I want to share with you the results of a little survey I did via twitter. It is important to emphasise that these twitter polls don’t count as scientific surveys with appropriate proportions of people and adjustments. Therefore, the percentages are a little meaningless. So, what I’d encourage you to do is to look past those proportions. The poll will not tell you the percentage of pastors who experience depression or the proportion for each reason. However, what it tells you is that within 24 hour period, I was able to connect with a number of pastors who have experienced depression for the reasons surveyed.
Here are the results
The important things to note here are first of all, that pastors experience depression. If you are a pastor/church leader, please know that you are not alone. I’d encourage you to have a look at Grace in the Depths (wordpress.com) where you will be able to read the stories of several pastors who have gone though depression and other emotional health challenges.
Secondly, in a number of cases, this relates to underlying health issues and/or to past trauma. This raises questions about whether we have appropriate help and support in place for people in, entering or considering full time Gospel ministry. I wonder whether, for example, it would be helpful to provide for a full medical check up, including opportunities to work through mental health issues during theological training. It would be important to emphasise that experiencing mental health problems does not preclude someone from ministry so that such a check up is not seen as a threat. The aim would not be to screen people out of ministry but to ensure they are given the full help and support needed. Now there will be a cost to this and I wonder whether some people who are thinking about how to support training for ministry might want to prioritise this?
Thirdly, we should be deeply concerned to hear from pastors saying that the causes of their depression include church-based factors such as division, false accusation and bullying. I suspect that although people could only choose one option that those who ticked any of these categories would say that it amounted to a combination of the above. This must challenge all of us to consider how we encourage healthy churches that hold to a culture of grace not just the doctrines of grace.
Fourthly, don’t lose sight of the fact that several people linked their depression simply to the toughness of their context. As we talk more and more about the need to get the Gospel into hard places, we need to prepare for the emotional toll. We need to see prayer as a priority because there is spiritual warfare here. Practically, I think we also need to look more at how we support those working in the toughest places with partnership so that they don’t feel alone and with opportunities for breaks to seek refreshment and renewal.
Now, this is not part of the survey but my fifth point arises from a hunch. I also suspect that we need to do some work following up on those who have left the ministry. I suspect that many who left did so because of mental health issues. I also wouldn’t be surprised to discover that a lot of retired pastors actually struggled with depression through a day and age when it was even more taboo to own the diagnosis and no doubt continue to do so.
I would again encourage people to link up with the Grace in the Depths website. Also, please feel free to get in touch with me via the contact form if this article has raised things you would like to talk about. Finally, I would like to see this pushed higher up the agenda of our church networks and theological colleges.