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Why I Took a Sabbatical from My Pastoral Role

Written by Chris MacLeod, Australia

“You’ve been set apart for good works,” says the preacher, “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

So why am I so sad, anxious … broken? I wonder.

“… Have faith,” the preacher continues, “We must believe that our joy is in the Lord.”

Do I lack faith? Is that why I’m burning out? Feeling depressed? What can I do?

***

I was still pastoring a church when I began experiencing dissonance between my faith and emotions in the form of anxiety and depressive thoughts. This would happen especially during sermons like the above. But I was just stressed, surely?

Yet I would find myself calling in sick to avoid ministries for which I was responsible. The more I ignored these feelings, the more the guilt and the shame grew. Soon, I worried that my lack of joy was a disqualification of my leadership and indicative of a lack of faith in God. 

So instead of confronting my growing sense of hopelessness and despair, I panicked and attempted to soothe these irritated emotions with accomplishments and increased work commitments. Several para-church ministries and a church plant later, I was utterly depleted, burnt-out, depressed, and disappointed. On the outside I did my best to shine, as good Christians ought to, but hid my inner exhaustion from friends and supporters.

Like many others, my mental health struggles stemmed from my experiences in my childhood. 

Hi! I’m Chris, and I haven’t doing too well (and that’s okay)

I grew up in a broken home. My father struggled with alcoholism and my parents struggled with their marriage. Thankfully, their brokenness led me to Jesus, so at the age of 12 I had read my Bible cover-to-cover and been confirmed in the Anglican Church—the church our family attended together. By 20, I had travelled to South Africa and Zimbabwe as a missionary, and by 24 I had earned two theological degrees and planted a church. 

But life is complex and following Jesus does not immediately grant a “happily ever after”. At least, not the Disney kind. As a teenager, my newfound faith in Jesus did not entirely prevent periods of depression and hopelessness caused in part by my father’s alcoholism. I had an active prayer life; but it was daily cries of, “Why God?”, and though I was deeply comforted by His presence, those dark emotions remained.

I sought refuge in the arms of God from the darkness of the world. Over time, I began to believe that serious commitment to Jesus, faithful prayer, and trust in the Bible, would prevent emotional and spiritual suffering from occurring. I hoped that strong faith could cancel out anxiety and depression. This never worked. 

I didn’t realise how much I needed help until older church mentors of mine noticed how I was struggling with depression and hopelessness. Thanks to their insight, I began seeing a Christian psychologist. In what would turn out to be one of many very valuable therapy sessions, my psychologist explained that I had developed an emotional prosperity gospel. This realisation led me to go on a learning journey to see what a mentally healthy faith could look like. 

Today, I’m 28. Since September 2019, I have taken a sabbatical from ministry to rest, learn, and to recover, and am currently an intern at the Centre for Theology and Psychology (a project of the Melbourne School of Theology). 

Here are a few important things I have learned during this time about coping with mental illness as a Christian.

1. No shame in feeling depressed 

I’ve begun to recognise that my feelings of depression act very similarly to a cold. Even now, I will occasionally awake, despairing and hopeless, struggling to find meaning in the day for no discernible reason. When this happens, instead of overthinking, and asking, “What’s wrong with me?”, I ask and pray, “What do I need?” My experience is that these feelings are often temporary and I just need the occasional day off.

2. God is sovereign

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence.”(Psalm 139)

I have learned to lean on God’s sovereignty, and trust that He is in control. Doing this allows me to practice self-care that respects the emotional limits that God has given me. Previously, I felt that my need for rest got in the way of God’s plans, and I wore my fatigue like a badge of honour. Today, I know that in action and stillness, God accomplishes His purpose through me. I can switch off the screens, read a book or play an instrument. God is still Love, and He is still in control.

3. All of life is a gift

“I have come so that they may have life, and have it to the full.”(John 10:10)

“It’s a gift to exist, and with existence comes suffering”-Stephen Colbert

Mental illness is a reality that as many as 40 per cent of Australians will face. But I have learned that it isn’t insurmountable, and that suffering is an unavoidable part of my journey to Christlikeness, or in other words, being a Christian does not prevent me from suffering mentally. With a bittersweet heart, I am learning to embrace all of life—both the joy and suffering. Life is a gift from God, who is lovingly using it all to renew me day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16).

As I look back on where I’ve come from, despite the pain and struggle, I don’t regret the past or feel bitter about my history. God has gifted me with curiosity, acceptance, and wisdom to see that these sufferings are all relevant to our growth as humans. Developing better mental health is a journey we all take. 

When the time comes for me to resume ministry to the church, these learnings will help me to live a sustainable, transformative, and peaceful life with Jesus, and hopefully, with and for those around me too. 

*Chris MacLeod is a student intern at the Centre of Theology and Psychology – Melbourne School of Theology.

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2 replies
  1. Vivian
    Vivian says:

    Thank you for sharing 🙂 I’m a university student suffering from anxiety and I’ve been coming into terms with an unhappy past too. Thank you for sharing what I wanted to share – that it’s okay to take a break and treat ourselves better. I find that I’m better able to let go of resentment and fear when I do so.

    Reply
  2. Meng
    Meng says:

    Sometimes, a wrong idea is communicated that the Christian life is one that is always rejoicing and triumphant. The reality is that we are sinners saved by the grace of God, still living in a broken world, and still broken due to the scars of sin. Thanks, Chris for your willingness to be transparent to speak out on the issue.

    Reply

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