One Pastor’s Story of Recovery from Depression and Anxiety

Although May as Mental Health Awareness Month is now over, the impact of mental illness on life and ministry continues, so today I’m sharing another mental health story on video followed by an interview. Is it possible to survive and thrive after burnout? How do you have a panic attack and still keep your job? Thank you to Leonard Klassen for taking the time to talk with me and sharing your story.

I appreciate the way you describe your experience on the video, Leonard. What has your journey with mental health looked like since then?

Trending in the right direction is the best way of saying it. I was off for 5 ½ months, and I’ve been back for roughly 5 ½ years. People used to ask me if I was better. I got that especially in the first few years. But I don’t want to be better in the sense of how they were asking the question, in being back to where I was. I don’t want to be back there.

I’m still driven in terms of hard work, but there’s quite a difference in the sense of being more relaxed, being kinder, I probably don’t care so much about things that are peripheral in the same way that I may have before. Spelling mistakes happen, they’re terrible, and they shouldn’t happen, but they do, and at the end of the day I don’t think that anyone has died because of a word misspelled on PowerPoint.

Those sound like positive changes. Can you say more about why you wouldn’t want to go back to where you were before?

One thing I’ve learned, if there are relational conflicts that come, don’t let them build up. I would never want to go back to that. I don’t want to go back to the perception that Leonard is the only one holding things together. I don’t have to do that–others can learn as well. Related to that is a much greater commitment to equipping where I’ve had to make some concerted strides, and I wouldn’t want to change that back either. It’s about making sure that others are thriving in their gifts and not feeling responsible for things that aren’t my responsibility.

I still see my counselor every 3 months, and he argues that my thinking has changed. He tells me that I’m way busier and under way more stress than when he first met me, but the thinking and how I process things has changed for the better.

What specific tools or strategies helped you make these changes?

There are a number of things that I’ve learned. One is to acknowledge the emotions and feelings. So sometimes just saying, I’m feeling anxious, I’m going to take a 20-minute nap tends to lessen the anxiety exponentially, just by verbalizing it to someone else. Bonnie and I talk much more about some of these issues than we did before, which has been healthy. Maybe the technical word here is vulnerability in terms of letting others know where I’m at.

Another thing would be a commitment to staying more active. I need to do that, and find that walking or cycling helps a lot.

A third tool that I use is what I think of as mental journaling. I don’t often journal, but mental journaling is time for reflection, time to sit in quiet, maybe with a cup of coffee, to process things for myself.

I also refuse to give up on counseling.

My counselor would say, “You’ve made some changes you needed to make.” But it’s not just because of me. There’s a lot of grace from God and the congregation and others–an incredibly gracious church in terms of understanding and not giving up and walking alongside. It helps me understand that you don’t need to be perfect to be used by God. That’s a perception in the broader church that pastors have it all together. Here at King Road we’ve worked at that pretty hard, and we’ve come a long way to understand that we’re in this together.

It’s ok not to have a great day every day, to allow yourself to have off days once in a while. Probably two or three years ago when I had a really rough week and thought I was right back where I was, my counselor said, “No, a bad day does not mean you’re back there, or a bad week even. Life is full of trouble, and it’s painful. There will be ups and downs. How you process them, how you take care of some of those things, even the way you’re working at it has changed.”

I’ve also had to learn too that it’s not just work, but all of life functions together. You can’t compartmentalize. You can’t say I’m stressed at work and everything’s perfect at home. No, they spill over. My patience level with my kids is one of the key indicators whether I’m taking good care of myself or not. To realize that’s all part and parcel of my work hours. You have to be selfish at times in a good way. You have to say I’m not available today. It’s ok to say no once in a while. There are very few things that have such a crucial timeline.

Prior to the panic attack you describe on the video, how aware was your church of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues?

Our former youth pastor had heart surgery and a period of depression afterwards. That forced our church to come up with a long-term sick leave policy. But I would have been the first to go off on what the congregation was told was burnout. To backtrack, burnout isn’t actually a medical condition. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Those were the two medical conditions.

The congregation was asked to give me lots of space and I really appreciate that. I needed the break. Since then we’ve had three others go off for similar reasons, so the question might be what are we doing as a church? Are there some systemic things about the way we function here? Maybe. Probably.

What do you think some of those systemic things might be?

It’s multi-faceted. So there’s a relational issue here, a skill set issue here, an expectation issue here. And add to that communication has become way more difficult than it was pre-digital age. Everyone knows everything but usually just enough to get yourself in trouble. You’re given a job description, but how you read it and how it’s assumed  are different. Not too many pastors like to be told how to do something, yet quite regularly have to deal with that. Who are we accountable to? We have a congregational model so ultimately accountability is to the congregation in the sense that the congregation hires all ministry staff. Internally it’s to the senior pastor, but that’s never really been defined. There’s a history of evaluation that may raise some things, but there can be a disconnect or things get stuck.

On the pastoral side, when pastors don’t take suggestions or don’t change in response, it sets up for conflict. When you look at the expectations, it pushes this to be a job, but pastors see it as a calling. Maybe the open-endedness of the job is a contributing factor. There is something about working with people that is different. Maybe because people come with unfinished things, yet we want–I want–to solve a problem. So you need to manage your own expectations about what it means to solve a problem.

I would never go so far as to say that it was the church’s fault that I burned out. No, I wasn’t handling well what I was asked to do. I wasn’t taking proper care of myself in light of who I was. I wasn’t aware enough of my own shortcomings, my own tendencies. It’s taken me until the last while to know that anxiety runs in my family. It’s not new. I just wasn’t paying attention. It’s more on the radar now. We’ve had people in the church with significant mental health issues the entire time I’ve been here, and it’s always been a struggle how do we support them, especially when it hasn’t become public. But there is much more of an awareness that just because you have a diagnosis of anxiety and depression, it’s not like your life is over and you can’t do anything. I hope that message has come through loud and clear.

It actually sounds like you did a lot in your recovery, and that took significant time and effort.

As I look back, there were signs that I wasn’t aware of. When my doctor told me that I would be off for three months, I didn’t believe him. And as it turned out I was off 5 ½. He once told me that as long as it takes you to get to the bottom, once you’ve been trending the right way for the same amount of time—I think we agreed it was 1 ½ years—then we could start looking at adjusting for any meds. Don’t rush that. Give your body time, your brain time to relearn some basic functions.

I thought he was crazy with the time. But it doesn’t come naturally to change everything, and it’s difficult. I had to retrain myself how to think. To reframe what you’ve done naturally for 35 years is not easy. It takes a concerted effort. Do I get up every morning and think, I have to be careful of my depression and anxiety? No, I’m not at that point now. When I feel anxious, I think what is it? is it situational? I recognize, ok these are feelings I need to process. To acknowledge them and say I’ll figure it out when I’m not anxious. Give yourself permission to come back to it. I’m not sure it comes naturally to me. It’s ongoing, and that’s ok too. It’s not bad to be forced to think about maturing.

We know that broken bones heal. You’re not in a cast for 25 years. So do I believe that God could heal my depression? Absolutely. No question about that. If I’m honest, would I like to? Yes, because it was very hard on Bonnie and the boys. I couldn’t even go to Wal-Mart, I was so anxious. But I learned a lot more about peace, about patience, that God’s Spirit is working in our lives. I’ve learned a lot so that labels don’t concern me nearly as much. So if someone says they have this disorder or whatever. They’re still God’s child. We can still walk along. So why do we have such an issue with a mental illness we can’t see? We all want to sign the cast but not too many want to sign an overloaded backpack of anxiety.

How did the church help you recover?

When I was off, our lead pastor took me out for lunch every other week, just to chat. It probably took us three months before we talked about anything related to church. We had a couple of sets of friends that included us as we were able, and supported Bonnie and the boys in particular. I was also under very close care of a medical doctor. That was a key piece, going weekly at least. And then my counselor. Those four were substantial. On the practical side, having the long-term disability offered by our conference helped substantially. That was not a painful process to apply for and we found that more than adequate. And then just taking the time.

When I went off, I was fairly quickly matched with a pastor who was ahead of me in this journey. We met several times, similar to what I’m doing now for two or three pastors. It isn’t always run through the denominational office but they really helped with that.

When I came back, I did a gradual return. For the first six weeks I came back with pretty well no responsibilities. I didn’t come back here running in the same place, but just came back to be here, even if I was just reading in the office.

I had offered my resignation because I couldn’t see myself continuing on. But they said no, you get better and then we talk about that. There was a clear understanding that I couldn’t make that kind of decision. That’s actually one of the signs of burnout that you just can’t make a decision. Were there some people who wondered? Probably, but I never felt that. And I’ve been here long enough now to show that it was a good process.

How else might churches / work colleagues support one another?

If you’re in a multi-staff environment, one of the key things from a church perspective is that you trust each other. Share what’s going on. Or if you’re in a smaller environment, find where you can share without fear. I think one of the biggest challenges is when you have to do something alone and you’re not sure, or you’re feeling inadequate or anxious.

I felt I needed to share part of my story publicly, because my role is public. I don’t think that most people need to. But I would hope they find one person who listens without judgement. I can argue that you need to talk to someone. But what worked for me won’t necessarily work for anyone else. And that’s okay too. But have supports in place especially for family members.

Your turn:
What supports would you recommend for family members?
Do you agree that there are systemic reasons in the church and ministry
that lead to burnout? How might these be addressed?

_____________________

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