In 2001 I was diagnosed with depression. My wife and I had served for eight years as missionaries at Echo Ranch Bible Camp in Juneau, Alaska. The winter days were long. The summer days were filled with clouds and rain. And ministry was at times all those same things—long, cloudy, rainy.
I was sad and suicidal. People had become a burden rather than a joy. My medical doctor said that I scored very well on the depression test—for all the wrong reasons. Prozac, a change of scenery and stepping out of ministry seemed like a ray of hope. The Christian counselor I started seeing helped me process the hurt, confusion and disappointment of burning out in ministry.
Two years later, the Lord called me into ministry as a youth pastor at Hesston (Kan.) MB Church (HMBC). It was not the location we had expected but being a youth pastor was the dream job I had always wanted. Being a youth pastor was everything I had hoped it would be and more. I loved the students. I loved Wednesday nights. I loved the youth leaders. I loved the Southern District Youth Conference (SDYC). I loved the youth pastors I got to team up with in the Southern District. I loved being a youth pastor.
But the depression was still there. It would raise its ugly head when I did not get enough sleep and when I did not get to eat (“hangry!”). But most often it was there when I was with my family and no one else was around. My emotions tormented me. I was impatient, angry, selfish and many times unbearable to be around. I knew that being an emotional powder keg was harmful to my family, so I would disconnect and separate myself from everyone to protect them and soothe me.
Praise the Lord I had support around me. God gave me a good friend and doctor in Dr. Jay, a physician’s assistant that I referred to as “doctor.” He listened and helped me cope. I switched to the antidepressant Effexor, which allowed me to feel a little more of the highs and lows of life rather than the flatline that came with Prozac. Jay also connected me to Walt, a great pastor, counselor and mentor in Hesston. Walt helped me organize the pain, frustrations and joys of ministry.
When our lead pastor left, God invited me to apply for that role. I loved working with the youth, but I felt God saying there was something more. Looking back, if I would have known how hard it was going to be as lead pastor, I would never have switched roles. As all (most?) pastors do, I now started taking Mondays off. Mondays were especially painful. The depression was most intense then. When my wife, a teacher, and children had time off from school for holidays or the summer, I hated trying to manage all the pain and still treat my family well on Mondays.
I mentioned this to a lady in my church. One day she sent me a link to an article, “Why Mondays Suck,” written by a pastor. Yes! The article did not solve the emotions I felt, but at least I had proof that I was normal.
Then four years ago (2017), some guys from my church invited me to Men’s Encounter, a weekend retreat for men that is not connected to any one denomination. I had seen the impact previous Encounters had made on them. I was questioning my call—either I needed a new church, or I needed to go back to youth ministry. Men’s Encounter weekend was good. The final session focused on the filling of the Spirit. As I listened to their teaching, all the theological training from my educational study screamed, “You’re a Christian! You have the Holy Spirit! Why would you need to ask Jesus to fill you with the Holy Spirit?”
As a Christian, why would I need to ask Jesus to fill me with the Holy Spirit? That question is what caused me to go forward. Why ask for more of the Spirit? Because I was done. Because I was desperate. Because I knew I could not continue striving in my own strength to be a pastor. I hoped, I needed the filling of the Spirit to maybe, just maybe, be true. They anointed my head with oil. They laid hands on me as I prayed for the filling of the Spirit. Nothing happened. I went home disappointed but ready to give ministry at Hesston MB Church one more go. I had a sabbatical coming up. Maybe what I needed was to get away and get some rest.
One year later (July 2018), as my sabbatical was coming to a close, I attended the USMB National Convention in Utah. At a morning prayer meeting, Andy Owen prophesied over me that God was going to give me the key to unlock the chains in my life and the life of my church. Bob Pankratz followed Andy by declaring that I would weep for my church.
A month later, as I was in the middle of a three-day fast, the Lord dealt with my anger and bitterness from being sexually abused as a child. The next day when I woke up, I was experiencing tingling down my legs, warmth in my lower back and incredible joy in my heart. A week later, I was headed back to my second Men’s Encounter. This time a speaker shared about closing the door to depression in life. I perked up. I had so much pain from depression.
Again, I asked myself, what if it is true? Could I be free of it all? I went forward. They asked why I came up. I said, “That guy said God might want to heal me from depression.” We prayed together that the Spirit would reveal if there was anything that had a stronghold in my life. As I prayed, an inappropriate relationship from my junior high years came to mind. I had promised myself that I would never tell anyone anything about it—ever. I heard, “No! You can’t say it out loud.” I tried three times but could not form the words. Finally, it all came tumbling out.
Then the men gathered around me asked, “What’s the lie you believe?”
Lie? I do not believe lies! But as I prayed, God brought to my mind a time when I was asked as a kid if I was adopted since I did not look good enough to be in my family. I remember asking my father if I was adopted. My father assured me that he was there when I was born. But what I believed was that I was not good enough. The shame and guilt of my secret sin on top of it all sealed the deal—I was not worthy of my family’s or God’s love.
That night as I slept, God came to me in a dream. He put his hand on my forehead and said, “What would you have me do for you?”
I asked him to clean all the junk (past sin, lust, porn, lies, etc.) out of my mind. I felt a warm sensation move from the right side of my forehead across to the left. I saw a bright light go from my eye, through my optic nerve, to my brain. God then showed me a large, clean, shiny storage room.
He said, “Now let’s fill this with what brings me honor and glory.”
God then gave me three things: a desire for his Word, a desire to obey his Word, and freedom from depression.
When I got to breakfast, I told the guy I had prayed with the night before about my dream. I said I was done taking my daily dose of antidepressant. He told me to talk to my doctor first (great advice). I did call my doctor, but I told Dr. Jay as well, “If God says I’m free from depression, I believe him.”
That was September 9, 2018. It was gone. It is gone.
Since then, I have seen, heard and especially felt the Holy Spirit move in my life in ways that are truly beyond anything I could ask or imagine. He really does fill us when we ask him. He really does empower and heal. And the more I surrender to him, the more he fills me.
This Monday morning, I scrambled eggs, made bacon and ate breakfast with my wife. As I sat across from Sally, tears welled up in my eyes. The pain and aches are gone. The wound is healed. He did it. Mondays no longer suck.
Brad Burkholder received an undergraduate degree from Grace University in Omaha, Nebraska, and is currently working on a masters of theological studies from Dallas Baptist University. He and his wife, Sally, have been married for 28 years and have two adult children. Before coming to Hesston, Brad and Sally served as missionaries with Avant in Juneau, Alaska, at Echo Ranch Bible Camp.
I read your article for the first time online yesterday. Actually, I have read it twice. Thank you, Brad, for your willingness to go deep when sharing your story of pain and victory. As a former missionary and pastor I could easily identify with your symptoms, the contributing causes of your depression, and to a certain degree, the steps leading to greater emotional healing.
In the 1990s I probably should have admitted myself to a mental health facility or sought professional help while serving in Spain, but I did not. I guess I was dealing with “stigma” issues. But I did seek pastoral help and informed myself about depression.
I can remember thinking one day years later after laughing out loud about something, “This is the first time I have laughed in years!” God was healing me.
I can also remember attending a retreat near Barcelona for “busted-up missionaries” (my term). It was well attended. As Mary and I sat with our missionary colleagues circling us to pray for us, I felt a hand on my shoulder and immediately broke out crying like a baby for 7-8 minutes. I was so embarrassed but I could not stop. Deep emotional relief followed. God was healing me.
Yes, the Holy Spirit is all about healing us through and through. Your testimony, as well as the testimony of many previous CL contributors, illustrates this so well.
For healing to happen we fellow strugglers, in the words of Paul Young, an MK, former pastor and author of the best-seller “The Shack,” and who once had to deal with his own deep emotional pain and suicidal ideations, only need to cry out to God and a few caring others and say, “Can you help me?”
The Holy Spirit will take it from there!