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Can Church Planters Expereince Postpartum Depression?

Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth. – Mike Tyson

My wife is the rock in our family. She’s the emotionally stable one. I, on the other hand am not stable emotionally. When I’m feeling unhinged a simple talk with her screws me back to the wall. That’s why I wasn’t sure how to handle it when I woke up one day, just after our first son was born, to find my rock of a wife in a tearful, emotional, heap on the couch. I had a final exam that day for my last undergrad class. I told my wife, “I’m not going to go, it’s obvious you need me right now”. A gesture that I thought was caring and sensitive, but to her, the thought causing me to miss an exam was worse. It took me a few days to catch on to what was happening but my wife was experiencing a mild case of Postpartum Depression.

Mothers with postpartum depression experience feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety, and exhaustion that may make it difficult for them to complete daily care activities for themselves or for others.CDC study shows that about one 1 out of 10 women in the United States experience symptoms of PPD after giving birth. Within a few weeks everything was back to normal in my household but the experience made me look at all types of depression differently. (nih.gov)

I’ve noticed a sort of postpartum depression in church planters that affects more than 1 out of 10. Years 2-4 tend to be a really difficult on church planters. I had a case of church planter postpartum myself that nearly caused me to throw in the towel. My emotional roller coaster went something like this:

It started with…  

  • Eagerness – In the months leading up to our first worship service I couldn’t wait to get to the regular rhythms of church ministry. I was tired of talking about ministry, I just wanted to do it!

Which lead to…

  • Optimism – Our first service went great; my attendance expectations were met, and our people seemed joyful. A few even gave their lives to Christ. Everything in our ministry seemed to be track.

Which lead to…

  • Surprise – As the weeks passed our attendance numbers and our giving began to sag… a fact that caught me completely off guard. Furthermore, people were more difficult to lead than I anticipated and some people were even critical of my leadership (can you believe the nerve?!)

Which lead to…

  • Disorientation – Previously, every indicator I paid attention to confirmed (what I already believed) that my church was going to be great. I honestly hadn’t considered how I might respond if anything went wrong. I didn’t know what to do.

Which lead to…

  • Disbelief – I stuck my head in the sand and pretended the problems I was facing didn’t exist. I told others, “We’re doing great”. I was too prideful to seek help for the leadership and growth challenges the church was facing.

Which lead to…

  • Determination – When I finally admitted to myself that things weren’t going well I convinced myself that the problem could be solved by simply working harder. So, instead of addressing my own deficiencies as a leader I plowed through believing things would eventually get better – I just needed to work harder and sacrifice more.

Which lead to…

  • Frustration – Things didn’t get better. My weaknesses as a leader were haunting me at every turn. I was facing criticism from my team and began believing the things they were saying about my incompetence. I started to abuse myself inwardly while maintaining a “poker face” with partners and ministry friends.

Which lead to…

  • Dissatisfaction – before long I found myself unhappy and unmotivated in the basic work of church planting. Sharing the gospel, disciplining people, organizing events and meeting with leaders became laborism.

Which lead to…

  • Despair – The angst I was feeling seeped into my soul affecting spiritual affections. The desire to talk to God and to hear from him (desires that had been strong throughout my Christian life) started to weaken. My passion to see God glorified through my life and work all but disappeared.

Which lead to…

  • Remorse – I started regretting the fact that I attempted to start a church at all. I looked back on my initial zeal, and even my call to ministry, as as youthful naivety. I became cynical about the future viability of the church. I gave up on people and projects at the first sign of struggle and lost energy for new initiatives and new relationships.

Which lead to…

  • Escape – I started considering various ways of escape. Could I just quit, move and cut off ties with all of my previous acquaintances? Could I secretly look for a job and tell everyone the Lord had “Called me” away? Could I try to broker a merger with another church then quietly slip away, laying the church down gently? I could have found a way out without ruining my reputation and disappointing those I loved – I would have.

Which lead to…

  • Acceptance – I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger on any of those options so I just accepted my lot in life. I’ll be the pastor of a tiny, cash-strapped, dysfunctional, portable church forever. This is the price I’d pay for my inability to discern the will of God. I’d convince everyone that our church was small because I wanted it to be. “Large churches can’t disciple people, they are “man-centered” and “unhealthy”. That’s what I’d say.

Which lead to…

  • Rhythm – My cynicism started to crack and I started to see small signs of God’s continued work in my life and through our church. Things weren’t great but they weren’t terrible either. Instead of “striking out” in the missional batter’s box I starting getting a “piece of the ball” ever now and then.

Which lead to…

  • Hope – It felt like spring. I was excited about ministry again. I hardly noticed the shift but my wife and I were staying up late talking through ideas. We were redreaming old dreams – dream’s that had been on frozen in a block of despair for a long time.

Which lead to…

  • Contentment – Optimistic, yes. but no longer Naive. Eager but sober. Kind of mature. The future of our church seemed bright and the season of difficulty like a gift from a God.

So, why would I tell you this? What good could possible come from putting you in the sidecar of my emotional roller coaster? two things:

  1. For Church Planters – If you are a church planter and find yourself in any of my experience you should know that eventually the roller coaster pulls back into the station. Don’t give up. Remember, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Hebrews 12:6)
  2. For Those Who Support Planters – If you know a church planter, attend a church plant or support a church planter you should know that there’s probably a lot more going on “under the hood” of his life than he’s letting on. God is shaping him into the man he needs for the task ahead. Encourage him, be honest with him and be patient with him.

 

Church Planter Morale in Years 1-5

(Not based on research, just my observations) 

Comments(4)

  1. Reply
    Scott says

    How do you move from “acceptance“ to “rythymn”?

    • Reply
      Clint Clifton says

      Good question, I don’t think I did it consciously so I’m not sure I could tell you how to but at a minimum you’ll need to fight for fresh communication with Christ and look for
      evidence of progress around you.

  2. Reply
    Alex Brito says

    Really helpfull!

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