Preaching, Depression, and Your Ministers Mental Health
I want to say from the outset of this article that I have never been clinically diagnosed as having depression. It’s for this reason that I have put off writing this article for as long as I have (the last year or so). I do struggle with mental health, and a lot of days those struggles fit a lot of the criteria for depression. I am writing this not for the sake of sympathy, but for the sake of awareness knowing that I am not the only minister who feels this way. A lot of us could use your help, church. Let’s talk about it.
Mental Health and the Minister
It seems paradoxical: how could someone who spends all their time studying God’s word struggle so much with their mental, emotional, and spiritual health? As weird as it may sound this is not an uncommon phenomenon. I’m reminded of the apostle Paul who, after listing all the pains he’s had to endure to as a servant of God, he lists this as his most prominent struggle:
“And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
(2 Cor. 11:28)
Paul’s sleepless nights he spent aching for Christ’s bride were worse than any beating, shipwreck, or prison sentence. How could someone who spends all their time studying God’s word struggle so much with their mental, emotional, and spiritual health?
The pressure gets to be too much.
The minister faces pressures to perform. He faces the pressure to grow. He thinks of those in the audience any given Sunday and crafts a message for them, only for it to be largely, at least in his mind, ignored. He feels the demands of others on his time, his family, and his finances. He sees how other churches are growing and wonders why the same isn’t happening where he preaches. He knows the hurts of those in the congregation and thinks constantly about how to help. He hears the horror stories of other ministers and their firings and worries about his job. He beats himself up over the family that left because he didn’t visit enough. He thinks about his sermon the following Monday and over everything he should have said differently. He wonders why no one comes forward. He wonders why he hasn’t been invited over to anyone’s house in a while. He wonders if anyone at church actually likes him.
Think about all the thoughts that nag at you when you have time alone.
Why did I say that?
Do I really look like this?
Why am I so impatient with my children?
Your preacher likely deals with similar nagging thoughts.
Am I spending enough time with my family?
Why aren’t they responding to my lessons?
Am I the man God wants me to be?
The mental health of the minister sometimes deteriorates because the pressure gets to be too much.
They are carrying baggage from previous experiences.
Of the three listed here, I identify with this one the most. A couple (almost three) years ago I was fired from my first job in ministry. I was given a number of reasons for my termination, but ultimately I was let go because of my performance. I wasn’t what they were looking for.
I wasn’t good enough.
I have carried that baggage around with me for the last couple of years. Over that time a lot about me has changed as a result. I have always been introverted, but over the last couple of years I have become almost completely averse to people. My general outlook on life has been biased towards negativity. It’s not that I see bad around every corner, I just find myself clinging to the hope that there is something “better” a lot more than I used to. I didn’t use to struggle so much with sleep. I didn’t use to feel so out of place in church. I didn’t use to stand in a foyer filled with 100 plus people and feel completely alone.
This isn’t my life every day, but it is my life a lot of days. Unfortunately for the church I serve now, they have to deal with this version of me even though it’s not their fault. People carry baggage around with them wherever they go. Past experiences shape future ones for better or worse. It doesn’t have to be a firing. It can be something as simple as how one member treated your minister at his last work.
Sometimes ministers bring the baggage, other times just the effects of the baggage. Either way their mental health suffers.
They aren’t ministered to.
Most of the ministers I know minister because they can’t do anything else. Not “can’t” as in ability, but “can’t” as in anything less than ministry would result in a deep longing for something more in them. As a result, most ministers I know pour themselves completely into their work. They focus on their study, their preaching, their teaching, the members, and the surrounding community. They want to be the best man they can be. They want every lesson to make an impact and make sure every individual in their church and community knows how much they are loved by Jesus.
When the minister comes to worship on Sunday he comes to work. He comes to empty himself of all that he’s learned during the week. He comes to take all of his hours on study and crafting and distill it into a 30-minute delivery. He comes to give it everything he has got.
Once Sunday is over, it’s back to the grindstone. He leaves empty. He leaves knowing that the next Sunday is seven days away. He leaves knowing that he needs to get up and get going on Monday because he is handling the word of God and he better handle it correctly. He leaves knowing that if he wants to be filled up, he has to do it himself.
Sometimes ministers suffer mentally because they minister to others, but do not receive any ministering themselves.
They need real help
Some ministers struggle with their mental health because they have actual chemical imbalances in their brain. Ministers are not immune to health struggles for which they need an actual doctor to diagnose and treat them. Recently a minister out in California committed suicide. Not long before he explained his panic attacks and pains to his congregation. Ministers, it is okay to admit you need help. Church, if your preacher speaks out about his struggles or shows signs of panic, encourage him to receive the help he needs from a professional.
What Your Minister Needs to Survive
Up to this point, a gloomy picture has been painted. Understand that none of this article has been hyperbole. At some point my mind has visited nearly every one of these places over the span of my short ministry. Not every minister struggles with these areas exactly, but they do fight battles that are similar to those listed above. So what can we do about it?
Give your minister time to recharge.
Give your minister some time off, and I don’t mean Monday to Saturday. Let him take a Sunday to visit somewhere else. Have someone fill in so he can be filled up by another preacher somewhere else. Allow him to go worship without having to worry about his lesson for the day. Pay his way to lectureships and seminars each year so that he can hear and be built up by speakers other than himself. Even Jesus needed time to get away from those He ministered to (Mt. 14:13). Give your minister time to be filled up.
Give your minister security.
Preachers who are constantly worried about their finances or job security make poor preachers. Reaffirm to him that he is your guy. Let him know that you have his back when others turn against him. There have been too many horror stories of preachers being let go without any warning because the congregation just wasn’t feeling it anymore. Let your preacher know that he is secure there.
Remind him that you appreciate him and want him. Along these lines, provide your minister financial security by paying him enough to take care of his family (see 1 Cor. 9:3-12). A preacher that is always worried about his finances is not going to have the mental ability to focus on how to best reach the church and community with the gospel. Give your minister financial and job security.
Give your minister friendship.
Your minister is a minster because he loves two things: God and God’s people. Preaching is a people business. We need relationships. We need friendships. We need people who see us outside of Sundays and Wednesdays. We need people who want to be around us. We need people who will take us out to dinner and invite us to see a movie. Be friends with your minister. He won’t survive without you.
And ministers, admit that you need the help.
There is something to be said here to those that are ministers as well. For as much as I have said we don’t like for others to hold us up and put us on pedestals, I have to admit that preachers are sometimes guilty of holding themselves up telling themselves “you can rise above it on your own”. Ministers, if you need help, get help. Don’t pretend to be something you are not: perfect. Preach with openness. I am convinced that part of the reason members think we have everything put together in our lives is because we pretend that we do by remaining silent in our struggles. We are not above the comfort of our fellow Christians. Tell your church you need them.
Church, love your ministers. They aren’t perfect. They are damaged. Love them. Invite them to spend time with you. Give them patience and understanding. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Be involved in their efforts. Encourage them. In order for ministers to stay mentally healthy it takes a church. It takes you.