Depression slays the idol of productivity

You might have seen that a book I edited on ministering in the midst of depression is shortly coming out. If you didn’t see that, you can check out what it’s about here. It is seven stories of different pastors, in different contexts, who all suffer from depressive illness. The book then pulls together the common themes, highlights the differences and tries to draw out the kind of things that tend to be helpful when you, or someone you know, if suffering from depression. It is also aiming to support pastors who are suffering with depression themselves, equipping their churches to help them through it and also be a help to those in congregations too. Naturally, I think everyone should pick up a copy.

But I think the book is particularly timely. Firstly because there is a tsunami of mental health issues about to hit the church. If there is one thing that most people can agree on regarding the recent lockdowns it is that this time has been a nightmare for people with mental health issues. In fact, I was talking to one pastor recently who has never had mental health issues before who said they, along with many others in ministry, have not found themselves to be nearly as robust as they thought.

But it is timely on another level too. On a personal level. Just as the marketing machine for this new book has started to swing into action, I have been suffering with my own depressive episode. As I have mentioned before, my depression is largely under control with occassional dips. The dips are rarely very severe and not usually long lasting. Sometimes they last a bit longer, but they aren’t typically that bad. But the one I am in at the moment is a severe one. To be classed as having a depressive episode you need to have at least 5 out of 9 of the DSM IV symptoms of depression for more than 2 weeks. I’ve had 8 of them pretty constantly for about 6-8 weeks now.

One of the major issues I find when I get a downer is a serious decrease in productivity. Everything just takes longer. I have to re-read things dozens of times before they sink in. My movement is slow. Concentration is difficult. All of this means that getting stuff done takes ages or just doesn’t really happen at all. The nature of depression, of course, is that it tends to come with a massive side order of guilt attached to everything. And little tends to make pastors feel guilty than not getting much done (at least, this pastor anyway).

One of my friends insists that was make an idol out of productivity in the pastorate much of the time. I think he is probably right. That’s not to say we should be lazy or shouldn’t try to get things done. It is to say that there are plenty of important bits of ministry that does not feel very productive. Sitting around with people doesn’t seem to get much done. But it is a vital part of discipleship. Going and having coffee, lunch or just hanging around with folks from church rarely feels like it is achieving very much, but it is important in ministry.

I am sure that is why so many of us tend to neglect that sort of thing. Sermons have to be written and other things with tangible results need to be done. There are meeting to prepare and run. There is strategy to set. There are a whole host of things that need to be done which come with tangible results. And we feel that those are the things we ought to be about if we are to be thought of as worth our crust.

The problem is that spiritual growth and formation isn’t really productive. At least, not in the sense that we tend to mean. Discipleship is slow, plodding work walking with people where the trajectory is not always in the same direction and the ‘product’ of our work totally intangible. Not only that, but those results are largely beyond us too. We are not the Spirit. We can show people the Bible, we can live our lives among our people as an example to them of Christian living, but at the end of the day, nothing we specifically do will make them grow. We cannot do what only the Spirit can do, even if the Spirit may well work through us in part as he does his work.

We do have a tendency, then, to measure our productivity in how much we are doing. We recognise we can’t do the Spirit’s work for him, but unless we are filling all our time with meetings of some sort or another – or preparing for those meetings – we don’t feel like we are doing all we should. But if covid-19 has taught us anything, whilst most of our usual activities aren’t on, the Lord has been happily saving people and working in them totally apart from anything we are doing. It is further evidence that he just doesn’t need us and he can get on perfectly well without us.

But it also speaks to our tendency to idolise our productivity. If we aren’t busy, we feel guilty. When we are busy, we feel virtuous. In many ways, my depression helps with that. I mean, it doesn’t inasmuch as the illness inevitably makes you feel guilty about everything, even thing which I know logically I have absolutely nothing to do with whatsoever. But it helps in that, despite how I may view productivity as a mark of faithfulness, the truth is I can’t be that productive. I can do some things, but not as much as I can normally. I can get stuff done, but it takes me absolutely ages now. And I still feel guilty about it, but it doesn’t matter, because there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t make the slowness disappear and the workload increase. It exposes the idolatry of busyness and forces me to slay it.

I wonder whether you have this same experience of idolising your productivity? I know it’s something I’ve got in me. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Lord has given me this depressive episode, so that I learn to trust less in my productivity and more on him? After all, he got on fine without me before and he can get on perfectly well with me barely running at half-speed now.