The Depressed Pastor: Making Sense of Mental Illness in Pastoral Ministry

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“Why”?

That’s all the text said. A one-word question. But I knew exactly what my friend (a Lead Pastor in another church) was asking. I knew the situation he was referring to.

Another prominent pastor had ended their own lives.

My pastor friend and I, strangely, were saddened and puzzled. But we were not shocked. Not because we had a deep relationship with the pastor who killed themselves, but because we both have a deep relationship with many pastors who are battling depression or other forms of mental illness. We have both had private conversations with men with large and seemingly fruitful ministries, who have seriously considered ending it all and yet feel ashamed to ask for help.

And candidly, we have both been in deep, dark depressions while serving in ministry.

Full disclosure.

I have struggled with depression.

For most of my adult life, I have endured mild bouts of seasonal depression. Typically these seasons last no longer than a few days. Maybe a couple of weeks at the most. Sometimes those seasons are brought about by external circumstances. And sometimes the depression overwhelms me completely by surprise in the middle of an enjoyable season of life.

When these bouts of depression come everything about my spiritual life and pastoral calling becomes hard. Bible reading becomes a checklist item. Prayer becomes an awkward one-way conversation. Sermon preparation becomes tedious and forced. Counseling and pastoral care feel unproductive. The lines between my personal relationship with Jesus and ministry duties become more defined often adding gasoline to the fire of depression burning beneath the surface. “Am I reading the Bible to know Jesus or to prepare to preach”?

One sure-fire way to fall into a depression as a pastor? Stop doing ministry out of an overflow of your own love for Jesus.

Truthfully, I have almost written this many times before. But I haven’t. But after seeing another pastor take their own life, after hearing conversation after conversation with other pastors hurting deeply and struggling to see another way out, I thought it might be helpful to shed some light on that question that keeps getting asked when things like this happen: Why?

Internal Factors

Pastor’s struggle with depression because pastors are broken people. Our brokenness is not unique. It is important for every Christian to know, that their pastor has a past that they are deeply affected by. Some of them have childhood abuse stories that would shock you. Some of them endured broken homes or were exposed to sex and drugs at remarkably young ages. And some spent a period of their lives in rebellion against God and live with the shame of that season. Again, this is not unique to the pastor. These sad realities are a part of the fallen human experience. Couple these ordinary examples of human brokenness with the immense weight of spiritual warfare pastors regularly find themselves on the front line of and you have a dangerous situation. So what do we do with this?

Unlike much of the general public, many pastors internalize and bury these wounds under layers of pastoral pressure to “have it all together”. After all, no one would follow you spiritually if they knew how broken you are right? Pastors know how to say the right things, using religious talk and posturing as smoke screens. In short, many pastors, have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms for dealing with the depression that their wounds and past sins have brought on. Eventually, this coping mechanism can tend to mutate into something far more sinister: Spiritual Pride. After all, if you believe the lie “I am ok” long enough you start to act like it. So, follow me here. Put a person who has convinced themselves that they are ok in an environment where they are constantly helping people deal with the reality that THEY are NOT ok and you have someone who feels superior to those around them and is likely to develop a “god-complex” at one level while dealing with intense feelings of shame at a deeper level.

External Factors

Where does the depressed pastor go for help before this spiral into spiritual and moral failure occurs? Well, that’s part of the problem. Unhealthy churches where unrealistic expectations are placed on pastors are breeding grounds for pastoral depression. Put simply, many of the pastors I talk to about this issue feel that if they shared their struggles they would be fired, or worse, that information would be filed away and used against them at some later point by someone they trusted.

Let me say this. I love my church. It is the healthiest church culture I have ever been a part of. And yet, it is still a struggle for me to know the best way to lean into community when I am struggling. Transparency must be fought for. I have to work to be known.
A few years back, after my wife and I suffered an intense personal loss, I spiraled into a dark depression that lasted several months. The intensity of the depression was not constant. It ebbed and flowed. But, as time went on, I saw how it was effecting my relationships. I was more distant. Guarded. And I was scared. I didn’t know how those I lead would respond. So I pulled away relationally and some of those relationships never recovered. I didn’t know it, in the middle of that dark depression, but dealing with my sorrow in an unhealthy way was changing me, and not for the better. I only saw this through honest prayerful, honest conversations with those who had walked with me through it. Confession and repentance continue to this day.

I had learned this truth: Pastoral ministry is lonely already and depression only intensifies that feeling of loneliness. Many pastors struggle to have genuine friendships in their church. Why? Well, one line of thinking goes…”Because since you can’t be BFF’s with an entire congregation, why bother? You might as well just focus on having a couple hundred surface-level relationships instead.” Many years ago, one older, soon-to-retire pastor encouraged me to avoid “close friendships” within the congregation. Then he added, “you’ll just get hurt if you don’t“. Maintaining relationships is difficult work. Maintaining relationships with hundreds of people is impossible. So what happens when someone feels the pressure to be close to everyone because that’s the expectation and fails? People feel abandoned. Pastor’s feel like failures. And then the dark clouds of depression slowly build.

Pastoral Ministry Culture

The sub-culture of pastoral ministry is a strange one. Some of the healthiest and unhealthiest relationships in my life have been with other pastors outside of my own church. A lack of friendship among pastors is a serious problem in the church. It is hard to build relationships with other pastors for a number of reasons. Here are three big ones.

Time: Most pastors are incredibly consumed with what is happening in their own churches. Add in busy family lives and there are simply not enough hours in the day to invest the time to build up the necessary trust levels for real, open friendships.

Tribalism: For some pastors, the scope of their friendships within the ministry is completely limited to those within their own theological tribe.

Competition: It is an ugly truth: Some pastors refuse to build friendships with fellow pastors in the area, primarily because they see those pastors as a threat to their own congregational growth capacity.

Not every pastor struggles to the same degree with these barriers to friendship. All of these factors contribute to a culture among pastors, that makes genuine relationships hard to build. If a pastor feels that they cannot have genuine friendships within their congregation, and is unable to build relationships with other pastors outside of their own congregation, where do they go? Who do they talk to about the unique challenges and temptations of pastoral ministry? How is a mental illness or deep depression spotted before it is too late?

Answers?

What can we do about this issue? As with any complex issue, there are no easy answers and everyone has a part to play. It is important to start with biblical expectations. Pastors have always struggled with depression. The Apostle Paul clearly struggled with intense despair in pastoral ministry. In 2 Corinthians he uses intense language to describe his emotional state: For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death”. (2 Cor. 8b-9a) Nothing can remove the spiritual weight and emotional toll of pastoral ministry this side of the New Creation. As much as congregants should check their unhealthy expectations of pastor’s, pastor’s should also check their unhealthy expectations of ministry. We cannot remove the difficulties of ministry that can exacerbate depression in pastors but we can labor to make sure that depression has a more difficult time attaining a foothold in the hearts of pastors. Put simply, we need Grace-filled churches and Christ-trusting pastors. 

Churches must work hard to create environments where expectations for pastors are biblical and realistic. Pastor’s must repent of spiritual pride where necessary and be willing to deal with their issues in a healthy way, even if it means risking their public image. But ultimately, the answer is the Gospel. It is the Gospel that will create safe church cultures where vulnerability is welcomed. It is the Gospel that will soften hardened-to-ministry hearts in pastors. The Gospel will set pastors free to build grace-oriented relationships with other believers.

And ultimately, the Gospel will give us all, in the bleakest moments of depression, a glimmer of hope that is far stronger than the momentary darkness.

Maranatha.

 

 

 

Chad Williams

 

 

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