When Church Leaders Deal With Depression

The church must be aware of its hurting leaders.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a global mental health crisis as a result of disruption, loss and isolation, and I believe it would be foolish to think this same crisis is not occurring among ministry leaders.

A life in ministry is not always easy, but the pandemic has only made the calling more difficult and complicated.

The novel coronavirus has disrupted the church in both good and bad ways. It has caused ministers to reevaluate how they conduct church and created an unprecedented mental strain on leaders now trying to understand how to serve a congregation who is not physically present.

In the past few years, the Christian world has been rocked by the suicides of beloved faith leaders such as Darrin Patrick, Jarrid Wilson and Andrew Stoecklein. As someone who has struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression in the past, each time I hear of a loss, I am moved with not only compassion but urgency.

The church has no time to waste in waking up to the reality that our leaders go through the valley of the shadow just like anyone else, and they desperately need spiritual and emotional support from those around them.

Unfortunately, many Christian leaders suffering from suicidal thoughts, depression or anxiety feel increasingly isolated and alone because they don’t feel fully comfortable seeking help, even from their fellow church leaders. People look up to individuals like pastors and elders to be an example of a “good” Christ-follower, and for some, that pressure has deceived them into believing that they cannot admit weakness.

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Leaders fear loss of their position, income stream, reputation or being seen as a hypocrite or a failure if they dare to speak up about their struggles. Being in a position of authority can be isolating. However, this is all the more reason why church leaders must not only seek to surround themselves with an inner circle that will hold them accountable but why church members and other leaders likewise should regularly check in with one another. Just because someone seems to be faring well on the outside does not mean that all is well within.

In addition to fearing retaliation from the church if they speak up, church leaders know that the spotlight on them may turn sour if any grappling with depression or suicidal thoughts are detected. Although a church leader may share their struggles with those within their church for accountability, they know it is unlikely that information will stay contained within church walls.

After all, people can only criticize that which they can see, which makes it tempting to conceal. But secrecy is an enemy to vulnerability, which is required to grow as individuals and to get help. Regrettably, people in high-profile positions can begin to falsely believe that they can navigate their own minefields alone, and that it isn’t really a bad idea to go it alone. But the facade of having it all together typically has an expiration date.

Without help from their community, they eventually tire from the inability to live up to the image of someone they can never be.

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In addition to encouraging accountability and transparency from our church leaders, we can begin to cultivate a church culture that supports those going through the valley by talking about it from the pulpit.

There is ample sermon material on the topic from the Bible from which to draw inspiration. Scripture says that Jesus himself was a man of sorrow (Isa. 53:3). Nobody on earth has ever suffered more severely than our Savior, and he knows understands our pain better than we ever could.

To me, this is one of the most beautiful things about being a Christ-follower. We serve a God who knows both joy and sorrow, who has laughed and wept, who has celebrated and mourned. Imagine what would happen if the Church embraced the truth that God not merely knows pain, but that he doesn’t condemn suffering.

When we are weak, he is strong (2 Cor. 12:10).