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Depression and the Ministry, Part 1: The Setup

July 11, 2011

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Paul Tripp

Depression and the Ministry 1

Editor’s Note: The following is Part One of a five-part blog mini-series on Depression and the Ministry. The series is a joint effort of the Biblical Counseling Coalition and The Gospel Coalition.

Sam’s Story

I was there the week it happened. His wife asked to see me. Tearfully she told me that he had walked into the church building that week and announced to his staff that he was “done.” He said he couldn’t face preaching another sermon; that all that he really wanted to do was to run away from his own life. Sam was forty-five and the pastor of a vibrant and growing church.

I am convinced that there are important changes needed in pastoral culture and that the number of pastors who find themselves in the range from discouraged to depressed give clear evidence of this. Let me suggest four potential setups of this discouragement/depression cycle in ministry.

Setup # 1: Unrealistic Expectations

I taught a class at Westminster Seminary on pastoral care and I was impressed year after year about how unrealistic the expectations of my future-pastor students were. Year after year my students seemed to forget the two things that consistently make pastoral ministry hard. What are they? The harsh reality of life in a dramatically broken world and what remaining sin does to the hearts of us all. These two things make pastoral ministry a day by day spiritual war.

But there is another area of unrealistic expectations. It is the congregation’s unrealistic expectation of the pastor. Churches forget that they have called a person who is a man in the midst of his own sanctification. This tends to drive the pastor into hiding, afraid to confess what is true of him and everyone to whom he ministers. There is a direct connection between unrealistic expectations and deepening cycles of disappointment.

Setup # 2: Family Tensions

There is often a significant gulf between the public persona of the ministry family and the realities of the day by day struggles in their home. We almost assume that the pastor will feel regularly torn between ministry and family and will be often forced to make “lesser of two evils” choices.

Yet this tension is not a major theme in the Pastoral Epistles. Could it be that we are asking too much of our pastors? Could it be that, as pastors, we are seeking to get things out of ministry that we should not get and therefore make choices that potentially harm our families? This tension between family and ministry robs pastoral ministry of its joy and its seeming insurmountability is a sure set up for depression.

Setup # 3: Fear of Man

The very public nature of pastoral ministry makes it fertile soil for this temptation. I know what it’s like to be all too aware of the critical person’s responses to me as I preach on a Sunday morning. I also know the temptation of thinking of what would win that person as I am preparing the sermon!

Fear of man is actually asking people to give you what only God can deliver. It is rooted in a Gospel amnesia that causes me to seek again and again for what I have already been given in Christ. This then causes me to watch for and care too much about the reactions of others, and because I do this, to feel like I get way more criticism than I deserve. Each new duty begins to be viewed as another forum for the criticism of others and with this, the emotional life of the pastor begins to spin downward.

Setup # 4: Kingdom Confusion

It is very tempting for the pastor to do his work in pursuit of other glories than the glory of God and for other purposes than the purposes of God’s kingdom. Personal acclaim and reputation, power and control, comfort and appreciation, and ministry success are the subtle little kingdom idols that greet every pastor. Yet, in pastoral ministry, the kingdom of self is a costume kingdom.  It does a great job of masquerading as the kingdom of God, because the way you seek to build the kingdom of self in ministry is by doing ministry!

The reality is that the God the pastor serves has no allegiance whatsoever to the pastor’s little kingdom of self. In fact, I am persuaded that much of the ministry opposition that we attribute to the enemy is actually God getting in the way of the little kingdom intentions of the pastor. It is God, in grace, rescuing the pastor from himself.

So as the pastor wants recognition, his Lord wants Gospel transformation. As God is calling the pastor to spiritual war, what the pastor wants is to be liked. As the pastor is wanting just a little bit of control, God is demonstrating that He is in control.

It is discouraging and exhausting to be serving God, yet not be on God’s agenda page. This kingdom confusion robs the pastor of the deep sense of privilege that should motivate the service of every pastor. My pastor friend said it well to his wife, “I just want to go somewhere where life is easy!”

Run to Him

Depression in the pastor may be set up by the culture that surrounds him, but it is a disease of the heart and for that we have the presence, promises, and provisions of the Savior. Pastor, He is in you and with you and for you. No one cares more about the use of your gifts than the Giver. No one cares more about your suffering than the One who suffered for you. And no one shoulders the burden of the church like the One who is the Head of the church and who gave himself up for it.

In your despondency, don’t run from Him, run to Him. Jesus really does offer you the hope and healing that you can find nowhere else.

The Rest of the Story

Join us for Part Two of this blog mini-series on Depression and the Ministry when Pastor Garrett Higbee addresses the questions, “How do you know when you’re depressed? What are the symptoms? Are there any unique issues for pastors?”

Join the Conversation

What additional leading causes, especially related to pastors and ministry, would you suggest for depression?


16 thoughts on “Depression and the Ministry, Part 1: The Setup

  1. A very insightful and helpful start to what I perceive to be a great 5-part series! I already sense the Spirit sent this series just for me. Thanks, Paul. Two sentences will hopefully change my thinking forever: “Fear of man is actually asking people to give you what only God can deliver. It is rooted in a Gospel amnesia that causes me to seek again and again for what I have already been given in Christ.”

  2. What a great focus! Thank you Bob for providing this and Paul for the thoughtful encouragements! 
    Recent statistics on pastoral burnout are alarming. After 27 years of pastoral ministry (from youth pastor to Church planter to large multi-staffed Church), I’ve experienced the cycles of challenge. The points here are excellent. Prominent leaders who recently took (are taking) time away from ministry have offered transparent insights on this subject (e.g. Piper and CJ Mahaney). 

    Early on in Church planting, I came dangerously close to burn out and tell my story here for those interested: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/a-close-encounter-with-burnout/). Being an elder/pastor is a constant reminder for me that God put His “treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (II Corinthians 4:7). “Who is equal to such a task?” The word of the apostle is never far from a shepherd’s heart: “not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (I Peter 5:3). Examples are badly needed but not easily provided. It’s tough to be a good example when so aware of our own sins! We need to be examples of those who live under God’s mercy.I try to remember that the rhythm of personal transformation and pastoral ministry is death and renewal (II Corinthains 4:10-12). I also try to practice the rhythm of spiritual activity our Lord followed – a pattern of engagement and withdrawal; of crowds and solitude. (http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2010/11/05/rhythm-of-life-and-ministry-for-pastors/) . 

  3. Great topic!  Early on I really struggled with burning the wick at both ends because I was finding my identity in perceived ministry success.  Fortunately I was in a situation where I felt like I could be honest with those in leadership and I will always be grateful for their understanding and generous response.  As a young man in ministry with limited funds, the church leadership sent us to a pastors’ retreat, not a conference, but a serene place where we could go and really experience solitude, solitude that was directed from men and their wives who have been there.  It was a week of absolute spiritual refreshment and restoration for my wife and me.  Since then, I have spoken with numerous camps and organizations that want to assist weary pastors with a reprieve.  When things have really spiralled out of control, it is difficult to escape the daily technological onslaught with people demanding your attention from every angle.  Sometimes relocating and retreating for the purpose of regrouping, refocusing, reorienting and perhaps even rescuing are necessary.  I strongly encourage pastors struggling at this level not to make any rash decisions without first humbly coming before the Lord in a  season of fasting, prayer and retreat.  It has always fascinated me to consider the men in Scripture who underwent “wilderness experiences” that forged the trajectory of their spiritual development and future ministry.  Moses, David, Elijah and even Jesus retreated to take a step back from their mobbing circumstances to receive clarity from God.

    Another thought, which I think fits the scope of this discussion as it relates to pastors, is that there really are times when some pastors need to experience this kind of sifting in their lives.  First, because God effectively uses it to humble a man.  Who among us is not in daily need of that?  I dare say, if there is one benefit to depression it is that it can a be a humbling process.  Secondly, what about the man in ministry who is there by compulsion (self-imposed or otherwise) and not by calling?  Sadly, there seem to be times when a man who is not truly called requires heavy pressure from the Lord to begin considering whether he ought to be holding the office of pastor.  These cases are often devestating on numerous levels and speak to the importance of mentoring young men for ministry, as Paul describes in 2 Timothy.  Those not mentored, with minimal godly, personal input in their lives, seem to be most susceptible to depression, burn out, doubting their calling, and even entering the ministry with shaky assurance that pastoral ministry is indeed their calling.  Perhaps that might make for a good BCC article, “When should a pastor reconsider his calling?”  And/or “How do you know as a pastor that it’s time to consider a different ministry?”

    Steve, I am very interested in hearing your story.  Unfortunately, the link provided failed.  I’ll keep trying.  Looking forward to the rest of the series!

  4. Jeff, 

    Sorry about the link. Here it is: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/a-close-encounter-with-burnout/

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