After I first mentioned in public that I take antidepressant medication, a church member and friend stunned me: “If someone had told me that a member of our church ministry team was battling poor mental health, I’d never have guessed it was you!”
I had always assumed my issues were fairly obvious. But then I would. I was the one who spent my days (not to mention long nights) on the shadow side of the ministry mask. It simply hadn’t occurred to me how effective my mask was. Nor had it occurred to me that pastors being open about mental-health struggles could have a positive effect.
Pastors Get Depressed, Too
It seems like ministers shouldn’t get depressed, doesn’t it? Jesus is sufficient!
He is indeed. But none of that prevents illness of the mind. If it did, we’d have to call into question the spiritual state of King David and other psalmists, of Elijah and Jeremiah, perhaps even of Paul. It would likewise cast shadows over the likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin, C. H. Spurgeon and C. S. Lewis. Because, quite frankly, many ministers do get depressed. The evidence is clear and the testimonies cascade.
Church ministry, for all its rewards and joys, is often lonely, stressful, and caged by unreal expectations. Pastoral work is never done; it’s relentless.
Pastors live in the same world as those we serve. A large percentage of people will have to deal with depression or an equivalent during their lives (25 percent is often touted, though who can really know?). Why should be you and I be any different?
In fact, we might expect the proportion of pastors to be higher than the general population. Church ministry, for all its rewards and joys, is often lonely, stressful, and caged by unreal expectations. Pastoral work is never done; it’s relentless. We engage with people in times of crisis. We aren’t perfect, nor omnicompetent, nor endowed with limitless stamina. So, naturally, we struggle. But because of a prevailing stigma, perhaps particularly in the church, we don’t want people to know what we’re dealing with.
The Sharing Dilemma
When it comes to any sensitive personal issue, everyone in public ministry must find their own threshold between oversharing about weaknesses and the mask of saintly perfection. At the poles of this sharing spectrum are obvious errors and dangers.
For starters, there’s oversharing. We’re hardly meant, as ambassadors of Christ, to talk about ourselves all the time. Also, not everyone in the church needs to know about everything you struggle with. It’s good for ministers and their families to have privacy. Also, it can be a risk to open up at all. I recently heard of elders assuring a pastor and his wife of their commitment to them, such that they could share their real heart-pain. So they did. Two weeks later, they were fired.
Pastors who work through, not despite, brokenness have far greater traction today than the slick schtick of TV presenters.
At the other extreme, a minister can be so buttoned down that few, if any, get anywhere close to him. Perhaps he can hide his depression and other struggles. This leads to two problems. First, congregants might assume their pastor floats higher than mortals. They might be impressed for a while, but when their own troubles come, discouragement and even despair inevitably follow. The pastor clearly can’t relate to these troubles, so the people stop listening. Second, people presume concealment. The pastor can’t be that good, surely? A presumption of hypocrisy, if not outright guilt, is now the norm. The result? The people stop listening.
Pastor Opens Up
It’s good when pastors wisely open up. But opening up about mental health? It’s one thing to talk openly about spiritual battles and temptations (though not in too much detail, except to a few close friends); it’s another matter entirely to admit to depression. Right?
But when circumstances and personal confidence allow, it can be of great benefit to a congregation when a pastor is open about this issue—for several reasons.
First, openness serves the health of the fellowship. When I first preached about depression at All Souls, the response was largely positive. A few found it difficult to cope with a minister having his own problems—they needed him to deal with theirs! But that was only a handful. Most significant for me was the number who felt they could now admit their own challenges for the first time. It gave them permission: “Well if he can say it publicly, perhaps I can too.” The fellowship of the church ought to be the place of safety par excellence for those who know they are weak, fallible, and broken.
Second, openness is crucial for witnessing to a cynical world. This obviously requires elaboration, but many today are exasperated by spin and bravado, which they can sniff a mile off. Prevailing suspicions about religious institutions will only be confirmed by leaders who appear to live in denial of their humanness and brokenness. This isn’t simply the pursuit of that political holy grail, “authenticity.” It’s a matter of realism about life’s complexities and questions. Pastors who work through, not despite, brokenness have far greater traction today than the slick schtick of TV presenters.
There is no one right answer, but I would encourage pastors with depression to consider sharing their struggles with their congregations. Your honesty could bear beautiful fruit.