Hope for Pastors Who Are Trapped in Depression

LincolnThis past Sunday I preached a message from the book of Job entitled “The Dark Night of the Soul:  The Problem and the Blessings of Depression.”  In this message, we examined the difficult and often neglected subject of depression in the life of believers.  I showed our congregation that Job shows the classic signs in this book of experiencing anxiety and depression.  In this blog post, I would like to extend that conversation to the problem of depression among Pastors.  Specifically, I would like to offer some hope and help for Pastors who are serving the church but who feel trapped in depression.

I understand this problem because I have struggled with depression throughout my life and have been serving in the ministry for over twenty years.  For most of my ministry I have kept my depression a secret — fearful that it would disqualify me from carrying out the call of God on my life.  But a few years ago, I began a journey that has lead me to understand that although depression presents several unique problems it also presents some unique blessings and opportunities.

First, however, let me share some statistics with you that demonstrate just how big of a problem anxiety and depression are among Pastors.  According to a a study conducted by the Schaeffer Institute among those involved in full-time ministry:

  • 50%  feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
  • 80% feel the ministry has negatively affected their family.
  • 70% report battling depression
  • 70% report that they do not have someone they consider a close friend

Obviously, this is one of the most pressing issues facing the clergy in America today.  When I first read these statistics I was both relieved and surprised.  Relieved because for the first time I realized that I was not alone in my struggle and surprised because I talk to Pastors daily and never realized so many were struggling.

The problems created by depression are rather obvious.  Pastors who battle with depression end up feeling isolated, lonely and discouraged.  Often they end up quitting the ministry or worse yet stay in and grow more and more bitter.  Over the past twenty years, I have met dozens of men who once felt the fire of God burning in their soul to preach the Word but who’ve grown despondent and jaded due to depression.  The problems are obvious to everyone, but what we often fail to comprehend is that depression also offers some unique blessings.  

I first began to think about the unique blessings of depression a couple of years ago when I came across an article in The Atlantic magazine detailing Abraham Lincoln’s  struggle with depression.  In that article, Joshua Wolf Shenk discussed Lincoln’s lifelong and public battle with depression.  As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think about how different things are today than they were in Lincoln’s day.  If Lincoln were running today there would be no way he could get elected as a member of town council let alone as President of the United States.  His battle with “melancholy” was far too public for him to be elected in our present political environment.  But Lincoln, thankfully,  lived in a different era — an era when depression was thought to be closely linked with genius.

As Lincoln grew older, Shenk argues that he moved from fearing his melancholy to engaging with it and to eventually transcending it.  Shenk points out that due to his depression, Lincoln was able to see situations with more clarity than others — an phenomenon that researchers have labeled “depressive reality.   This allowed him to come up with creative solutions to the problems of his day.  In addition to these, however, Lincoln’s depression also produced within a sense of humility and determination.  He was not afraid to fail and, in fact, expected to fail more often than he succeeded.  Harriet Beecher Stowe compared him to a wire cable that sways in a storm but holds fast.

As I was reading Shenk’s article a thought occurred to me.  A light bulb went off in my head and it dawned on me that Lincoln would not have been perhaps the greatest President in the history of our nation if he had not been depressed.  Theologically speaking, God has uniquely prepared this man’s personality and psyche for the time and place in which he lived.  But then something even greater popped into my mind — God has made me just the way I am to serve Him.   For years, I had felt embarrassed, ashamed and guilty because I struggle with depression but what if I had been looking at the issue all wrong?  What if my depression was really a gift from God rather than a curse?

Reading that article radically changed the way I looked at depression.  Suddenly, I stopped thinking of depression only in terms of being a curse and started looking at the potential blessings that it might offer.  Now I know that some of you want me to say something along the line of, “and then I got better and was never depressed again.”  We like fairy tales endings where everyone lived happily ever after.  But that’s not what happened.  Recognizing that depression was a blessing from God didn’t make it go away.  In fact, I’ve come to the realization that I will struggle with depression for the rest of my earthly life.  But that does not mean that there isn’t a silver lining.  What I discovered is that as I became more open and honest about my depression, I started to become more effective in the ministry.  Let give you some of the ways that it has helped:

  • I’ve been able to relate to those in my congregation that are also struggling with depression.
  • I’ve been able to minister to other Pastors who are struggling with the same issue.
  • Knowing and accepting that I struggle with anxiety and depression has helped me to balance my tendency to obsess on the worst possible outcome of any scenario.  This has helped me to embrace the kind of creative thinking Lincoln experienced without focusing too much on the darkest possible outcome.

If you are struggling with depression in the ministry let me offer you a couple of pieces of advice.  First, the sooner you come to grips with it the better.  Second, don’t give up.  If you are hurting so bad that you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or entertaining leaving the ministry please call someone and talk to them.  There is hope.  Third, study the issue of depression and learn as much as you can about it.  The more you understand the unique problems and opportunities it presents the better off you’ll be.  Finally, when the time is right share your struggle with others.  Don’t do this before you are ready and before you are able to help to others but when the time is right don’t hesitate to share your struggle.  WARNING: there will be some in your congregation who will criticize you for being so open but don’t let them discourage you from sharing.  Some in your congregation might think they want Superman for a Pastor but what they really need is YOU.  God has uniquely made you and placed you exactly where He wants you to be.  Your depression is not a surprise to Him.  He wants to use it to make an eternal different in your life and in the lives of the people you serve — so engage it and transcend it through the power of the Gospel.




Preventing Ministry Meltdown


Over the past couple of days I have been sharing with you about the “Anatomy of a Ministry Meltdown” and “Recovering from a Ministry Meltdown.”  In those posts, I shared the story of my own meltdown and the steps that I’ve taken over the past year to recover.  I’ve been amazed by the number of Pastors over the past year who have shared with me their own stories of the struggles involved in ministry.  According to a New York Times article entitled “Taking A Break from the Lord’s Workan unprecedented number of Pastors report being unhappy.  In an article on the 9 Marks website, Thabiti Anyabwile cites the following alarming statistics about Pastors:

50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.

70% feel grossly underpaid

90% feel inadequately trained to cope with the ministry demands

70% constantly fight depression

50% feel so discouraged they would leave the ministry if they could.

80% believe the ministry has negatively affected their families.

70% do not have someone they consider a close friend

40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month

Over 1700 pastors left the ministry every month last year.

Over 1300 pastors were terminated by the local church last year

Those are alarming statistics and it is time that the church as a whole wakes up to the issues.  Last year, when I had my meltdown I thought that I was the only minister who had ever gone through that kind of experience.  What I have learned over the past year is that I am far from being alone and a lot of other Pastors are on the verge of having a similar thing happen to them.  This morning I want to talk about steps that every Pastor should take in order to avoid having this kind of meltdown in the first place.

1.) Remember Who Called You and What He Called You To Do– One of my early mentors in the ministry was a man named Richard Harris, who served as the Director of Missions for the Upper Ohio Valley Baptist Association.  Richard used to make me share how God called me to the ministry within him at least once a month.  I asked him about this one time and he said, “I don’t ever want you to forget that God called you to the ministry, there will be times when the call of God is all that keeps you from quitting.”  This constant reminder of Who called me and what He called me to do served as a great source of encouragement.  Somewhere along the line, I lost sight of that factor and nearly fell apart.  My advice to every Pastor is to regularly set aside time to remember Who called you and what He called you to do.

2.)  Remember Who Empowers Your Ministry– As I see it, one of the greatest threats to every Pastor’s ministry is self-reliance.  The moment we think we are skilled enough or smart enough to handle the ministry ourselves, we are going to fail.  We need to be like the Apostle Paul who in Galatians 2:20 said, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  The key to the Christian life, as well as the ministry is to live daily in complete dependence on Christ.  In John 15:4 Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”  The simple truth is that we minister from the overflow of our lives.  If we are not constantly drawing upon the resources of the Holy Spirit, we have nothing to offer and our lives and ministries will quickly dry up.

3.) Learn to Rest–  Physical rest is important and every Pastor needs to take time to recuperate and recharge but I have something even more important in mind here. Rest in the confidence of Christ.  Rest in the confidence of the sufficiency of the Word of God.  Rest in the power of the Gospel.