Can a servant leader experience depression? Consider David’s writing in Psalm 88.
“LORD, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. 2 May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. 3 I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. 4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. 5 I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. 6 You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. 7 Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. 8 You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; 9 my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you” (Psalm 88:1-9).
It is impossible to read this Psalm and not realize that David is in a very dark place. David, the “man after God’s own heart” is depressed! Depression is a state of sadness or grief that continues over time and impacts emotions, thinking and often actions. It is a very complex emotion because it can result from spiritual issues, painful life events, or other causes. But it can also be the result of chemical imbalances in the physical body which can be treated with medicine.
Servant leaders, as anyone else, can experience depression either temporarily or long-term. Servant leaders learn from David how to lead with depression.
Depression should be recognized. David admits that he is “in the darkest depths.” He feels like he will die soon and mentions his thoughts about the grave in several places. He feels that he has no friends and that even God is against him: “Your wrath lies heavily on me.” He cannot see a way out. This is one of the few psalms that does not end with a word of hope or a change of perspective.
Servant leaders learn to recognize when they experience depression. In themselves and others they learn to identify the signs of ongoing despair, a sense of hopelessness or worthlessness, and a fixation on death or suicidal thoughts.
Depression should be revealed. As with the other emotions David expressed, he is not afraid to reveal the depths of his despair as he cries out to God in this Psalm. But today, where can a leader, or even a follower, stand and say as David did, “I am overwhelmed with troubles”?
Depression is perhaps the most difficult of all emotions to reveal because of the stigma and shame usually associated with depression or other mental illnesses. The church, which should be the safest place for people who struggle, is often the first to condemn those who feel depressed. But depression can lead to suicide when it is not handled well and the worst thing a leader can do is to refuse to share it with God and others.
Servant leaders learn to reveal depression. They talk to God and with others revealing how they feel. They refuse to hide their condition.
Depression should be restrained. David, in this psalm, did not rise out of his depression and lead. But we know from his life story that he was able to restrain his depression so that it did not define his leadership.
Servant leaders also learn to not allow depression to become the controlling emotion of their leadership. When depression comes from chemical imbalances, servant leaders seek medical help and prayer as they would for any other sickness. If necessary, they step away from their leadership role for a time to find help and healing. And with God’s grace, they find ways to live and lead victoriously even with the heaviness of depression. There is hope for those who lead with depression!
If you, or someone you know, faces an ongoing battle with depression, I encourage you to learn more than space allows here. My wife’s story* is a good place to start.
Until next time, yours on the journey,
For further reflection and discussion:
- How does my culture view depression? In what ways has this impacted the way I see this emotion? How does the life of David challenge my views?
- Am I aware of the signs of depression in my own life or in those I serve?
- When in my life have I experienced depression? Was I able to recognize it at the time? Later?
- In what way can I reveal depression appropriately? Are there inappropriate ways of revealing my depression?
- How can I restrain my depression so that it does not control my leadership?
- Among those I serve, who struggles with depression? How do I respond to them as a leader? How aware am I of their struggle? Have I encouraged them to seek professional help?
*The emotion of depression is one that I have not struggled with personally, but it has touched my life deeply in walking closely with my wife, Loice, who has struggled with depression and anxiety for over 20 years. She has courageously refused to give in to the darkness and through prayer, medical help, and the support of many around her, continues to live and lead victoriously even with depression. She speaks openly on mental health and wrote a book about her journey, Living Victoriously with Anxiety and Depression.
We cannot, in this short space, begin to explain the mental health issues surrounding depression. For information, I encourage you to visit http://kaywarren.com/mentalhealth/. This site was developed by Kay Warren. She and her husband Rick Warren had a son who committed suicide and through that pain they seek to help others who struggle.
Copyright, Global Disciples 2018.