Depression and the Ministry, Part 3: A Ministry Sabbatical

Editors’ note: 

The following is part three 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. In part two, Garrett Higbee considered several of the warning signs of depression in a pastor.

I was asked to discuss the question, “If you are dealing with depression, should you step aside temporarily from ministry?” I enter this discussion with trepidation because the phrase “depression blog” is similar to “jumbo shrimp”—the words just really don’t belong together. The last thing a depressed person needs is a response that appears trite, simplistic, or condescending.

As Paul Tripp pointed out in part one of this series, pastors struggle with depression for a variety of reasons. That is why there is no “one size fits all” answer to the question now before us. However, there are at least eight reasons why it may be wise for a pastor to request a brief sabbatical of perhaps two-to-six months if he is struggling with significant and prolonged depression.

1. To have time to receive a thorough medical exam.

Recently one of our seminary students was experiencing unusual symptoms. At first the doctor was not particularly concerned but eventually offered to schedule additional tests. An MRI revealed the presence of a large tumor in his brain and the necessity for immediate surgery.

Is it likely that the average pastor’s depression is so overtly biologically based? Probably not. But especially if the symptoms are abnormal or characterized by sudden onset, it is best to have a thorough exam to rule out any definitive physiological issues.

2. Because God tells his people to rest.

God rested as an example for all of us to follow (Ex. 20:11). Jesus invited his disciples to “come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest” (Mark 6:31). I have always been amazed at how different a problem looks and feels after a period of prolonged rest.

3. To spend extended time in prayer and meditation.

Our sympathetic High Priest invites us to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). Jesus personally knows the importance of spending extended times of prayer with our Heavenly Father (cf. Matt. 14:23). Those of us who serve him would be wise to follow his example.

4. Because suffering is a process.

Scripture offers a robust sufferology where men and women authentically cry out to God. We are encouraged to process our hurts and disappointments in a way that draws us closer to our Savior. However, some of us have believed that “time heals all wounds,” or that “big boys don’t cry.” A sabbatical allows a pastor struggling with depression to be honest about what is happening to him, in him, and around him. This kind of spiritual and emotional candor is essential to long-term growth and faithfulness.

5. To put the problems you are facing in perspective.

The prophet Elijah became so depressed when threatened by wicked Jezebel that he said, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life” (1 Kin. 19:4). Ironically in the previous chapter God gave Elijah a marvelous victory over the 450 prophets of Baal. Stepping away from ministry for a short time can allow a pastor to consider his present challenges in light of the many blessings that often accompany ministry.

6. To give attention to your own heart.

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). As I mentioned above, depression is a complicated topic and can result from many root causes. But frequently the source is a series of thoughts and desires that are out of sync with the redemptive plan of Christ for our lives.

Being a pastor is like taking a daily trip to Vanity Fair: “I want to be liked and appreciated. I want my church to grow. I want more money. I want respect. I want a bigger auditorium. I want to be invited back to speak in chapel. I want to be famous.”

Often our desires—dare I say, idols—run into the reality of daily ministry: “I preached my heart out and no one said a thing. The roof is leaking again. The other elders voted against me. Three families left for the church with the younger pastor and the better worship team.”

The pressures and disappointments of ministry are not the causes of depression. Trials are simply the crucible in which the desires of my idolatrous heart are exposed. When that is the case, it is time to slow down and address the wrong motivations that led to disappointment and depression in the first place.

7. To refocus on the joy of the gospel.

Joyless ministry is an oxymoron. Jesus told the Ephesian Christians, “I know your deeds and your toil . . . you have perseverance and have endured for my name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev. 2:2-4).

I have served at the same church for 24 years. I know a little bit about the pains and pressures of ministry. But I also know this—Jesus loved me, and Jesus loves me, and Jesus will always love me. The gospel can put a smile on my sometimes tired, broken heart.

8. To receive godly counsel.

“A wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel” (Prov. 1:5). During your sabbatical, schedule times for you and your wife to meet with other couples in ministry. Tell them your story and listen for the wisdom God is giving you through them.

The Bottom Line

Sometimes a pastor throws in the towel at the very moment God is preparing to stretch him and the church family and bring everyone involved to a deeper place of growth and blessing. Do not make life-altering decisions when you are depressed. Step aside from your ministry assignment for a short period of time. Process the experiences and emotions in a careful and biblical way. Then and only then will God’s will for your next steps become clearer.