The Disease

Last week, while searching for articles on church health, I ran into an interesting post on the web. I didn’t catch the title at first, I just assumed it was about church health because that’s what I had searched for. However, the short excerpt shown by the search engine was describing a set of symptoms that seemed more personal than church-related:

– Are experiencing fatigue or decreased energy?
– Do you feel sad, anxious or “empty?”
– Do you have difficulty concentrating?
– Do you have a sense of being helpless, hopeless or worthless?
– Are you no longer interested in things you used to care about?
– Are you more irritable than you used to be?
– Are you overeating?

Sadly, I realized that I recognized most of these symptoms in our church, not primarily in individual members, but in the church as a whole organic unit. A body, THE body. When I clicked on the article and discovered what the topic I was shocked. You see, the article was about depression and if I recognized these symptoms in the body of Christ, it could mean that the church, MY church, could be experiencing something like clinical depression!

The Cause

According to the article, many factors may contribute to the onset of depression, including genetic characteristics, changes in hormone levels, certain medical illnesses, stress, grief, or substance abuse. Similar factors can predispose or even cause a church to develop a form of organizational depression.

Genetic characteristics are carried by DNA, and I wouldn’t be the first to refer to a church’s makeup as its DNA. It’s not hard to imagine that basic characteristics like doctrine, polity, location and demographics could make a church more prone to various depression-like symptoms.

In the human body, hormones serve as chemical messengers, controlling and coordinating activities throughout the entire body. Hormones regulate all important bodily functions and a malfunction in this system can cause many symptoms that are associated with depression. In the church, its leadership serves the same communicate, control and coordination purpose. It’s important to note that some hormonal imbalances are potentially life threatening and the same is true when church leadership fails to perform one of these basic functions. One example might be communication. Failure to communicate vision and purpose will absolutely cause depressive symptoms. The Bible even tells us this could be life-threatening – “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

Medical illness could be just that – members of the church becoming ill. Could this cause some of the symptoms associated with depression? Certainly. But it can be metaphorical “disease,” or even “dis-ease.” I don’t think I need to go into detail here about how things like heart disease, auto-immune disease (the body attacking itself), and obesity can be metaphorical conditions in the church.

The analogy would be clear as well for how stress, grief and other emotional shocks could lead to depression-like symptoms in church. Financial strain, the death of a pastor or well-loved member or fire or flood could easily launch a church into a depressive state.

And finally, let’s consider substance abuse as a metaphorical, if not actual, ill in the church. The misuse of something that was meant to maintain health in the church could easily cause all manner of negative symptoms. The same questions might arise as we consider this type of problem in the church as they would in dealing with addiction in an individual. What created the need for such behavior? Was it disease, bad choices, self-medication?

The Cure

We can’t put an entire congregation on anti-depressants. I guess we could wire the pews up from some group electro-shock therapy but something tells me that wouldn’t work either. Christian psychotherapy might be worth a try but that would be one HUGE group session. No, I don’t think we need to address the problem head-on. To be honest, even though I am writing this article, I don’t think we should dwell on the problem much more. Here’s why.

A wise, retired pastor friend of mine once hinted at the answer. He said, with an impish grin, “everyone is full of something.” Obviously, if you are full of hatred, you can’t also be full of love. If you are consumed with despair, you can’t be inspired by hope and if you are fixated on sorrow, you can never be surprised by joy. So I believe the solution to depression in the church, whether real or metaphorical, is to simply leave no room for it.

The poet David Whyte tells of a conversation with his mentor:

Mentor: David, the antidote to exhaustion is not rest.
Whyte: What do you mean the antidote to exhaustion is not rest?
Mentor: The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.

It’s true, everyone is full of something, and being completely filled with one thing leaves no room for the other. That’s why the greatest command is, well, the greatest. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” If our hearts, our souls and our minds are filled with the love of God, we have no desire and in fact no room for anything else. I submit that this is the cure-all, the panacea for the disease of church depression.

So finally, how do we keep from relapsing? What preventative advice would I give? It’s called “exercise.” We must “Love the Lord with all our strength,” that is, all of our effort.” Kind of gives a new meaning to “working out” our salvation, right? Busying ourselves with God’s work leaves little time for unhealthy habits to grow and it helps us develop spiritual stamina. So then, what exercise do I recommend? Put into practice the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This requires action not just sending out happy thoughts. Jesus told us that is better to give than to receive. This is not just a beautiful sentiment. Put into practice, it is the means to stave off “church depression” and all manner of spiritual ills.