When your pastor gets depressed -what might have caused it?

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I recently wrote an article for the Grace in the Depths website outlining the common signs and common causes of depression.  I did so because one of the challenges we face when talking about church leaders and depression is identifying that someone has depression. The second and related challenge is that often the subject remains taboo, we can feel ashamed to say that we have depression. Yet look at this list again:

  • Abuse. Past physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can increase the vulnerability to clinical depression later in life.
  • Certain medications. Some drugs, such as isotretinoin (used to treat acne), the antiviral drug interferon-alpha, and corticosteroids, can increase your risk of depression.
  • Conflict. Depression in someone who has the biological vulnerability to develop depression may result from personal conflicts or disputes with family members or friends.
  • Death or a loss. Sadness or grief from the death or loss of a loved one, though natural, may increase the risk of depression.
  • Genetics. A family history of depression may increase the risk. It’s thought that depression is a complex trait, meaning that there are probably many different genes that each exert small effects, rather than a single gene that contributes to disease risk. The genetics of depression, like most psychiatric disorders, are not as simple or straightforward as in purely genetic diseases such as Huntington’s chorea or cystic fibrosis.
  • Major events. Even good events such as starting a new job, graduating, or getting married can lead to depression. So can moving, losing a job or income, getting divorced, or retiring. However, the syndrome of clinical depression is never just a “normal” response to stressful life events.
  • Other personal problems. Problems such as social isolation due to other mental illnesses or being cast out of a family or social group can contribute to the risk of developing clinical depression.
  • Serious illnesses. Sometimes depression co-exists with a major illness or may be triggered by another medical condition.
  • Substance abuse. Nearly 30% of people with substance abuse problems also have major or clinical depression. Even if drugs or alcohol temporarily make you feel better, they ultimately will aggravate depression.”

The list includes a number of causes that anyone regardless of background are at risk form including  genetics, serious illness and medications. However, let’s talk about a few of them where there are heightened challenges for pastors.

Social Isolation

This is listed as an example under “other personal problems.”  Most of us have been exposed to this in some measure over the past year. Now, we might think of the pastor as being well connected socially but remember that they will spend much of the week working from home alone as they study and prepare talks and Bible studies. A lot of the interaction they have with others during the week is not what we would consider social, it’s not banter between colleagues or meet ups with friends after work but rather part of their formal work.  One challenge with that is about where and who do they offload to? 

Death or loss

Pastors spend a lot of time with the bereaved, often they vicariously grieve with their parishoners and they grieve for them as they see the pain they are going through. Pastors experience loss in other ways too. When someone goes off the rails and has to be disciplined, walks out of the church in a huff or drifts away, then that hits you hard like a ton of bricks. It is like a death and you mourn the loss.

It is also worth observing at this point that we need to put more effort into care for retired pastors. Recently I stepped down from pastoring a church due to redundancy. I’m still involved in ministry, currently through continuing Faithroots and with the expectation that I’ll take up a new posting soon. Even still, there has been the experience of grief, with the full range of emotions involved because moving on does involve a sense of loss. So, we need to think about those who are leaving the ministry for the last time. It’s not just a congregation and a role that they say goodbye to but all of the support networks through fraternals, denominations and associations as well. So, we need to be aware of the potential for former pastors to experience emotional health challenges as they adjust to their new life.

Conflict

Sadly, there is a lot of conflict in churches. Sometimes that is to be expected. We are involved in spiritual warfare. Conflict comes as we seek to encourage the church to grow in holiness. Sometimes that means that individuals have to be challenged about thought patterns, beliefs and behaviours. Sometimes it means that the whole church culture has to be challenged where there is coldness or lukewarmness, where there is a lack of unity, where there is unfriendliness, where there is a loss of joy or of love.  And then, pastors are often responsible for leading churches through change so that they are better equipped for mission in their context.

Added to that, is that you often find yourself as a pastor slap bang in the middle of other conflicts. Imagine sitting in a room where two people are shouting aggressively, it may not be at you but you are still right in the middle of a warzone between a couple going through marital difficulties, a ministry volunteer who believes they have been unfairly treated by the team leader or a couple of elders that have allowed zeal for the gospel to get confused with personal ambition and are locking horns for the position of alpha male.

This may exacerbate the pastor’s sense of social isolation. The other leaders are in high pressured jobs throughout the week and so don’t want to have to face conflict in the church too, they often simply don’t have the energy for it. So, it is left to the pastor to face down bullies or to mediate disputes on their own. This also means that they are seen as a person who is happy to participate in conflict, something that I suspect is rarely true.

Abuse

We’ve read a lot recently about spiritual abuse. Primarily that’s about individual, prominent leaders. However, pastors themselves can be victims of abuse. This can be from powerful families in the church or other leaders that see them as rivals. It does not necessarily start intentionally and certainly when the pastor finds a whole church or group within the church treating them in an abusive manner it is likely that for most there wasn’t a malicious intent but they still have somehow allowed the culture to become toxic and to slip into unhealthy and ungodly patterns of behaviour. Added to that the struggle churches have to keep up on legal matters and, again often unintentionally, church workers may fall foul of inappropriate employment practices.

I think that abuse arises out of the conflict situations described above where church members or fellow leaders become disgruntled and react against being challenged.  Remember that the longer you are in post, the more likely people are to be nursing a grievance.  Remember that the pastor is likely to have been the visible face of unpopular decisions even when there was a leadership consensus and even when the pastor themselves may have actually argued against an approach before the decision was made!

Abusers tend to pick on people who are vulnerable and I would suggest that at this stage, the pastor is likely to be showing signs of vulnerability, a loss of energy, tiredness, signs of emotional fragility that give their abusers an opening to attack. 

Conclusion

Pastors are particularly exposed to a number of pressure points that carry a risk of depression. It is important for both pastors and church members to be alert to these dangers.  For pastors it means taking time to look after your own mental health.

Things to think about include

  • How do you set aside time for rest and refreshment?
  • Do you have real friends and are you cultivating those friendships?
  • Who are you accountable to?
  • How can you make sure that church polity works so that the load is shared properly between a genuine plural leadership especially in conflict areas?
  • How are you working at discernment, calling, training and equipping to ensure that you are part of a team of godly and fruitful leaders?

For church members to consider:

  • Do you pray for your pastor regularly?
  • Do you take the opportunity to encourage them regularly?
  • What proportion of your feedback to them is negative?
  • Are you harbouring bitterness against your pastor? Is there a healthy way to seek resolution?
  • Are you ensuring that your pastor is getting rest and refreshment?

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