First, know your limits before counseling a congregant with depression. If you are not a trained pastoral counselor or clinical therapist, be sure to consult a licensed and trained expert before providing care for congregants with depression. You should already have the information of a trained therapist as part of your professional care network. You can learn more about developing a professional care network in the 2016 ICTG General Ministry Resource Guide, available now for instant download to all ICTG Affiliates.
Second, know the context and lived experiences of your congregants with depression. Sometimes people who struggle with depression may not be at a place where they want or can receive help. I recall many days where I just wanted to be depressed. A limitation is that you do not have the ability to read minds, and you cannot be on call until the “right” moment. Three tools that have helped me to care for others experiencing depression are prayer, trust in God, and knowing my limits. I am human, I cannot intuit the needs and wants of others, and I am not a savior. I try to do what I can with what I have.
Third, find a helpful image of care for depression. In Robert Dykstra (2005) book, Images of Pastoral Care, he discusses how images can enable and empower care. On the other hand, it is possible to have images that are harmful to the practice of care. For example, depression as an obstacle produces performance-based pressures that can lead to shame. If I am unable to “overcome” the obstacle then I may experience failure, hopelessness, and helplessness. However, depression as a journey removes the pressure of performance and creates space for road bumps, roadblocks, and bad days.
Fourth, be curious. Take a stance of “unknowing” (Bidwell, 2004). This “avoids the misuse of power” because it can be harmful to enter the reality and/or experience of a congregant and presume to know what they are thinking, feeling, or need (p. 16, Bidwell, 2004). Instead, be curious, ask questions, and take a position of “learned ignorance.” This can create space for a congregant to begin to tell their story. As this happens, curiosity can help them to share, interpret, re-interpret, and re-tell their story.
Fifth, strong emotions are a part of the process and their experience. There may be an urge to try to “treat” or “quell” strong emotions when they arise, and it can be difficult to sit with someone while they are experiencing intense and sometimes tremendous suffering. As research suggests, encouraging others to suppress their thoughts or feelings can exacerbate suffering, and even reduce immune system functioning (Major & Gramzow, 1999; Petrie, Booth, & Pennebaker, 1998).
Humility and genuineness are crucial to the practice of care. Do not presume to know more than you do, and do not try to do for the other what is theirs to do. Instead, you are a
co-explorer in their journey and their process. Humbly accompany them through the various landscapes they will traverse. Deacon and Stephen Ministry trainings, for example, often include education in how to provide this kind of patient presence.
Sixth, create a hospitable culture, like, “It’s okay to not be okay”. For me, I was able to own my depression when I finally found a space and a place to “not be okay.” I was able to accept myself and begin to acknowledge and address the depression I had been experiencing.
Last, be yourself and be confident. “Half of therapy is just showing up,” my previous clinical supervisor used to say. For me, this took away the pressure I would put on myself to try to be a help, savior, or healer for someone else. Duncan, Miller, and Sparks (2004) wrote a book on The Heroic Client. By not taking yourself too seriously in the role and responsibility of care, it empowers and enables the client to be the hero of their own story or journey.
Follow the entire 5-part series here:
Tell Your Story and Create a Culture of Hope and Healing - Part I
Understanding What is Going On - Part II
Understanding Change - Part III
Demystifying Norms for Leadership and Sharing My Story - Part V