I hung up the phone. Wasn’t this what I wanted in a church? What I always needed myself, all those years as a church member? I needed a “sanctuary”–a safe haven of rest. Not a factory where I’d be placed on the assembly line and expected to churn out more souls.

At the heart of the gospel is the word “rest.” The Bible shouts that message through its pages from Genesis to Revelation, but we’re too busy working to stop and listen. We’ve paid more attention to a false gospel that says “work hard enough and you’ll be cool enough” (good enough, okay enough, loved enough–by God and by people). We pastors lend our ears more often to the church-success books that teach us to be relational only as a means to an end–for more church growth. To increase the coolness factor.

We forget why God saved us. He didn’t come knocking on our heart’s door in order to make us soul winners like Him. He wanted to “come in and dine” with us. He wanted fellowship. God wanted more people to enjoy. And when we pastors forget that–when we look at our people as potential soul winners and church growth facilitators and not people to enjoy through relationship, we’ll fall out of love with pastoring quicker than a cat in a bathtub. We’ll soon hate it.

One of my all-time favorite books starts out by saying that “sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself” (Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz). This is how evangelism (soul winning) happens. People watch us enjoying one another through the love we’ve received from God our Father. They see us at rest in that love, not working feverishly to be the coolest church in the county (or the most pious person in God’s book).

God wants us to be at rest in His love. And any community service that naturally occurs as a result of, and is energized by, that love, is a work of God. Which doesn’t feel like work at all.

photo credit: creative commons


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