Paul Tripp made a compelling case for the prevalence of depression in the pastoral culture. In continuing the conversation, my focus will be on answering the questions, “What is depression? What are the unique challenges common to pastors that might contribute to depression being an “occupational liability”?”
A Common Scenario
Pastor Bill and his wife, Lisa, had a growing church and a good marriage, but something was wrong. For more than six months Bill felt tired much of the time. He found himself snapping at his kids and growing more distant from his loving wife. His sermon preparation was arduous. He had lost the passion in the pulpit he once had. He was beginning to dread Sundays, because he had to face his flock and deliver a message. He stopped doing the things he loved—riding his bike with a friend and even playing golf. He was eating more and exercising less.
Bill had lost his first wife years before, but had handled the loss amazingly well. He continued to preach and serve others with only a short period of grieving. Two years later he remarried a godly woman who had been friends with his wife. Other than his recent struggle with “motivation,” Bill and his new wife and family were doing great. Now his wife and the elders were concerned with what appeared to be burnout. Was he having some type of mid-life crisis, was he in a spiritual slump, or did he have a physical issue going on that was sapping his energy? Bill couldn’t figure it out. He was spiritually dry, could not concentrate in prayer, and woke up many nights with anxiety. He came to counseling wondering what was going on and just wanted life to go back to normal.
Causes of Depression
Depression certainly can emerge from unconfessed sin as we see in Psalm 51 with King David. But depression can also be a part of suffering loss or being soul weary. There can also be complicating factors like a thyroid disorder, sleep apnea, or diabetes that may bring on depressive symptoms. It is important to do a through assessment and rule out physical factor before focusing on the heart.
The symptoms of depression can be like a dummy light on the dashboard, but, if ignored, they are more like a seized engine. Here are some common symptoms—see if you can identify these in Bill’s life or if you have any of them present in your own life.
Symptoms of Depression
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
- Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- Irritability, restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable
- Overeating or appetite loss
- Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty’ feelings
- Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
Depression varies and is best thought of on a continuum from mild to severe. Mild depression might only include a few of these symptoms like fatigue, increased or decreased appetite, insomnia, periods of feeling down or sad, trouble concentrating, and/or loss of motivation. With youth, irritability and restlessness may be more predominant.
Moderate depression might also include periods of hopelessness, nagging physical issues, feeling alone, a loss of pleasure in most things that were once of high interest.
Severe depression is likely to include guilt, feeling of worthlessness, times of uncontrolled weeping and isolation, trouble functioning at work or even taking care of one’s basic needs, exhaustion and physical lethargy. If left unchecked it can lead to thoughts of suicide or suicidal behavior.
The Particular Vulnerability of Pastors
In Bill’s story, we can see many of the moderate symptoms of depression. He ignored the earlier signs and never really grieved the loss of his wife or the friends they had together. While he seemed to cope well with the loss and the growing pressure of single parenting, he began a slow descent into a depression that affected him spiritually, physically, and mentally. He began to rely on years of experience and a drive to not let anyone down. He was neither serving out of the overflow of a vital relationship with God, nor was he leaning into his community for support and accountability.
Like Bill, many ministry leaders struggle to be transparent for several reasons. It may seem odd or counterintuitive, but the average pastor usually does not have a “Proverbs 17:17 friend.” I have heard over and over, “Who could I tell?” “Who could I burden with this?” “Who can I trust?” “I fear I might lose my job.” Like David, pastors might utter in the privacy of their own thoughts, “no one cares for my soul“ (Ps. 142:4).
Another issue for pastors is spiritual warfare. Satan is a real adversary, and he is particularly good at isolating and targeting pastors and their families. Many pastors grow weary and disconnected. Soon they start to perform outside their position in Christ and fear the opinion of others rather than lean into community.
As Bill stopped abiding, he started performing. He was now even more susceptible to spiritual attacks, feeling like a hypocrite, and running on empty. This “perfect storm” can lead to despair often resulting in pastors and ministry leaders leaving the ministry. It is a good thing to consider whether depression has already affected your ministry or whether you need to make adjustments now to avoid this slippery slope.