One day early in my pastoral career, I was out visiting people. I believe a pastor needs to spend time with people on a regular basis–it is hard to do effective ministry without a basic knowledge of what makes people tick. This particular day saw me visiting people who were dealing with grief.
As a pastor, I have a informal schedule of visits that I make after a death to keep an eye on people and be able to provide help when and if they need it. There are frequent visits right after the loss, less frequent ones as time progresses and then follow up ones later on. This particular day, the informal schedule resulted in a three visits to people at different stages of their process.
As the afternoon progressed, I was feeling more and more tired–the coffee and cookies I was offered during the visits wasn’t doing much to overcome the fatigue. I was getting more and more tired but I had more visits to do. The temptation was to push through and hope that the next cup of coffee at the next visit would make a difference.
But after the third visit, I made a decision. At the time, I was taking a course dealing with depression and I realized that I was slipping into a depression state, something I am prone to. While I can and do get depressed because of a variety of reasons, my depression that day didn’t come from inside me–I was actually picking up and internalizing the depression of the people I was visiting. Grief and depression often hang out in the same place.
My decision was to recognize that I was in danger of slipping into a deeper depression of my own as a result of the visits I was making. I could continue working and let the depression come or I could do something that would help me avoid the depression. This isn’t an uncommon decision for me to have to make and a lot of times, I make the wrong one.
That particular day, it would have been easy to keep going and allow the depression to develop. I had other people to see, other things to do. It was also snowing and windy and if I didn’t see the people I needed to see, it might be a while before I could visit again because of the snow. But in spite of all that, I decided that I needed to nip the depression in the bud. I went home, changed my clothes and went cross-country skiing on the marsh in the blizzard.
Some might accuse me of skipping ministry to go have fun. But I think I was engaged in some very important ministry when I was skiing on the marsh. I was ministering to myself. That is a ministry that many of us never learn how to do. We become so focused on helping others, identifying and ministering to the needs of others, giving of ourselves to help others that we push ourselves and our own needs so far into the background that we get lost.
We are often taught as believers that this is the goal–to make ourselves less and less important. And while there is a long history of this self-denial being associated with “good” believers, it is neither healthy nor particularly valuable spiritually. While we are to have a strong focus on ministering to others, we are also required by our faith to minister to ourselves.
There are many possible Scriptures that back this up but one of the clearest and most pointed comes from Matthew 22.39, where Jesus tells us the second great commandment is “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” (NIV) I think we miss the point of these words. Ultimately, Jesus is making it clear that a healthy love for others can only grow out of a healthy love of self.
If I as a pastor had encountered someone on the verge of a depression, I would have counselled them to follow the path that would help them deal with the depression and avoid the path that would deepen the depression. Doing that would be an appropriate expression of loving my neighbour. And if that is a good expression of loving my neighbour, it is also an appropriate expression of loving myself–what is good for my neighbour is also good for me.
May the peace of God be with you.