The Pastor and Depression
by Chris Dilley
Admitting There is a Problem
The role of the Christian pastor is a serious one. The Bible shows us just how serious in passages like Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” 1 Timothy 3:4-5 gives us another glimpse into the weighty responsibility of the pastor: “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” If we consider these passages together, we realize that the pastor is responsible before God to spiritually lead his own home and those he ministers to in his congregation faithfully. This is a tall order for any man, and indeed, cannot be done apart from the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit working in his life.
The responsibility pastors have towards their families and their congregations are important stewardships with eternal implications, and they must not neglect either their family or their church. However, the weight of these responsibilities has the potential of leading pastors to either intentionally or unintentionally neglect their own spiritual growth in the Lord. This is a subtle danger that I am a convinced is a larger problem than many pastors and churches care to admit. Many of us are all too familiar with example after example of pastors who burn out and often leave the ministry altogether due to stress, moral failure, and a whole host of other issues. My prayer is that pastors and their congregations awaken to this reality: pastors aren’t invincible. They are not spiritual super-soldiers who never have any spiritual struggles. Pastors, like every other believer, struggle with their own sins and those who sin against them. They struggle with physical trials, emotional instability, and yes, even depression. In fact, I think we would be surprised if we knew just how often many pastors struggle in the valley of depression due to discouragements and trials in their own families and/or ministries.
I don’t completely blame anyone who might be surprised by this. After all, there is often an idealized cultural expectation that pastors always have it together and that the calling of God on their life would never allow for discouragement at that level. This is dangerous thinking. The church will be better served when both pastors and congregations are willing to admit that pastors are redeemed sinners like everyone else in the pews. Don’t get me wrong, pastors are called to be spiritual examples to the flocks they minister to (1 Pet. 5:3) but we do pastors a disservice by assuming they don’t struggle.
The pastor who struggles with depression is in a difficult place. He knows he is called to be an example to the flock and he’s the one who offers biblical counsel to church members who struggle with depression, as well as a host of other issues themselves. Can the counselor really become the counselee? If a pastor admits his struggles with depression, is he showing weakness to the church? The answer to both is “yes”, pastors should sometimes be the ones receiving biblical counsel and yes, pastors are weak. In fact, I would argue that pastors, more often than most, should readily admit with the Apostle Paul, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor. 12:9)
Addressing the Problem
These words from the Apostle Paul have been close to my heart personally for the better part of the last two years. My personal struggle with depression has taught me much about God, myself, my family, my ministry, and how I relate to others. I am still in process, and every day God is changing me through the power of his Word. I would like to share seven principles that have helped me in my own spiritual battle with depression. I pray many pastors and regular church members find these things helpful as they too face the darkness of depression.
First, look for the signposts of depression. Depression can often sneak up on us, and we aren’t prepared for it because we don’t expect it. This might have to do with false expectations that we won’t struggle, or perhaps because we view our struggles as normal seasons of discouragement. I submit to you that depression is something we should be looking out for, and we can’t look out for it on our own. We need other brothers and sisters in Christ to have vested interest in our spiritual growth, so that others who care for us might be able to catch the signs perhaps even before we do. We need to realize that often, we are blinded to our own struggles. I found this to be the case with my depression. I thought my saddened mood, lack of motivation, loss of appetite, inability to sleep well, and overall melancholy was just due to normal discouragement in ministry that every pastor faces. Thankfully, God used my wife, who knows me perhaps better than I know myself, to show me my need. She sat me down one night and explained that she thought I might be depressed. God used the grace of the helper he blessed me with to show me my need. Pastors, if you’re married, don’t avoid serious spiritual conversations with your wife. These are the sort of conversations we should be having as married Christians. Your wife is your closest “neighbor” biblically. Communicate honestly with one another, pray for one another, and fight depression together. Pastors must be willing to be honest with their wives about their struggles. However, pastors also need other trusted brothers in Christ to walk with them during their struggles with depression. Pastor, do you have other brothers in Christ you are accountable to? If you don’t, you need to address this need immediately. Every pastor should have a handful of trusted brothers in Christ who spur us on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24), who hold us accountable, and who walk with us in our suffering. No man is an island. The pastor especially.
Second, be willing to address the brokenness of depression with practical steps. It is one thing to identify that you are struggling with depression, it’s a completely other issue whether you will take actual steps to address your struggles. Too often pastors allow the business of life and ministry to keep us from slowing down and working on our personal walk with Christ. If you’re struggling with depression, know that it’s not something you can just push through. Depression isn’t something that will just go away with time. It will overpower you if you don’t address it with the Word of God, prayer, and authentic, accountable, encouraging relationships in the body of Christ. Again, to be clear: Brothers, if you’re struggling with depression, slow down. Address the issue. If you neglect addressing this serious issue, you run the risk of losing your ministry, your family, and maybe even your life.
Third, remember that Christ has given us one another in the body of Christ. Be willing to bring other believers into your experience. Our Savior Jesus Christ, was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Is. 53:3) The Son of God became a man and willingly entered into our experience of life in this fallen world. Jesus was mocked, ridiculed, and rejected. Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:14-16) and he suffered and died so that we might be redeemed and restored as new creations. I believe that Jesus models for us in his Incarnation ways we can minster to one another in our struggles. Allow others to walk with you, to bear your burdens, (Gal. 6:2) to hear and feel the pain, hurt, and rejection you are feeling. This is the body of Christ in action! Brothers, don’t allow your struggles with depression to embarrass you. Don’t be afraid to be needy. Indeed, anyone who has struggled with depression knows theyareneedy. They need from their brothers and sisters in Christ prayer, encouragement from God’s Word, and the simple willingness to be there when needed. No Christian should ever struggle alone, and that goes for pastors too. The body of Christ can and must fight depression together.The pastor should also exercise caution here: leading God’s people often calls for discretion as a pastor. So, you will have to seek wisdom to help you find the balance between what you share with your church family, and what you keep with your own family and trusted circle of brothers. Hopefully, you have a plurality of elders you serve with who can provide wisdom in this area. If you don’t, I would recommend speaking to other trusted pastors in your area about these things.
Fourth, be humble and teachable. One tricky thing about being a pastor who (hopefully) diligently studies and preaches God’s Word is that we often dohave most of the answers. God has given us his sufficient Word. We’ve likely even counseled other church members before in their own struggles with depression. However, knowing the truth of God’s Word andpractically applying it to your own life can be a difficult task for the depressed pastor. I found in my own depression that I knew the answers. I knew Jesus sympathized with my weakness, I knew the hope of the gospel, but I often found myself unable to apply those truths to my thoughts and my life. The fog of depression often pushed out the truth of God’s Word. Pastor, as you struggle with depression, be ready to admit your own inability to save yourself. Admit that while you might have the answers, you still need to put God’s Word into practice. Eagerly take counsel from other believers as they minister the Word to you. Be willing to say to God, “Lord, teach me. My hope is in you.” Recount often the truths of 1 Pet. 5:6-7: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
Fifth, don’t be afraid to pursue professional help. This is another big step for the depressed pastor. The one who ministers to weary souls sometimes needs a professional counselor to help address his deep spiritual needs. I took this step. I sought out a Christian counselor to help me think biblically through my depression. In my case, the counsel I received was very helpful because it provided a safe space for me to speak freely about life and ministry knowing this individual won’t share the inner workings of my life publicly. Also helpful was the fact that my counselor had extensive experience in ministry, so he understood many of my struggles personally, and he was able to speak to me pastor to pastor. If you go this route, make sure to find a biblicalcounselor. Someone who will walk you through the truths of God’s Word and who won’t settle for pop psychology or pithy, generic sayings. At the end of the day, the depressed pastor must be willing to acknowledge he might need a deeper level of help. Don’t think you’re above it, but see it for what it is. The grace of God in your life to help you in your time of need.
Sixth, when you’re depressed, work hard to love others. I realized in my own struggles that depression is a struggle that turns our focus inward, upon ourselves. This should make sense to us. Struggling with your mental health has to do with you. You are the one who is depressed. However, if we’re not careful, we can quickly turn from acknowledging our need and seeing it for what it is, to allowing ourselves to wallow in the mire of our depression, adopting a “woe is me” attitude that finds us simply feeling sorry for ourselves, and perhaps even questioning God’s goodness in our lives. This is why it’s important to love others even as you struggle. It is a reminder that you aren’t the only Christian in the world who struggles with depression or other spiritual difficulties. It helps take the focus away from yourself and your struggle because you are busy loving your neighbor. And it helps you to remain faithful in fulfilling God’s command to love one another even though you might be struggling personally. If your focus is always on yourself, you might miss opportunities to minister to others who perhaps can even learn from your personal struggles. Pastor, make loving others a commitment in your life, regardless of your personal struggles.
Finally, if you are a pastor who struggles with depression, make sure you saturate your soul in the Scriptures. Studying, praying, and applying the Scriptures is the primary work of pastoral ministry. (Acts. 6:4) It is second nature to most of us. However, there is an inherent danger in the ministry of the Word that we must watch out for. If we’re not careful, we can forget the power of God’s Word to change our own hearts as pastors. Sure, we preach, teach, and exhort others to change, but we better not lose sight of the fact that God’s Word changes us too! Pastor, remember that God’s Word is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joint and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12) Pastor, in your dark night of the soul, you need the Word of God to search your thoughts and your intentions. You need God’s Word in your life in a powerful way if you ever hope to beat depression. I personally found meditating on the Psalms to be especially helpful in fighting depression. In fact, while I can’t confirm this, I believe that King David may have struggled with depression. (See: Psalms 32 and 38 for just two examples) The Psalms of Lament were especially helpful because they capture the raw emotions of David and others as they struggle with deep discouragement. Not only do they capture genuine human experience, but they teach us how to relate to God even in our pain. Pastor, don’t neglect the Word of God in your pain. You consistently teach the people in your pews their own need for God’s Word. Why would you neglect the same essential remedy for your own soul?
It is my prayer that the things I learned in my experience as a depressed pastor would be helpful to other pastors and believers who struggle with depression. If this describes you, please get help if you haven’t already. There is no such thing as a lone ranger Christian. You need the body of Christ, you need God’s Word, you need God Himself. To close, I pray these words of God’s protection, that he speaks over his people in Psalm 91, might encourage those who struggle with depression: “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. when he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation” – Psalm 91:14-16
Chris Dilley is the Associate Pastor of Education at First Baptist Church Lindale in Lindale, TX.