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Dealing With Depression in Ministry

The harsh reality of life in a dramatically broken world and what remaining sin does to the hearts of us all. These two things make pastoral ministry a day-by-day spiritual war. Depression in Ministry is a real thing.

Sam’s Story With Depression in Ministry

I was there the week it happened. His wife asked to see me. Tearfully, she told me that he had walked into the church building that week and announced to his staff that he was “done.” He said he couldn’t face preaching another sermon, that all that he really wanted to do was to run away from his own life. Sam was 45 and the pastor of a vibrant and growing church.

I am convinced that there are important changes needed in pastoral culture and that the number of pastors who find themselves in the range from discouraged to depressed give clear evidence of this. Let me suggest four potential setups of this discouragement/depression cycle in ministry.

4 Triggers To Put You Into Ministry Depression: 

1. Unrealistic Expectations

I taught a class at Westminster Seminary on pastoral care and was impressed year after year about how unrealistic the expectations of my future-pastor students were. Year after year, my students seemed to forget the two things that consistently make pastoral ministry hard. What are they? The harsh reality of life in a dramatically broken world and what remaining sin does to the hearts of us all. These two things make pastoral ministry a day-by-day spiritual war.

But there is another area of unrealistic expectations. It is the congregation’s unrealistic expectation of the pastor. Churches forget that they have called a person who is a man in the midst of his own sanctification. This tends to drive the pastor into hiding, afraid to confess what is true of him and everyone to whom he ministers. There is a direct connection between unrealistic expectations and deepening cycles of disappointment.

2. Family Tensions

There is often a significant gulf between the public persona of the ministry family and the realities of the day-by-day struggles in their home. We almost assume that the pastor will feel regularly torn between ministry and family and will be often forced to make “lesser of two evils” choices.

Yet this tension is not a major theme in the pastoral epistles. Could it be that we are asking too much of our pastors? Could it be that, as pastors, we are seeking to get things out of ministry that we should not get and therefore make choices that potentially harm our families? This tension between family and ministry robs pastoral ministry of its joy, and its seeming insurmountability is a sure set up for depression.

3. Fear of Man

The very public nature of pastoral ministry makes it fertile soil for this temptation. I know what it’s like to be all too aware of the critical person’s responses to me as I preach on a Sunday morning. I also know the temptation of thinking of what would win that person as I am preparing the sermon!

Fear of man is actually asking people to give you what only God can deliver. It is rooted in a gospel amnesia that causes me to seek again and again for what I have already been given in Christ. This then causes me to watch for and care too much about the reactions of others, and because I do this, to feel like I get way more criticism than I deserve. Each new duty begins to be viewed as another forum for the criticism of others, and with this, the emotional life of the pastor begins to spin downward.

4. Kingdom Confusion

It is very tempting for the pastor to do his work in pursuit of other glories than the glory of God and for purposes other than God’s kingdom. Personal acclaim and reputation, power and control, comfort and appreciation are the subtle little kingdom idols that greet every pastor. Yet in pastoral ministry, the kingdom of self is a costume kingdom. It does a great job of masquerading as the kingdom of God because the way you seek to build the kingdom of self in ministry is by doing ministry!

The reality is that the God who the pastor serves has no allegiance whatsoever to the pastor’s little kingdom of self. In fact, I am persuaded that much of the ministry opposition that we attribute to the enemy is actually God getting in the way of the little kingdom intentions of the pastor. It is God, in grace, rescuing the pastor from himself.

So as the pastor wants recognition, his Lord wants gospel transformation. As God is calling the pastor to spiritual war, what the pastor wants is to be liked. As the pastor is wanting just a little bit of control, God is demonstrating that He is in control.

It is discouraging and exhausting to be serving God, yet not be on God’s agenda page. This kingdom confusion robs the pastor of the deep sense of privilege that should motivate the service of every pastor. My pastor friend said it well to his wife, “I just want to go somewhere where life is easy!”

Run to Him When You’re Depressed

Depression in the pastor may be set up by the culture that surrounds him, but it is a disease of the heart, and for that, we have the presence, promises and provisions of the Savior. Pastor, He is in you and with you and for you. No one cares more about the use of your gifts than the Giver. No one cares more about your suffering than the one who suffered for you. And no one shoulders the burden of the church like the one who is the head of the church and gave Himself up for it.

In your despondency, don’t run from Him, run to Him. Jesus really does offer you the hope and healing that you can find nowhere else.

Editor’s Note: The following is part one of a five-part series on depression and the ministry. The series is a joint effort of the Biblical Counseling Coalition and The Gospel Coalition.