Depressed Pastors: The Church’s Dirty Little Secret
I. Why do Pastors Become Depressed
II. How Does a Depressed Pastor Affect the Church
III. Is Depression a Sin
Why Do Pastors Become Depressed
Pastors become depressed because of the unrealistic expectations heaped on them from loved ones, and the congregation they lead. Pastors are more likely to suffer from depression than the general population. According to a 2013 study by the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School, 11.1% of clergy reported having had a major depressive episode in the past year, compared to 5.5% of the general population. Those are just the ones honest enough to admit such a thing!
There are a number of reasons why Pastors may be more likely to suffer from depression. They are often under a great deal of stressful expectations from everyone around them. Further, we are expected to be perfect role models in our personal lives and ministry. Church leaders are also responsible for the spiritual well-being of the congregation, which is a heavy burden.
A further reason is that they may be less likely to reach out to someone for help. This comes from a false sense that God demands us to be “super" men/women. What God expects is obedience and this extends into “casting all our cares upon Him because He cares for us.”
Depression can have a significant impact on the life of the local Shepherd. It will lead to issues in our personal lives, ministry, and eventually physical health. It can also increase the risk of suicide. Suicidal thoughts are not as uncommon among clergy as one (1) may think. Elijah struggled with this as well.
Here are tips for clergy struggling with depression:
First, speak to the Lord God, and then someone you trust. This could be a non-ministry friend, Christian therapist, or clergy colleague. However, and especially with other “clergy”, there is no way I would ever trust one (1) to keep my confidence. My trust has been damaged by these people.
Seek professional and confidential outlets. There is no shame in seeking help for mental health problems. The shame comes from ignoring them as if they do not exist and will simply “clear themselves up”. I would avoid secular therapists understanding there are Christian counselors available.
Like Jesus, walk away from the crowds for time alone. Take care of yourself spiritually and physically (not that these are mutually exclusive). This includes prayer, “you time”, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly. A “dull sword” is good to no one, especially its bearer.
Find healthy ways to conduct ministry activities. Jesus was not “everything to everyone” so why are you? I guess, despite what Jesus said, “a servant can be greater than their master”, right?
Don't be afraid to say no. Brother Pastor, we both know God’s people will “bleed you dry”, and then complain there is no more blood to drain. (Let those who have an ear hear). They do not know what is best for themselves, so how can they know what is best for you (like telling them no when appropriate)? In love, I remind you to read 1st Timothy 3 and be reminded: ministry begins with you, your house, and then the church.
Take a Sabbatical. This is crucial and I am not simply speaking of “vacation”. Vacations are often about family and can be just as much, or more, than the things preachers are trying to flee.
In summary, because of the false expectation of “perfection”, depression sets in on God’s Messengers. Further, we should not suffer alone. Pray that the Lord opens the door for a trusting relationship and accountability partner.
How Does a Depressed Pastor Affect the Church
A depressed Pastor has an enormous affect on the church. The more depression sets in, and is not confronted biblically, the more we withdraw from leading God’s people. Jesus said: “He who is not with me is against me. If you are not gathering with me, you are scattering away from me.” This “scattering” begins in the spirit and results in God’s people being discouraged.
A depressed Preacher is always, without exception, less effective in ministry. It produces less enthusiasm, belief, and power. When this has had its way, we are less able to connect with the congregation and inspire others to be sold out for Jesus.
In some cases, depression may even lead to leaving the ministry altogether. Understanding that at least 8/10 preachers are “self-sent”, it is not them I am concerned about leaving. My prayer is, and has been: “Lord God, expose fake preachers and run them out of ministry that your people may be led by the 2/10 you truly sent.”
We need real Pastors in ministry because the “self-sent” often do not even care enough to become depressed. They are blissfully ignorant about the damage they cause and even more of the consequences. When true Shepherds quit, this is a devastating blow to the congregation.
Here are seven (7) ways a depressed Pastor affects the congregation:
1. Loss of earnest prayer. Our prayers must be heartfelt and earnest toward the Lord our God! Depression takes the focus off the Lord. However, and like King David, keep the conversations with Him going! ! Silence, in the face of demonic attack, is life threatening in the most literal sense.
2. Dialing down of zeal. One of my favorite texts is: “Oh Lord, the ZEAL for thine house hath eaten me up”. As a Preacher, with the call into the more confrontational and prophetic style of presentation, this is close to my heart. However, depression is both an energy zapper and certainly dulls the spirit.
3. Scattered focus. Leading God’s people is a strenuous task because, frankly, very few He truly called (not the self-sent) believe we should even be alive, let alone leading God's people. When this is coupled with a struggling prayer life, loss of zeal, and intermittent focus, the situation becomes dangerous for all.
4. Spreads contagion of discouragement. When something is “off” with church leadership, Pastors, Deacons, Trustees, etc., it is very noticeable. When we have a headache, the rest of the body hurts and it effects how we function in general.
5. Loss of trust. The dirty little secret is there is mental anguish going on in the House of God. In fact, the night of Jesus’s arrest, he suffered the same thing! Please read some of our articles on mental illness in church. These unrighteous expectation of "perfection" leads to loss of trust when they are not “lived up to”. I quickly point the finger at “rogue” church leaders (including myself) when we are guilty of sin. However, and in this case, God’s people are the guilty party.
6. Less effective teaching. Loss of focus, less earnest prayer, loss of trust and other issues lead to less effective Preaching/Teaching. Ultimately, this is the result of leadership “staying down too long”. Spiritually trusting relationships are delicate things which take years to build and only seconds to damage.
7. Potential loss of Pastorate. If there were personality based or other issues, a Pastor can find themselves unceremoniously removed from church leadership. Even in the best of times, there are “fake Christians” who, without cause, want the Pastor out. Although I do not view depression as cause for removal, those in the pews may. Just a reminder to such “super Christians” (small “c”): the man you hold forth as a great man of faith (Job), wished he had never been born in the midst of his “mental/spiritual” crisis.
In summary, a Pastor suffering depression, or other mental illness issues, affects the entire congregation. Depending on their public profile, the entire local community could be dragged into the situation as well. However, recognizing the signs, and prayer, is a great place to begin this titanic struggle in spirit.
Is Depression a Sin
The answer to if depression is a sin is “it depends” on how it is handled, and if it drags one (1) away the Lord Jesus Christ. However, there is an even better question: “is struggling a sin in the eyes of God”? The answer to this depends on not “what” you are dealing with rather “how” you respond. Let’s address the obvious: if struggling, in general, was a sin then Jesus was a sinner. We understand that if this is true, our faith is in vain, right?
A great example is Jesus struggling in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest. The Bible indicates so great was His mental anguish: “sweat fell from his face like as great drops of blood”. Since the time, and fall, of Adam and Eve, struggle has been a part of the human condition. As a matter of fact, that was a part of God’s judgment for sin.
The Bible indicates God told Adam: “because you have done this, the earth will no longer yield its strength. And it is only by the sweat of your brow that it will bring forth”. The struggle towards God, even in our sinful state, is Holy Ghost! Nevertheless, it is when this battle leads us away from the Lord that sin is assigned.
Here are three (3) scenarios in which “depression” can become sinful:
1. When it takes the focus from God and places it on us. The reality is depression which draws us away from God is an "idol". Anything put above God is an idol to include depression.
2. When it leads to “accusing” God. Let me guess: “I would never do such a thing”! However, every follower of Jesus has done so. I mean, logically, isn't sin, itself, accusing God of being less satisfying than whatever it is we run to in His place? The prophet Jeremiah was much less subtle with his accusation against the Lord. Read Jeremiah 20: 7-9.
3. The moment it causes irreversible consequences. One (1) would be surprised to learn how many former Christians have committed suicide. I offer “former” because such a decision is irreversible and will land one in the Lake of Fire (Hell)! Worse, it leaves no time to truly repent before we stand in front of God’s throne of judgment.
In summary, depression is a sin when it draws our attention away from God, and onto ourselves. When this occurs, the consequences can, in the more extreme cases, become eternally irreversible.
If you are suffering from depression and/or other mental health issues, take it to the Lord God. Most importantly, never forget that it is not our depressive struggle which is sinful, it is surrendering to it and turning away from God because of it.
Header Image Courtesy of Holger Langmaier @ Pixabay