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It happened every Monday morning. I would get up, take my kids to school, swing by my favorite breakfast stop for a cup of coffee, and then head to my office at church. As I walked in, I would look up at the constant reminder of my shortcomings. There was a wooden plaque up on the wall just to the left of my office in the church lobby. Oh, that wooden plaque. It was oak, had brass letter and number holders, and removable black and white letters and numbers. Somewhere a craftsman named Azazel, at least that is what I imagined his name is, manufactured this source of my consternation. In bright white letters it told me how many people we had this week, and how many we had last week. It told me how much the offering was this week, and how much the offering was last week. Or, as I read it, this is how much you stink this week, and this is how much you stunk last week. The only thing this holy jumbotron did not have was a giant testamints advertisement across the top. Every time I would look at it I would feel like a total failure. So, to make myself feel better, I would log into Facebook see how my friends who were pastors were doing. I would read post after post of the thousands of people who had come to know Christ. How they were having to hire a hostess to keep track of all the people they were baptizing. It was the same story replayed every Monday in my office. After about an hour I was totally defeated. I was done. I would leave my office feeling like I had nothing to offer. I felt like my church could do so much better than a pastor who was struggling to bring in new members. They could do so much better than a pastor who was trying to find creative ways to cut cost’s, so we could meet our monthly obligation.
The truth is that my struggle was much deeper than just that sign. I suffer from insecurity. Most of my life I have had this feeling that I am not good enough. This feeling has led me to times of depression, and more than a healthy share of self-loathing, and self-doubt. There have been days where I couldn’t even stand the sight of myself in the mirror. That may sound harsh, but this is real talk here. That is what much of my childhood was like. I grew up with a condition called Nystagmus. Nystagmus is a condition with your eyes that causes involuntary eye movements. My condition is minor but, it affected somethings, like my handwriting, negatively. I had an Elementary School teacher who used to call me up in front of class, have me write on the board, and then make fun of my handwriting. It has caused me a great deal of insecurity over the years. This insecurity, has led me to times of depression. This is harder to come to grips with when you are ministering in a church. I am supposed to be the spiritual leader, but some days I still felt like that 4th grade kid who didn’t turn his homework in because he was afraid of being made fun of. Over the years I have fought the battle against crippling doubt and fear, some days I have won, some days I have lost. Going through it is like being lost in a maze. You can’t find your way out, but you don’t want anyone else to know that you are struggling to find your way out.
I tried to deal with it the best that I could. I had heard and viewed comments that convinced me that I just needed to be more positive, to pray more. I had been convinced that maybe there was sin in my life. I was told God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, so toughen up and get through it. It sure felt like I couldn’t handle much more. I prayed, I tried positive affirmations. I self-examined. The more I tried to fix it, the more helpless I felt. Don’t get me wrong, I had good days as well, but no matter what happened, the fear and insecurity always seemed to creep back and sink it’s claws into me. It is a vicious cycle of fear, insecurity, doubt, and faulty comparisons. It reached the point that I had such little confidence that I thought the church needed someone other than me and I stepped down. It had reached the point that I thought I was incapable of leading a church. I took a step back. I felt like I was beaten, like I had nothing left to offer.
That was a very rough time for me personally. In the time that I was out of the pastorate I was able to reflect on the journey, and in the years that have followed I have learned several things that have helped me win more battles. First, don’t get caught in the trap of comparison. As a pastor I wanted to be like Peter in Acts chapter 2. He spoke the word of God, and thousands responded. I saw so many of the people that I went to college with telling similar stories, why wasn’t that happening to me? The problem is that most people don’t get to be Peter in Acts chapter 2. God also called Jeremiah to deliver a message that people would not like. “Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do Not be threatened by them.” (Jeremiah 1:17) I needed to be reminded that success, according to God, is obeying Him, not how people respond. Keep in mind, In Acts chapter 2, thousands responded to the gospel. In Acts chapter 4 it got them thrown in jail. I am not saying that we should not study, prepare, and prayerfully improve the craft that God has called us to. That should go without saying. We should strive for excellence in all that we do. However, it is not our job to convict, and call people. The Holy Spirit does the calling and convicting. Heaven would be a lonely place if salvation were dependent on the ability of man. Not only were my comparisons based on the wrong idea of what my job actually was, but they were also based on evidence that was unverified. I am reminded of what Billy Hannah told me once when I was struggling with this and talking to him about it. He told me “Aaron, some preachers lie.” That blew my mind. I was comparing myself to something I had no real proof was true. Even if it was true, it did not change what I was called to do. I needed to learn to look at it as though God had put me where I was at, at that precise moment, to deliver the word that He had given me. If I did the best I could, then I could hold me head high regardless of how well it was received.
Secondly, it is ok that you need help. I am the type of person who likes to fix my own problems. The issue was I had run into something that I couldn’t fix, no matter how hard I tried. God is with me. I can turn to Him any time I feel anxiety, or I am depressed. He, in His infinite wisdom has given me a network of people who know exactly what I am going through. I found someone I can sound off to, who understands what it is like to feel the way that I do sometimes. Talking to someone helps. It is not good for anyone to keep something like that bottled up inside. If that is not enough, there is no shame in seeking professional help. Trying to cope internally with anxiety and depression is a doomed proposition
Third, open up about your struggle with the people you care about most. I tried to be “strong” and not burden my wife with what was bothering me. I didn’t want her to think that I was weak. You can only keep up that façade for so long. Those closest to you know when something is not right. Be open and honest with them. They will understand and try to help you.
Last, if you are a member of a church that has one of those plaques constructed by Azazel, do yourself, your church, and your pastor a favor, take it into the church parking lot and set it on fire. I know Sister Martha’s Great Aunt’s Second Cousin’s Husband’s first Wife’s step Dad donated it to the church in 1946, and it has been plastered to that wall since then. Grab a crowbar, rip it off the wall, and burn it in the parking lot. Then you will at least have something useful, a fire. The amount of people, or money that was brought in last year, last month, or last week is in the past. I can only control what I have in front of me, and what I do in the future. I spent so much time worrying about who wasn’t there, or what the offering was that I lost track of the most important thing, ministering to the people who are right in front of me.
Just remember, if you are like me and have bouts with anxiety or depression, you are not alone. Many people in the ministry battle this. Talk about it with someone you can count on. Get help if you need it. Stay close to and lean on those you care about most.