I’m a Pastor With Depression. For Years I Thought I Had to Hide It.
Published in INSIGHT - Summer 2017
By Jason Chesnut 5.10.17
I was serving as associate pastor to a small church in southern Wisconsin, just a year out of seminary, and I couldn't get out of bed. I slept all the time. I couldn't eat. I couldn't see any future ahead of me. I was filled with a despair I couldn’t put into words. My primary care doctor diagnosed me with anxiety-related depression. It was 2011.
There was no way I could tell anyone about this diagnosis. Forget talking about it in regular conversation — I'm a pastor, for God’s sakes, a leader in the Christian church. I couldn’t be dealing with this. I needed to man up, I told myself — I’d get tough, and pull myself out of this nightmare.
“Demons” have never been part of my religious vocabulary. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian community, spending my teens as an agnostic, then becoming a Lutheran pastor, at every turn, my faith journey made me wary of terms like that. I mean, it wasn’t like I was living in a scene from The Exorcist, right?
But ever since I began walking with depression, that term has taken on new meaning. Depression lies to me. It is relentless. It tells me I will always feel this way, that I’m not deserving of help, that I am a burden, a waste — that my life is thoroughly hopeless. The demon of depression tells me that this is my fault. It tells me that I am utterly alone.
Mark’s gospel, in particular, depicts numerous instances in which a demon is present. The possessed person is often blamed for this, but Jesus never uses that logic himself. He doesn’t condemn a possessed person for their reality, and he doesn’t tell them to just get over it. Jesus does what Jesus does: He heals them.
Depression lies to me. It is relentless. It tell me I am utterly alone.
The more time I spend with these stories, the more I identify with the demon-possessed people — the Gerasene demoniac (5:1-20); the masses outside Simon’s house (1:32-34); the boy with the unclean spirit (9:14-27). As a biblical storyteller — someone who learns biblical stories by heart and tells them to others — these intense moments have become an inextricable part of me.
So, yes, even in our 21st-century Christianity, when we say that God’s story is our story, this has to include the demon-possessed.
I left Wisconsin a year after my diagnosis and found myself in Baltimore, starting a new Christian community. I also started a video company that expands my call as a pastor, telling the stories of God and God’s people.
I'm now in a city I love, surrounded by a network of friends, and doing work that fulfills me. But the demon remains. It is nothing if not persistent.
READ: The Silent Stigma of Mental Illness in Church
People, even the most well-meaning among them, will often use the Bible to try to help. They don’t usually head to Mark’s gospel, though. They’ll throw Philippians my way, referencing things like “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:13); or they share Paul’s letter to the Romans, encouraging me to “increase” my faith so that I will “get better” (4:20-21); they send me “inspirational” quotations from a Google image search.
The stigma around mental illness only makes the silence and shame worse. Unlike a broken leg, I don’t have a tried-and-true pathway to healing and wholeness. The medication for our brains is not fully understood, even by professionals. It’s a lot of guesswork. We simply don’t know. That unknowing is often paralyzing and downright scary.
One of the most insidious parts of mental illness is the feeling that no one else could possibly understand what you are going through. The isolation is immense and inescapable. Your brain feeds into this, and the demon wants nothing more than for you to suffer in silence. This is an acute distress for those in the church, where our identities are usually rooted in commandments around community. Mark’s gospel is again instructive, as we see Jesus in Gethsemane, “distressed and agitated,” telling the disciples that he was “deeply grieved, even to death” (14:33-34).
If Jesus suffered with all humanity during the Passion narrative, wouldn’t that include mentally as well?
What a searing image. If Jesus suffered with all humanity during the Passion narrative, wouldn’t that include mentally as well? As Christians, we are really good at proclaiming the full divinity of Jesus, but when it comes to his full humanity, we often skirt around the issue. But in a country where 16 million adults suffer from depression each year , and where many politicians recently stood in the White House Rose Garden to celebrate the passage of a bill that would classify mental illness as a preexisting condition and allow states to opt out of covering it at all, we desperately need a savior who suffers with us.
My depression is frustratingly, deeply, a part of me. My brain chemistry is wired in such a way that I struggle, through no fault of my own. But I do not struggle alone. As a Christian leader, this is my fervent hope and prayer.
The Rev. Jason Chesnut, ordained in the ELCA, created and developed The Slate Project, an innovative Christian worshiping community that gathers both online and face-to-face in Baltimore City