Depression & Ministry

By Greg Wells

It's not something that was ever discussed in my classes while preparing for full-time ministry. It wasn’t even a topic of discussion when I went through ordination or during my first full-time ministry job interview. But just because I didn’t talk about it in conversation or interviews didn’t make it any less real.

On the contrary, depression is very real.

Depression affects many pastors and ministry leaders in a very serious way.  

Many of you have probably read the recent news of Andrew Stoecklein, a California pastor who took his own life this past Saturday after battling with depression and anxiety for an unknown amount of time. This tragedy might seem unthinkable to many, but it shows a difficult truth that needs to be talked about openly. It gives a realistic glimpse “behind the curtain” of the people leading our ministries.

We don’t know all of the details of Andrew’s life and what led to this tragedy. His issues with anxiety and depression could have been completely unrelated to his role as a pastor.

But we do recognize depression as something that affects an overwhelmingly large amount of ministry leaders.

According to a 2017 study conducted by The Fuller Institute, George Barna, Lifeway, the Schaeffer Institute of Leadership Development, and Pastoral Care Inc., 35% of pastors and ministry leaders suffer from depression.

If that isn’t bad enough, 70% of pastors and ministry leaders do not have someone in their life that they can be vulnerable with.

How can this be? If these people are spiritual leaders, shouldn’t their lives be full of joy, peace, and fulfillment?

Sure, spiritual leaders (and anyone else) can experience all of those things - but ministry leaders are people too. They may be the ones that others come to with their burdens, confessions, and secrets, but they are commonly misconceived as people that are above those things, almost like they’re inhuman. They have set the bar so high for themselves that they can easily crumble under pressure to have it all together.

In turn, this can cause spiritual leaders to pretend their struggles don’t exist so they can simply make space for the struggles of others. This becomes especially dangerous when those struggles are sin.

In my personal ministry journey, there was a time when I was living in blatant sin. All spiritual growth stopped in my own life because of it and that led me to being consumed by anger and resentment. I should have been angry for letting the sin in my life keep me from intimacy with God, but instead, I took my anger out on God for placing me where He did. That anger became shame, and it brought me to a very dark place of depression that made me feel like I was drowning every day. My own family didn’t recognize me during this season. I didn’t want to work, worship, or spend time with the people who loved me. It took a very difficult conversation with some trusted people in my life that finally led me to the conclusion that I was sinning and needed to confess.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.

James 5:16

The pastor or ministry leader that is living at the inhuman standard might read this verse with a cynical heart. Why? Because many times they have no one to confess to.

Isn’t it funny that when we read stories in the Bible about people like David, Moses, Noah, Abraham, Paul, etc., that many of them had sin, but they didn’t initially confess it to anyone else? God oftentimes sent a prophet or messenger to tell them they were living in sin. If those heroes of the faith struggled to talk with anyone else about the weight they carried or even to confess, present day pastors and ministry leaders should certainly expect talking about the hardships of ministry life and sin to be difficult.

And here lies what is many times the source to depression for pastors and ministry leaders. Instead of confession and open discussion, fear sets in. Fear of inadequacy, fear of losing their job, fear of losing trust with the people of the church, fear of losing their family, the list goes on and on. Fear leads to shame, and then shame can lead to depression. It’s an endless cycle that is hard to break.             

But there is hope. And with God there is more than hope, there is healing. Along with numerous written resources (with links below), these action points are a great place to start for ministry leaders fighting depression:

1. Seek Professional Counseling:

Professional counseling has almost always had a negative connotation, but it should be considered as normal as physical exercise. Instead of focusing on exercise for your physical health like weight, heart rate, and logging miles, this exercise for your brain happens through discussion, confession, and healing from your past. This should be required of anyone that has dedicated their entire life to shepherd imperfect people while also being imperfect themselves.

2. Seek a Trusted Friend / Accountability Partner:

As Christians, we know that we are not meant to do life alone, but that can be easy to forget in difficult seasons. Each ministry leader should have at least one source of accountability in their life, if not more. They can (but don’t have to) be in the same church or community. They could easily be someone that it takes a phone call to connect with. This person should know the good and the bad. They should hear the confession and struggles. They are a source of truth and encouragement when you need to hear it. Ministry leaders simply cannot carry the pressures of ministry by themselves.

3. Seek Rest & Restoration:

Many pastors would consider themselves on call 24/7. If not maintained properly, this can lead to serious consequences including poor physical health, resentment of the people in their church, and burnout in ministry. Because of the lack of rest, many pastors find themselves only reading the Word in preparation rather than for personal spiritual development. Resting, in our society, is considered as moments that you aren’t doing your job. For the majority, when we aren’t doing our job, we are cleaning the house, going to a kid’s birthday party, yard work, grocery shopping, and other miscellaneous events. This is not resting. Setting time aside for rest means turning your phone off, no computer, no agenda. Much like what you would do when you have hiked to a mountaintop to take in the scenery for a moment, resting means you are at a complete stop and can look, listen, and take an assessment of where you are through silence, prayer (and yes, naps).

If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help through the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

You can read more about ministry health, statistics, and other resources here:

Stats on Mental Health in the Church

Soul Shepherding: Pastors Under Stress

Pastoral Care Inc.

Faith & Health Connection: A Resource for Pastors Struggling

We also recommend finding a counselor that you trust and has experience in helping ministry leaders. Check out our friends at Hopetown Counseling