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Confessions of a Pastor who Wrestles with Anxiety

Portrait of Pastor carry a babyBy Jordan Stoyanoff, as told to Hannah Go

I started my career as a young, zealous pastor who wanted to change the world. I wanted to do everything I could for God. But, by the second year of ministry I was battling depression and anxiety.

Every day, I felt like there wasn’t enough time to meet the demands of my perceived reality. The to-do list kept growing, and each criticism stung. I couldn’t think clearly, and I would get frustrated with the smallest things.

pastor is feeling exhausted and working until late night

I intensely felt the weight of the world, along with all the expectations (both others’ and my own) on me. I thought about how God had given me these young people to care for, and one day I would have to give account to God for how I led and shepherded them. It was people’s eternities we were dealing with.

These expectations pulled me down like dead weights. I soon became burnt out and I lost all hope. I couldn’t imagine things ever getting better. The mental anguish became so great that I felt like the only way out was to end it all and be with Jesus.

This realisation came as a shock to me because I consider myself a stoic person by nature, so the emotional breakdowns that were happening felt strange and uncomfortable. 

It wasn’t too hard to think that I needed a holiday, since I felt so worn out. I couldn’t regulate my emotions, and I felt unstable and erratic. I thought a break might help—to stop and reassess and plan how to deal with all of it. I needed to figure out how I was going to survive in the youth ministry, to not become another statistic of youth pastors that did not last in ministry. So I took leave as advised by one of my mentors, and the people around me seemed to understand that. 

But coming back from just one week of leave was clearly not enough, and I knew that. Yet I was expected to just dive back into work, in what continued to be a challenging work environment. Although there was a follow-up session of sorts, it didn’t address the real issues. No one was there to validate the issues and emotions I had. I remained unheard, and had to internalise these issues as my own problems to fix. 

All of this made me question who I believed God had called me to be. It made me doubt my personal convictions about the ministry. At one point, it made me think that I had just made it all up in my head.

Being a pastor, I knew that I had a “good”—intellectual—understanding of who God is and who God says I am. But what I discovered later was that I didn’t understand myself very well and, therefore, I couldn’t apply the truth of who God says I am to myself. I knew my circumstances were challenging, but I thought I was strong enough to not be affected. I didn’t realise how the world around me was impacting me, and how it had produced some dysfunctional things—negative thought patterns in me.

Pastor going for counselling and finally talks about his problemHow counselling helped in my struggles  

One night, I was at breaking point. The weight of the expectations upon me became all too much—it crushed me. I was overwhelmed by hopelessness as I believed I was completely inadequate for what was before me. I ended up on the couch, curled up in a ball; I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t do anything. This made me realise I wasn’t in a good place and I needed to get help.

That night, on the direction of one of my pastors, I went to a GP, who put me on a mental health plan, gave me medication and told me to consult a psychologist. 

Looking back, it wasn’t good that the GP had put me on medication straight away. Sometimes medication can be God’s grace to help us deal with our problems, but it is never the final answer. I believe many GPs are too quick to prescribe antidepressants when the patient has not even tried psychotherapy yet. After nine months of medication, I went off it because I was making a lot of progress with the therapist by then.

I decided to look for a Christian counsellor because I knew that at its core, my problem was spiritual. I needed Jesus to transform my heart and mind, and I felt like a secular counsellor would simply deal with the symptoms of a deeper issue. I needed to understand myself the way God sees me. I needed to work on finding my identity in Christ and not in my ministry successes or failures. I needed a fellow Christian to help me do that.

Another thing that helped (in the years leading up to my marriage) was learning how to care for someone who had her own experience of depression and anxiety—my wife.A portrait of Pastor and his wife

Because I had journeyed with my wife before through some of the challenges she faced, I understood that it was okay to see a counsellor. Knowing that I don’t have to be perfect—that I can’t be perfect, and that’s okay—and having seen what my wife went through gave me the courage to seek help for myself, even though it was still a shock to me because I didn’t think it was in my personality to do so. While all of this was going on, I remained in that pastoral role for a couple more years. 

Going for counselling was the most important thing, and it was the biggest help I got from my mental health journey. First, it was a clear safe space because of the confidentiality it required. From there, I began to understand how the issues I faced related to me and my identity, particularly how I found my identity in what I did. I had beliefs about who I was, how the world was, and who God is—and some of these beliefs did not line up with the perspective Jesus had on the situation. My perspectives on reality were not true, good, and in line with what Jesus says about me. I needed to let Jesus expose the lies that I had consciously and unconsciously believed. I needed to trust the truth of what Jesus says over what I think and feel.

Counselling helped me unpack that. I also got to learn some Christian cognitive behavioural therapy tools that helped me understand what was going on in my mind, why I did what I did, so that I could respond effectively to these thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, and unlearn the un-truths I had believed.

Before this, I had not realised how my faith integrated with my mental health. I didn’t understand at all how my identity in Jesus connected to that issue. It’s so important to know who we are in Christ.

Pastor embrace the "anxiety-self" and recovery from his anxietyThe recovery from burnout 

Recovering from the burnout was a long process, but I persevered in the pastoral position for a few more years until God said it was time to move on. It took another two years before I was able to step back into pastoral ministry and be where I am now. It’s absolutely God’s grace.

There are still moments when I see dysfunction in myself, whether it’s lacking compassion, or reacting out of character, or struggling to be still. And that forces me to stop and think, what is the underlying belief here? How can I align myself to God’s truth about the situation?

One thing I have since learned about facing mental health issues within the church is that there is not enough awareness about mental health from a Christian perspective. Some people get so weighed down by other people’s mental health struggles they treat it as if it’s contagious, and that turns into fear when someone with depression decides to open up. This explains the walls that some people experience in church—not being able to talk about what they’re going through, and not having anyone to validate their experience. 

On the other hand, I’ve also seen how people can be so empathetic and compassionate towards those who are struggling that they end up internalising the experiences that aren’t theirs—which is also not good. In my case, I realised it was important not to get a saviour complex and believe that it’s all up to me. I must do what I can to help but I also must trust that ultimately, God is caring for them.

At the end of the day, there’s only so much we can do for someone. We can’t force them to see a doctor or seek counselling, and that’s where personal responsibility comes in. Ultimately, the journey towards healing is between that person and Jesus. For us as companions, our role is to journey with the person, not as a saviour or a healthcare professional, but as a friend.A family portrait of Pastor

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