Depression and Ministry: How Do We Respond When Our Church Leaders Are Struggling?
Depression and Ministry: How Do We Respond When Our Church Leaders Are Struggling?

“I was sick and you looked after me.”

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By Paul H. Alexander

The pastors’ emotional struggles were widely known. Yet, most people did not know just how real and intense the struggles were day in and day out. Only God knows how much pain these men were in.

About 18 months ago, a pastor in Southern California killed himself. In the following months, two more young pastors also tragically took their own lives. In this area everyone knew someone who was impacted, at least indirectly, by these events. Many men and women I know were affected directly by the tragedies. While I did not know any of those pastors, I understood their pain. When I was a young man, I battled depression for almost a year. It was a very dark and lonely season.

Since that time, I have sought to understand how depression affects leaders. Specifically, I have worked with many pastors who struggle with depression and anxiety. Early in my career, I worked for a Christian mental health company. I was in charge of seminars and the “pastor help line.” Rarely did the help line ring. We did a good job promoting the service, but pastors were reluctant to ask for help. When they did, it was very serious. I always asked why pastors waited to call; the answer was predictably simple: “I was too embarrassed.”

Pastors are in a tight spot. They are responsible for the spiritual, emotional, and sometimes even physical well-being of their flock. They give, sacrifice, lead, pray, teach, and serve, and unfortunately, they get burned out. It is a challenging job with little relief. I know how much pastors give of themselves. As the son of a pastor, I saw firsthand what it is like to always be on call, to always be connected to your flock. My parents served selflessly for 50 years, and I know, at times, it was hard for them.

When the first tragic event happened, I reached out to Gene Appel, the pastor of my church, and asked if I could do a staff in-service presentation on ministry and depression. I’ve worked behind the scenes with churches for many years, helping pastors when they need help or are burned out or, in some cases, hospitalized. I led the training at Eastside Christian Church and the response was positive. I’ve since spoken to 1,300 pastors in California, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Florida, Nebraska, and Minnesota.

Here’s important information you need to know: 6 percent of all adults in the U.S. suffer from clinical depression and 18 percent of adults suffer from one or more anxiety disorders. That’s approximately one in four adults nationwide struggling with significant emotional health issues. Research indicates pastors suffer at these rates, or most likely, even higher rates.

Addressing What Hurts

At the recent ministry and depression seminars, Hope International University colleague Joe Grana and I have been conducting survey research asking pastors to rate nine elements I’ve identified as stressors and potential depression factors for pastors. Three of the “Nasty Nine,” as we refer to them (see sidebar), rise above the rest as problematic for the 1,300 pastors we’ve surveyed. They are: “lack of true soul care,” “unresolved trauma and grief,” and the sense that “programmatic success” is all that matters.

The strongest of the three, the number-one factor weighing on this considerable size sample of pastors in Christian churches, is a “lack of true soul care.” When I steer the seminars to this topic, the pastors in the room get very quiet. I confess to them that this issue is hard for all of us in Christian leadership. We feel called to lead and serve, and we can sense when our energy is waning, yet we don’t stop. We keep going; we go until we can’t.

Why? Why do pastors not stop? Why can’t they take time off when they need to rebalance, heal, rest, and find restoration? These become the most important questions for elders, staff, and pastors. How can we help each other find a new model that allows our pastors to take the time they need when life happens?

I suspect there are some laudable reasons and some pretty lousy reasons. Pastors feel called to their work—work that is critical to them and to the church—and there is always more to do. I also think pastors tend to be people pleasers. They want to be helpful and available—which is great—until it isn’t so great anymore.

Many pastors fantasize about being able to get away to a desert island or the mountains or a resort where they can just be alone. They want to unplug. We must let them.

Only when our pastors get true re-creation can they get the relief they need to determine how to get recharged or address what is hurting.

The second factor identified by the survey is that pastors find it difficult to process trauma and grief. Why? Again, processing trauma and grief takes time and can be embarrassing to admit. Pastors do a great job helping those with trauma and those walking through loss, but they are not so good at asking for time and help when they are hurting or grieving. This also is true of mental health professionals—we’re good at helping others, but not so good at getting the help and rest we need when we are hurting and raw.

Understanding Depression

Among adults in the United States, 15 percent will never go through a depressive season in their lives. The other 85 percent of us will go through one or more of these seasons. If you’ve never been truly depressed, I can best describe it this way: Imagine you have the flu, and you must live your life but never get better. (See sidebar, “Symptoms of Depression.”) Depression hurts. It hurts emotionally, physically, spiritually, and relationally. When this kind of pain goes on for years, people become desperate.

People who don’t understand this pain will almost certainly wonder how a person can take their own life. They see it as selfish. And to a degree, it is selfish. The self is in such pain the person feels they can’t take it any longer. They don’t necessarily want to die, but they are in so much pain they can’t bear to continue to live. When someone takes their own life, hurting family, friends, and the church are left to try to make sense of it. But that is difficult, as well. I’ve tried and failed to comfort people well when this happens.

It boils down to this: Our pastors hurt just like everyone else. We need to support them, pray for them, and help them when they are hurting.

I don’t know whether we have a mental health crisis in ministry. Time will tell. I can tell you our pastors are hungry to learn more about the issue and are open to admitting that self-care is a real challenge.

Responding to the Challenges

What can we do? First, we can pray for our pastors. Second, we can get pastors the help they need when they are headed toward burnout. They need time and a place to recover. Third, we can destigmatize counseling and medical help and encourage hurting pastors to get help. Finally, we can all be more honest about the fact that at times, we are not OK . . . we’re just not.

I was in my twenties and just out of college when I crashed emotionally. My childhood friend, Karl, reached out to me and helped me up from the worst of the pain. It took 10 months to get out of the pit I was in. It took counseling, medical help, and patient friends and co-workers. It was the worst emotional pain of my life, pain I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Sometimes we’re anxious, sometimes we’re depressed. Admitting this makes everything easier and less embarrassing. We can ask the Lord to show us how to treat our leaders with more care and more thought than we have become accustomed. We have been taking from our pastors for a long time. Now is the time for us to give to them. Let’s give generously.

Dr. Paul Alexander is president of Hope International University. He has served at HIU for 25 years in a variety of roles. He is also a licensed marriage and family therapist and ordained pastor. Paul is passionate about helping pastors and churches thrive.

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Symptoms of Depression

Not everyone who is depressed experiences every symptom listed below. The severity of symptoms also varies with individuals. A person’s diagnosis depends on the number of symptoms they have, how strong those symptoms are, and how long they last.

  • Depressed mood most of the day
  • Diminished interest or pleasure in all or most activities
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain (unintentional)
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Physical agitation or sluggishness
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

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The ‘Nasty Nine’ Stressors and Potential Depression Factors for Ministers

  • The sense that programmatic success is all that matters
  • Loneliness and boredom
  • Sibling rivalry on staff
  • Lack of true soul care
  • Unresolved trauma and grief
  • Unclear job expectations
  • Addictions
  • Shame over brokenness
  • A perception of the church as an unpleasable parent

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