Depression and the Path of the Pastor

CAPTAIN OBVIOUS

Pastoring has changed in many ways from the way I entered it 33 years ago. The expectations are now so different. Not just the expectations of others, but the expectations we have for ourselves.

As podcasts have become available, the obvious challenge is: Can I keep up with the quality/level of preaching of _____? Can I be an entrepreneur like _____? Can I do counseling like ______? Can I do leadership like ______? Can I take us to being a megachurch? The list is endless.

The answers are the same. No. Probably not. But no doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

Peter looks at Jesus and asks about John’s future with an envy birthed from comparison – “What about him?” And Jesus retorts, “it’s none of your business.”

We live in America, the land of comparison and condemnation, and it subtly seeps into our souls. If we’re not careful, we end up doing the math on ourselves like a board of trustees instead of evaluating our faithfulness. The fruit of what we do is in the hands of God. All we can really do is remind ourselves that our roots are deep in Him. Apart from Him, nothing. With Him, all things are possible. And if we don’t manage our own personal expectations and evaluations, we will fall into the despair of the world because we have chosen the world’s judgments in our hearts over the reign of God in our hearts.

CAPTAIN NOT SO OBVIOUS

Pastoring is a relational job. Each of us have a certain relational capacity. Normal people in normal times have a certain amount of death, divorce, drugs and other problems hit them and their family. But not the pastor.

The pastor is in a war zone that he cannot control. The amount of damage we witness and experience is devastating. Putting little coffins in the ground. Watching families shatter. Visiting people in rehab. The list goes on and on. The emotional experience of the pastor is monumentally unreasonable.

I’m not prepared to call it PTSD, but it is something akin to it. And the pain of it drives pastors into porn, insomnia, addictions and all sorts of other false gods of comfort. When this happens, the dark circle of shame, isolation, and anesthetics can take over and drive us away from both God and our true selves.

ARE YOU DEPRESSED YET?

2 Timothy 4:16-17 says “At my first defense no one supported me, but all had deserted me, may it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me.” Paul, here, is describing his experience in the midst of dire circumstances. But if we broaden our view of Paul’s ministry we see this is not uncommon. His own wrestling with a thorn in his side, being misunderstood by others, even the temptation to judge himself.

But notice some broad strokes:

  • I don’t even judge myself.
  • Timothy is like a son to me.
  • The generosity of some churches.
  • His choice of staying here to help others, even though heaven is far better.

In these and other passages you see a level of self-awareness and self-care that is important for pastors to recognize and adopt for the long haul.

My mentor Howard Henricks told me once, “self-care is the starting block for ministry. It isn’t selfish, it is the stewardship of self to maximize capacity for others. You are building a reservoir from which you will take care of others, and it must be your first priority, because if you destroy yourself, you will destroy them. The shepherd’s life, while similar, is not the same as the sheep’s.”

Depression is a default position for ministry unless you stop it. That is to say, we have an impossible task that is overwhelming. Satan, the world, and the flesh are all against us in a strident and relentless war to crush our spirits. Second Corinthians 4 says “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

I would caution anyone in ministry to have a plan to manage the very real emotional and expectational pressures of ministry. Each plan is different, but each plan must have a means to connect to God in such a way as to process pain on the increased level of pastoral pressures.

Self-judgment will destroy you.

When Paul talks we know full well what he did prior to his conversion. He could have wallowed in it. Instead, he approached his past differently. In Philippians 3 we hear “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

We need people to walk with us in our inner life. It can be Timothy as a mentoring relationship. It can be elders in your church or pastors from other churches. There are a variety of coaching cohorts and all sorts of things.

Isolation from vulnerability, confession, and focused encouragement is a time bomb. In 33 years of ministry I’ve see superstars come and go. I’ve got books on my shelf from people that have gone down in flames. And the most successfully built moats and castle walls constructed to protect themselves turned into a prison that trapped them in their own madness. You won’t make it alone, even if you’ve made it thus far.

There is nothing like the joy of sharing ministry with other pastors when it all goes wrong. When you realize you’re not alone in your failures, foolishness, and faithlessness. When grace pours out of the visage of someone who actually knows what we face. When prodigal pastors find the Father’s heart in other pastors. Sometimes to be real, grace needs a face.

Some of us need counseling. Some need meds. Most of us need sleep. We could eat better. Probably ought to work out. This list of vagueness needs to become focused before it’s too late. You know, like all those people in your office for counseling about a marriage or something else that is already too far gone to save.

We must find a rhythm and pace for our lives and each of us is different. But it must be specific, or we will become a statistic. I suggest each person come up with a weekly; quarterly; and yearly plan for processing pastoring emotionally. Prayer time, sabbatical time, counseling time, fellowship with pastors, deep times of lamentation, consistent journaling, times in the Psalms walking with a shepherd who was processing his pain with his God.

I WOULDN’T TRADE MY PASTORAL DEPRESSION FOR ANYTHING IN THE WORLD.

What, why?! Well, everyone talks glibly about dependence, brokenness, desperation, and that those sort of things drive us deeper into God. We find our systems, skills, and spirituality bankrupt or woefully underdeveloped. We get exposed and that exposure pushes us into the stark reality that “apart from Him…nothing.” It’s also liberating.

The voracious ego and vanity machine in my mind finds out I’m not that impressive. And the world echoes in refrain and comparison the same chorus. This will drive me somewhere, and that somewhere is either God or something pretty dark. But if I choose to run transparently into grace, I find a shelter from the storm that success could never provide. 

Depression also deepens my empathy through agony. Anyone in a care-giving occupation either gets really mature and wise about empathy or becomes a burnt-out husk of cynicism and apathy. Nurses, teachers, police officers and us – 10 years into the job you usually end up on one end of the scale or the other. I want my depression to deepen me, make me more dependent on Him, and grow my heart large enough and strong enough to pastor the people entrusted to me. I’m not sure I can stop it, but I’m very sure I can aim it’s effects on and in me in healthy and holy directions…or…quite the opposite. You too, I’m guessing.

May you find God’s path for your pastoral depression. May it deepen you. May it destroy your vanity. May it make you desperately dependent on Him. May it broaden your empathy. May it be a gift, a dangerous gift, that you wisely steward for your King. May it direct you and not destroy you. Amen.

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David Sherwood
Dave's been a pastor for 33 years. He's planted a micro-church [mosaic]; worked for a megachurch [lifechurch]; started an intentional community house, ran a music club, and taught at a seminary. He fails at everything all the time and is restored by God every day. He lives for God's glory and his salvation story involves getting drunk one night and reading a stolen copy of "mere christianity" till dawn. You wouldn't be impressed by him in any way, but His God is extraordinary and overshadows his flaws with His glory.
David Sherwood

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