Q&A with Jim Hawkins

Q&A with Jim Hawkins

Jim Hawkins entered pastoral ministry in 1976, serving in the United States and in East Africa. In 2010 he was licensed in Indiana as a marriage and family therapist. He is now in private practice at the Christian Counseling Center of Madison County in Anderson, Indiana. One of his specialties is providing counseling and pastoral care for pastors and missionaries and their families. Jim has been married for 43 years to MaryAnn; they have two adult children and four grandchildren.

Q: You became a marriage and family therapist after more than 30 years as a pastor. What have you learned as a counselor that has helped you make sense of the depression you experienced during your pastoral ministry? 01

First, we tend to think of depression as a feeling. But really, most of the time depression is a lack of feeling, or a resistance to a deep experience of grief, anger, pain, disappointment or other dark emotions. It’s an absence of feeling. The problem is that positive emotions like joy, peace and the sense of connectedness we call love all come from the same part of the brain as negative emotions. When we avoid feeling the dark stuff, we cut ourselves off from emotions that bring light to our lives, including the feelings of transcendence and communion that are our inward experience of God. So, recovering from depression is not about convincing ourselves to feel better, but rather learning to “feel all the feels,” as they say on the Internet.

Second, when we’re depressed we want to be alone, which is about the worst thing we can do. We think, I’m bad company. I’m too tired. I don’t have the energy to be around people. But, as I know from personal experience, withdrawing exacerbates the loneliness, emptiness and hopelessness that are at the core of depression. If we want to heal, solitude is counterproductive. Relationships are the lifeline that keeps us from getting sucked down the drain of despair.

Third, understanding the genetic component of mental illness has been incredibly helpful. I was born predisposed to depression, thanks to my parents and their parents before them. I came by it honestly! And learning that freed me from feeling I was to blame for a character flaw called “depression,” lifting the burden of shame so the real work could begin. Freedom from shame releases us to do the hard, good work of healing.

Q: Are there features of church ministry that make mental illness a unique challenge for pastors? 02

Two things come to mind. I was born in 1953 into a pastor’s home and from early on I understood that pastors aren’t supposed to make close friends with anyone in the congregation— because pastors, like parents, can’t play favorites.

When I began my own ministry in 1976, this assumption was so ingrained that I didn’t even know it existed. But it didn’t take long before I had plenty of opportunities to reevaluate—and I concluded it’s ridiculous. God created us for relationships. Our minds and emotions are healthiest when we maintain strong attachments to people with whom we can be open, honest and vulnerable. That’s not playing favorites. That’s being fully alive.

The second thing is this longstanding, theologically distorted idea that if you just pray more, or get in the Word more, you can magically heal your emotional wounds. There is still, even to this day, spiritual stigma attached to mental illness, as though psychological pain is a symptom of spiritual failure. Yet our history is littered with saints who struggled with emotional darkness. Mother Teresa. Saint John of the Cross. The prophet Jeremiah. The writers of the Imprecatory Psalms had anger issues, yet their rage is part of our Holy Scriptures.

We can only go as deep into communion with God as we are willing to uncover, experience and surrender the darker emotions that come with being human. If ministry is standing in the way of that, it has become an obstacle between God and the person called to lead God’s people—and obviously that’s not God’s intention for the Church. We have to find a different way to do ministry.

Q: How would you like to see the church change to be a place where honesty really is the best policy? 03

Through my counseling degree program, I became uneasy with the church’s generally accepted definition of addiction as a moral failure. Addiction—whether to a substance or a behavior—is a misguided attempt at self-healing. The absence of secure, reliable relational attachments leaves a person feeling just … crappy. (Can I say that?) And compulsive behaviors like using porn, drinking heavily, overeating, cutting, whatever it is, are an effort to not feel so terrible—or, in the case of those whose emotions have shut down completely, an effort to feel anything. This understanding of addiction is the reason I’m such a supporter of 12-step programs. I think real and lasting recovery is about relationships—that is, attachments—that a person can form in a good 12-step group.

Why on earth isn’t this how we do church? The family of God should be the place where we can expect to find people like us—honest about our brokenness, hopeful for restoration—who trust the communion of saints and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit even on our darkest days. If we can find a way to do church like that, pastors will be first in line.

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