Over the last few months, I’ve been involved with a few projects and numerous conversations relating to the experience of Christian workers with depression. One thing that has come out so often is the extent to which the sufferers and their churches simply were not ready for it when it hit. At theological college you are prepared to provide warm loving counsel to others when they suffer but you are not necessarily prepared for the suffering when it hits you.
In this article I am proposing that this suggests a need to do a little bit more of the heavy theological digging to better equip us. I’m not going to attempt an in depth coverage or even to come to conclusions here. Rather, I just want to highlight a few key areas where we need to give our attention. I hope this will encourage others to join the thinking.
What is our doctrine of humanity – and our doctrine of Creation?
We are better equipped to deal with the concept of physical suffering and we know how to comfort and encourage those struggling with it. Yet, we are still struggling to get our heads around the question of emotional suffering. We tend to create an excluded middle because we think that someone either has an organic physical illness treatable by surgery, medication and physiotherapy or that they are suffering from something which is either made up (all in the head) or even sin.
We are frequent to bring the charge of Gnosticism in other situations but I think that even those who bring the charge readily struggle to articulate a theology that makes sense of body, mind and spirit.
What is our doctrine of calling and vocation?
Mental illness still carries a huge stigma. Things are improving but there is still the suspicion that it is a sign of weakness and even moral failure (of course it can be). Whilst things are improving in our attitudes towards the subject in general, I think the stigma remains at its strongest when it comes to the possibility of pastors suffering depression. I think there may be a little bit more of an allowance for missionaries to suffer but in some circles admitting to depression means your time of service is over.
It seems that for all of our dissenting, non-conformist ways, we still have a theology of laity and clergy which means we put pastors on pedestals. Once a pastor shows weakness then they are quickly knocked off the pedestal.
What is our doctrine of body ministry?
If we are honest then many of us in pastoral ministry struggle with being served, loved, looked after. Of course, there are those who are very good at being served by which we mean those unhealthy contexts where they control others to serve them. At its worst this manifests as serious abuse. However, I’m not talking about that here. I’m talking about a willingness to give up control and allow others to minister to us. We often have one directional ministry rather than genuine one-another ministry.
What is our doctrine of suffering?
It is strange isn’t it. We have all read books on suffering, there has been plenty written but many of us don’t know how to suffer. By this, I don’t just mean that we survive in suffering but we learn to count it as joy, to thrive, to grow in godliness through our trials.
What is our doctrine of spiritual warfare?
I don’t think we have thought hard, long and deep enough about what it means to be in the battle. This is because we associate spiritual warfare with the out there weird stuff. Yet, we are in a battle, opposition does come. My own experience of depression is that it struck at a time when we were seeing real signs of fruitfulness in ministry. Then it seemed that something unpleasant showed up.
Is there an alternative, reformed approach that neither goes all spooky nor denies the reality of spiritual warfare?
I hope that these headings and short paragraphs will act as discussion starters and I look forward to hearing back from others.