Don’t Be Caught Off Guard by Depression

Pastors will get depressed, but that doesn’t mean their ministry is over.

By Diana Gruver

As I’m listening to friends and colleagues in pastoral ministry, I’m hearing a refrain: We’re exhausted. Not that pastoral ministry is usually a proverbial walk in the park—it comes with its own innate challenges—but we are living in a difficult cultural moment, and our pastors are not immune.

We are living in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, with all its collective grief, anxiety and uncertainty. And while pastors are working through their own experience of this season (as all of us are), they are also being sidled with the effects of this grief and trauma on their parishioners. They are counseling and leading their congregations through a situation none of us has ever lived through, and facing criticism from all sides as they work through resuming (or not resuming) church gatherings and the conditions necessary to responsibly gather corporately. Many of the pastors I know feel a profound weight of responsibility that comes with the realization that their decision to resume services bears risks for their congregation and their community. As members of their congregation battle their own heightened emotions, some pastors are finding their parishioners unloading their emotions on them, transferring their frustration to their pastor. Also, pastors are grieving the illnesses and deaths they must bear witness to within their own congregations and communities. As one pastor I know shared, “I can’t stand the thought of doing one more funeral because of COVID.”

And this is just the pandemic. Pastors in America also were staring into what was a brutally divisive election cycle, and find themselves in the midst of ongoing conversations about racism and abuse. The burden of all of these issues is not light.

This host of factors is on top of what we already know to be true of those in pastoral ministry: Pastors struggle with anxiety and depression at comparable or higher rates than those in their congregation. It feels like a perfect storm. A natural vulnerability combined with numerous stressful circumstantial factors has me concerned for our pastors. This concern is in part, yes, because of the role pastors play in local church communities, but it’s also because when I think of pastors, I think of brothers and sisters in Christ and of dear friends.

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In such a time, I can’t help but look to a pastor who himself walked through depression: Charles Spurgeon. I believe that if he could see our current moment he would offer a word of caution: Dear pastors, be prepared to be depressed. I don’t find this advice to be gloomy, merely matter of fact. It’s a word of caution, a word of preparation.

A collection of Spurgeon’s lectures to his students at his Pastor’s College were printed and preserved for us, providing a wonderful window into his pastoral experience and advice. One of these lectures, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” is dedicated to preparing his students, future pastors, for the possible appearance of depression in their lives. He speaks to them of depression, so that they might “not fancy that some strange thing had happened to them,” and so they might know when and why such seasons of darkness may come.

As I read Spurgeon’s descriptions of what makes someone vulnerable to depression, I can’t help but notice how many apply to our current cultural moment. Pastors are enduring the threat or the reality of physical illness. They are engaged in the heavy heart and mental work of ministry. They face isolation and loneliness, not only because of their position of leadership, but also because of coronavirus-related restrictions. The natural possibility of sedentary habits because of study and sermon preparation are exacerbated by limitations on where we can go. The last several months have been a “long stretch of unbroken labor” for many pastors, who have had to develop and learn online strategies of holding worship services and keeping their congregations connected. Heavy blows, such as the loss of a parishioner or loved one, the loss of a job, division and conflict within the congregation over whether to reopen, the church’s engagement in racial justice, or the heightening political season. The slow accumulation of many troubles and discouragements, in which trials and pains come in wave after wave. On top of it all, he says that regardless of our outward circumstances, some of us are inclined to melancholy and sometimes depression simply comes without cause.

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As many of these factors align at once, pastors may find themselves particularly vulnerable to depression. Acknowledging this vulnerability need not be pessimistic or cynical. A vulnerability to depression does not guarantee it will take up residence in someone’s life. But recognizing a vulnerability to depression provides an advance warning so that it doesn’t slip in and catch someone in ministry unaware. This advance notice can be an opportunity and an invitation to engage in preventative mental health care, so that depression need not be inevitable.

There is no guaranteed way to prevent depression, but there are ways to try to not exacerbate one’s vulnerability to it. Some of these strategies include: exercise, good rest, getting outside, developing healthy stress management skills, finding someone to talk to openly about the struggles of ministry in this season, taking a regular Sabbath, or seeing a counselor. On top of these things, it could be wise for a pastor to have a plan for what he or she will do if depression does strike (what doctor would you see, what therapist could you visit), and invite trusted people in their life to let them know if they start seeing warning signs of depression.

And if, in spite all their best intentions, depression does come, a pastor need not be afraid. They are not the first to experience that darkness, and they are not alone. There are other brothers and sisters around them who have also been through depression, and the “man of sorrows” they have devoted their life to will walk with them through the valley of the shadow. Depression does not mean they have failed. It does not mean their faith is lacking. It does not mean their ministry is over. This darkness, too, shall pass. Or, as Spurgeon would say:

“The lesson of wisdom is, be not dismayed by soul-trouble. … Should the power of depression be more than ordinary, think not that all is over with your usefulness.”

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