by Thom S. Rainer
Depression was once a topic reserved for “other people.” Christians, especially pastors, aren’t supposed to feel depressed.
Aren’t these servants of God supposed to have their acts together? How could pastors and other ministers experience the dark valley of depression?
The truth is, pastors are as likely as other Americans to experience mental illness.
A recent study by Lifeway Research found nearly 1 in 4 pastors (23 percent) acknowledge they have personally struggled with a mental illness such as depression, and half of those pastors said the illness had been diagnosed.
Sadly, many of them are reticent to say anything about their depression or other mental illness lest they be viewed as unfaithful to God and unable to help others.
So, what are the causes of the depression? A number of factors can increase the chance of depression, and my list of possible triggers is certainly not exhaustive.
While not all of these pressure points are unique to pastors, they are pervasive among them.
• Spiritual warfare. The Enemy doesn’t want pastors to be effective in ministry. He will do whatever it takes to hurt ministers and their ministries.
• Unrealistic expectations. The expectations and demands upon a pastor are enormous and often unrealistic. Congregants are sometimes quick to express their frustrations toward the pastor when expectations aren’t met, making the pastor feel like a failure.
• Greater platforms for critics. In “the good old days,” a critic’s complaints were typically limited to telephone, mail, and in-person meetings. Today, critics have the visible and pervasive platforms of email, blogs, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
• Failure to take time away from the church or place of ministry. Workaholism leads to burnout, and burnout leads to depression.
• Marriage and family problems. Too often pastors neglect their families as they try to care for the larger church family.
• Financial strains. Many pastors don’t have sufficient income from the churches they serve. That financial stress can lead to depression. Some pastors don’t know how to manage the money they do have, leading to further financial strain.
• The comparison game. Every pastor knows of a church that is larger and more effective. Every pastor knows of another pastor who seems more successful. The comparison game can be debilitating to some pastors.
Though triggers can often be determined, this is not always the case. For some the causes of depression are never known.
The demands of ministry can create a pressure-cooker situation for pastors. While it’s important to care for one’s physical health, it’s also necessary to guard your mental health.
If you are struggling with depression or some other mental illness, allow me to offer a few thoughts and words of encouragement.
• You are not alone. To the contrary, the problem is widespread. There are many in this company of fellow strugglers.
• You need not be ashamed. Mental illness is just that—it is an illness. If we have cancer, we freely acknowledge our physical illness. Pastors shouldn’t be ashamed to say they have a mental illness.
• Seek help. Find trusted professionals who can help you. A medical doctor can help determine if there are physiological reasons for your struggle. And a good counselor can help you sort through the issues and find hope.
• Make the recommended changes. Once struggling pastors seek help from professionals, they will be advised about next steps. Listen to them. Heed their advice. Make the necessary changes.
• Remain faithful. Mental illness is not an automatic end to your ministry. Many pastors continue to serve and thrive in ministry even though they struggle. Remember, weaknesses can be occasions for God to work in a person.
Thom S. Rainer (@ThomRainer) is president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources.