Depression was once a topic reserved for other people, certainly not for ministers or pastors. For clergy to ever admit to such a mental health malady, especially since they’re often put on a spiritual pedestal, would be a risky proposition. Because, how could ministers who claimed they’d responded to God’s high calling on their lives affirmatively, confess to being depressed?
Though the topic of ministerial depression is not quite as taboo as it once was, those in ministry who struggle with it still quite often feel the internalized stigma of shame and faithlessness.
According to Thom Ranier, the President and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, “the problem of depression in the ministry is not only real, but . . . growing. Further, the rate of depression among ministers is now higher than the rate of the general population” (http://thomrainer.com/2011/07/when_pastors_experience_depression/).
If you suffer with depression, you know firsthand just how painful and debilitating it can be. And nobody is immune, not even ministers or missionaries. I personally know that from firsthand experience. There have been seasons in my life in which I’ve greatly struggled with melancholia. It’s been hard to get myself out of bed and motivated, remain optimistic, and be proactive.
Ministers who suffer with depression often question the validity of their faith and their own inherent worth in the kingdom of God. They feel spiritually weak and vulnerable for relying on meds. This unhealthy self-loathing is fueled by shame, guilt, confusion, and a pervasive sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
Preachers and pastors may believe that God is angry with them for their sins and failings. Indeed, depression can rob ministers of spiritual peace and joy. Proverbs 17:22 (ESV) says, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
Regrettably, we still tend to make the mistake of only treating difficult issues like depression solely from a spiritual perspective. But, depression is too complex to be treated so one-dimensionally. It must be addressed holistically, because it is also a physiological and psychological concern with neurochemical and environmental triggers.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking if you just pray hard enough, claim God’s blessings enough, repent enough, or believe enough you will be cured. That may be part of the solution, but you may also find you need to treat the issue medicinally and therapeutically as well. Each is a gift and an expression of God’s grace. For some, this can literally be the difference between life and death (https://relevantmagazine.com/god/church/confessions-depressed-pastor).
Throughout the course of history, there have been godly men and women of faith who have dealt with their own “dark nights of the soul,” those like Saint Bernard, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther, and Mother Theresa.
Depression and burnout are becoming the occupational hazards of ministry. In a recent Enrichment magazine poll (published by The General Council of the Assemblies of God), 17 percent of those who responded said that quite often they were depressed to the extent it affected their ministry performance. Another 20 percent said they experienced this level of depression every 2 or 3 months. “Forty percent of pastors and 47 percent of their spouses say they are suffering from burnout. The norm among men in our country who are experiencing depression at any given time is about 10 percent. The norm among clergy is 40 percent” (http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200603/200603_040_journey_pastors.cfm).
Depression among clergy is at least as prevalent as in the general population. “The likelihood is that one out of every four pastors is depressed,” said Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
But, the most “damaged” people in Scripture seem to be the same ones through whom God worked the most powerfully. Suffering has a way of shaping and refining people into humble servants. Biblical heroes like Moses, Hannah, Elijah, Jonah, Jeremiah, David, and Paul, all seems to have bouts with the blues. Some of them felt so down and broken that they wanted God to take their lives.
David cried,“I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (Psalm 6:6, ESV). Even Jesus, the perfectly divine human, expressed that his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death.
Each of these biblical heroes was inspired by God to change the world—not in spite of the affliction but because of it and through it.
So, ministers and clergy persons, please remember that God cares about you too. Psalm 34:18 (ESV) promises, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” You’re never alone!
(The above article was originally published in The Jackson Sun, part of the USA Today network, on September 15, 2017, by Ryan Noel Fraser).