Depression and the Ministry, Part 3: A Ministry Sabbatical

July 13, 2011

Steve Viars

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Steve Viars

Depression and the Ministry 3

Editor’s Note: The following is Part Three 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.

I was asked to discuss the question, “If you are dealing with depression, should you step aside temporarily from ministry?” I enter this discussion with trepidation because the phrase “depression blog” is similar to “jumbo shrimp”—the words just really don’t belong together. The last thing a depressed person needs is a response that appears trite, simplistic, or condescending.

As Paul Tripp pointed out in Part One of this series, pastors struggle with depression for a variety of reasons. That is why there is no “one size fits all” answer to the question now before us. However, there are at least eight reasons why it may be wise for a pastor to request a brief sabbatical of perhaps two-to-six months if he is struggling with significant and prolonged depression.

1. To have time to receive a thorough medical exam.

Recently one of our seminary students was experiencing unusual symptoms. At first the doctor was not particularly concerned but eventually offered to schedule additional tests. An MRI revealed the presence of a large tumor in his brain and the necessity for immediate surgery.

Is it likely that the average pastor’s depression is so overtly biologically based? Probably not. But especially if the symptoms are abnormal or characterized by sudden onset, it is best to have a thorough exam to rule out any definitive physiological issues.

2. Because God tells His people to rest.

God rested as an example for all of us to follow (Exodus 20:11). Jesus invited His disciples to “come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest” (Mark 6:31). I have always been amazed at how differently a problem looks and feels after a period of prolonged rest.

3. To spend extended time in prayer and meditation.

Our sympathetic High Priest invites us to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Jesus personally knows the importance of spending extended times of prayer with our Heavenly Father (cf. Matthew 14:23). Those of us who serve Him would be wise to follow His example.

4. Because suffering is a process.

Scripture offers a robust sufferology where men and women authentically cry out to God. We are encouraged to process our hurts and disappointments in a way that draws us closer to our Savior. However, some of us have believed that “time heals all wounds” or that “big boys don’t cry.” A sabbatical allows a pastor struggling with depression to be honest about what is happening to him, in him, and around him. This kind of spiritual and emotional candor is essential to long-term growth and faithfulness.

5. To put the problems you are facing in perspective.

The prophet Elijah became so depressed when threatened by wicked Jezebel that he said, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life” (1 Kings 19:4). Ironically in the previous chapter God gave Elijah a marvelous victory over the 450 prophets of Baal. Stepping away from ministry for a short time can allow a pastor to consider his present challenges in light of the many blessings that often accompany ministry.

6. To give attention to your own heart.

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23). As I mentioned above, depression is a complicated topic and can result from many root causes. But frequently the source is a series of thoughts and desires that are out of sync with the redemptive plan of Christ for our lives.

Being a pastor is like taking a daily trip to Vanity Fair. “I want to be liked and appreciated. I want my church to grow. I want more money. I want respect. I want a bigger auditorium. I want to be invited back to speak in chapel. I want to be famous.

Often our desires—dare I say, idols—run into the reality of daily ministry. “I preached my heart out and no one said a thing. The roof is leaking again. The other elders voted against me. Three families left for the church with the younger pastor and the better worship team.

The pressures and disappointments of ministry are not the causes of depression. Trials are simply the crucible in which the desires of my idolatrous heart are exposed. When that is the case, it is time to slow down and address the wrong motivations that led to disappointment and depression in the first place.

7. To refocus on the joy of the gospel.

Joyless ministry is an oxymoron. Jesus told the Ephesian Christians, “I know your deeds and your toil…you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:2-4).

I have served at the same church for 24 years. I know a little bit about the pains and pressures of ministry. But I also know this—Jesus loved me, and Jesus loves me, and Jesus will always love me. The gospel can put a smile on my sometimes tired, broken heart.

8. To receive godly counsel.

“A wise man will hear and increase in learning, and a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel” (Proverbs 1:5). During your sabbatical, schedule times for you and your wife to meet with other couples in ministry. Tell them your story and listen for the wisdom God is giving you through them.

The Bottom Line

Sometimes a pastor throws in the towel at the very moment God is preparing to stretch him and the church family and bring everyone involved to a deeper place of growth and blessing. Do not make life-altering decisions when you are depressed. Step aside from your ministry assignment for a short period of time. Process the experiences and emotions in a careful and biblical way. Then and only then will God’s will for your next steps become clearer.

The Rest of the Story

Join us for Part Four of this blog mini-series on Depression and the Ministry where Jeremy Lelek addresses the question, “How much should you share about your depression with your congregation?”

Join the Conversation

Of the eight reasons for considering a sabbatical while dealing with depression, which ones do you think are most vital for ministers? Why?


7 thoughts on “Depression and the Ministry, Part 3: A Ministry Sabbatical

  1. Depression is the biggest silent killer.
    It slowly kills from inside without knowing,but a single good response can help to deal with it.
    I totally agree with all the stuff said above.
    I have read all the three parts of this series.
    Thanks for this ultimate post.

    With God’s prayers,
    Vanessa

  2. Unfortunately, and this is only my observation, these messages get preached to the choir.  Often it seems like it’s a leadership board that needs some convincing.  The arguments are all too common, “Well I only get two weeks off a year, why should you have more time off than me?”  “You were on a trip with (fill in the blank – teenagers, senior saints, etc.)?  Well, that’s time out of the office, isn’t it?  Any time I’m out of the office, that’s called, ‘vacation.'”  The sabbatical/vacation discussion can get petty pretty quick, especially for guys who may have inherited some immature leadership.  It’s this kind of misunderstanding about ministry that often leaves a pastor with options somewhere between bad and lousy.  Then, when he needs the break the most, bringing the leadership through the learning curve while he’s drowning is a difficult feat to say the least.  It’s when he’s in the thick of it that he is prone to make costly leadership foibles.  It seems like an awefully common scenerio.  What’s a guy in this situation to do?

    Steve, thank you for contributing these thoughts – succinct and to the point.  This is a thread that I will undoubtedly be drawing from in the future.  I hate to be selfish, but I just hope it’s not me sinking.

  3. “The pressures and disappointments of ministry are not the causes of depression. Trials are simply the crucible in which the desires of my idolatrous heart are exposed. When that is the case, it is time to slow down and address the wrong motivations that led to disappointment and depression in the first place.”I see the wisdom and truth in this statement.  However, could we better say that pressures and disappointments are not the ultimate cause of depression?  The pressures and disappointments are part of the fallout of the fall, and can be legitimately disappointing and depressing, it seems to me.  Obviously, our idolatry is the ultimate culprit.  And, yes, pressures and disappointments have exposed me as a world-class idolator over the years.  But, I think, at times, it is my wrong motivations/idolatry, as well as, the pressures and disappointments that play a part in pastoral depression.Great post!  Thank you for this thoughtful and very helpful material.

  4. Under the first point about a medical exam, depression is sometimes due to neurological deficiencies that require medication. Biologically based depression cannot be treated exactly the same way as normal intense sadness. Those who battle prolonged and debilitating depression in a way that negatively affects their daily functions and relationships should seek medical counsel and be open to the possibility of medicinal aid. But I strongly warn people against accepting medicinal aid without reliable counseling. Even if one learns of a need for medicinal aid, the other dimensions of being (spiritual, emotional, social) must receive equal consideration in the battle. I fear that in some spheres of Christian counseling we dance around this reality. Those who do this must recognize that it is not loyalty to the Bible that leads them. Instead, it is actually an approach that reflects a superficial theology regarding pervasive human depravity. Some, of course, simply knee-jerk to over-diagnosis and over-prescription. Others prefer a simplistic and reductionistic response by acting as if we are only spiritual beings with spiritual needs. None of these approaches, however, is adequately honest and humble. But sadly the knee-jerk responses unnecessarily depict us as people unworthy of trust. For a broader and well-informed reading, I strongly recommend several books: 

    1. “The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sadness Into Depressive Disorder” by Alan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakelfield (shows how standard criteria for diagnosing depressive disorder does not adequately distinguish intense normal sadness from biologically disordered depression) 
    2. The Anti-depressant Era, David Healy (insight into psychiatric pharmacotherapy)
    3. Shyness: How normal behavior became a sickness, Christopher Lane (an analysis of psychiatric classifications)
    4. The Age of Melancholy: Major Depression and its social origins
    5. Deafeating Depression: real hope for life-changing wholeness, Leslie Vernick

    Steve Cornell

    I wrote a brief review of “The Loss of Sadness” at  http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/no-room-for-sadness-a-closer-look-at-depression/

  5. Thanks for this, Steve. I have battled depression my entire adult life, and nothing lifted it but medication, even though I sought spiritual and emotional healing through Christ. Based on my response to one particular medication my Christian MD is convinced my depression is biological.

  6. Pingback: Destaques On-line da semana – n.2/julho 2011 « Conexão Conselho Bíblico

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