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"The Intersection of Faith, Leadership, Mental Health, and the Love for Music: Navigating the Connection"

Some years ago, there was a popular meme that read, “My brain is 80% song lyrics and 20% movie quotes.” That is quite true for me – especially with song lyrics. I grew up in a musical home. As a child, I quickly learned that music was a way for me to create and express my innermost thoughts and feelings.


Not only was music welcoming, inviting, and satisfyingly challenging, it provided me a quiet confidence as a young person who struggled to find acceptance and belonging.


Music was, I believe, my first love.


In my mid-twenties, I was diagnosed with Major Depression after struggling under the radar with this condition for years. At the time, I was a graduate student in music desperately trying to finish my degree. Those were formative years – inspiring, stimulating years that I would not trade for anything. But they were years made more challenging by my depression: an invisible disease characterized by intense loneliness and isolation.


The primary constant in my life during these difficult times was music. This remains true to this day. I am fortunate that my vocation as a church musician allows me to make music with other people on a weekly basis. Music and worship are ways in which we as a community of faith affirm to those living with mental illness that: you are a child of God. You are seen, you are heard, you are loved, and there is a place for you around God’s table.


Throughout my years of living with depression, there are pieces of music that have become what I call “heart songs.” Heart songs comfort me, calm my fears, bring me a measure of peace, and can even challenge me to look beyond my current circumstances.  


I would like to share a few of my heart songs with you, as they serve as a reflection of how I experience life, love, and faith through the lens of chronic depression.


John Mellencamp, Sometimes There’s God

As a lifelong Hoosier, I have been a fan of John Mellencamp’s music for as long as I can remember. But it was only recently that I heard Sometimes There’s God from his 2014 album, Plain Spoken.


Some people with mental illness experience an intensified, heightened sense of the presence of God when they are in the throes of an episode. It is quite the opposite for me. When I am mentally unwell, I not only convince myself that the people in my life have abandoned me, but I truly believe that God has deserted me. This way of thinking, of course, is a part of my illness.


The chorus of this song is a near-perfect description of how I feel as I move in and out of periods of depression and how my life of faith ebbs and flows alongside these episodes:


Sometimes there's God.

Sometimes there's not.

Sometimes there's God.

And sometimes, there's just not.


To my ears, this song acknowledges my perceived presence and absence of God in a straight-forward manner that is honest and refreshing. When I hear these words, I not only feel less alone; I’m reminded that while God may be silent sometimes, at other times, God is not.


Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz, I Go On, from MASS\

Bernstein’s MASS is a work of musical theatre. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, it is a massive work that combines elements of differing genres of music, ancient liturgical texts, and dance.


There is an aria sung by the Celebrant, or the priestly character, near the end of the work called I Go On. This deeply touching text describes the death of dreams, the crumbling of courage, spiritual confusion, and human frailty. But, despite the naming of these painful universal experiences of our humanness, that’s not where the song ends.


It goes on, just like all of us must do:


I go on right then.

I go on again.

I go on to say:

I will celebrate another day;

I go on.


If tomorrow tumbles and everything I love is gone,

I will face regret all my days, and yet,

I will still go on.


For those of us whose mental illness is accompanied by suicidal thoughts or actions, this song is one of encouragement and most importantly, hope. We may not want to; we may not even believe that we can, but sometimes, if we try; if we can hang on for just a few more moments; if we cling to the people that bring us some measure of support and understanding, we, too, can go on and find the will to celebrate another day.


I know this because I have experienced it myself many times.


Fred Rogers, Then Your Heart is Full of Love

Very few cultural figures are as dear to me as Fred Rogers. A minister, a theologian, and fierce advocate for young people to embrace their individuality, the messages contained in the songs of Mr. Rogers are more meaningful to me now as an adult than they ever were as a child.


One of my absolute favorites is a song called Then Your Heart is Full of Love:


When your heart can sing another's gladness,

Then your heart is full of love.

When your heart can cry another's sadness,

Then your heart is full of love.


When you live with a mental health challenge, it is easy to disappear into yourself. We can become dangerously overwhelmed and stuck in the web of our own suffering, often failing to see the suffering of others around us.


I know that my depression will likely be with me for the rest of my life; this song describes what I consider to be my lifelong, sacred task. It is the ultimate act of solidarity and love when we are able to enter into someone else’s suffering – especially when we do not feel well ourselves.

Dr. Hillary Doerries is the Director of Music Ministries at Christ the King Lutheran Church (ELCA) of South Bend, Indiana. She received her undergraduate and graduate musical training at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. In December 2022, she earned her Doctor of Pastoral Music (D.P.M.) degree through the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. In her position at Christ the King, Dr. Doerries finds the most joy when she is engaging in ministry with others. She is excited for CtK’s blossoming mental health ministry and looks forward to helping others find hope and healing through music & worship, support groups, and other ministries of care.

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