When your pastor gets depressed (part 2) -a look at some potential risk factors

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In part 1 yesterday, I highlighted 3  causes of depression that pastors might be particularly prone to because they are high risk factors in church and ministry contexts:  social isolation, conflict and abuse.

However, these are not the only causes of depression. It’s worth observing at this point that depression and anxiety disorders can strike at any time and that some pastors may have already experienced severe mental illness prior to taking up a calling. It is important then to say too that prior experience of depression should not be seen as  a disqualifier to ministry. Of course, like any physical or mental health factor we need to be aware of how debilitating illness might affect our ability to carry out our duties, similar to in any profession.  Some people may well have experienced a calling into ministry arising directly out of their own experience of suffering.

In the full list of causes, we also identified: medications, genetics, major life changing events and substance abuse.  So, when a pastor is struggling with depression, it is worth exploring whether any of these are factors too. 

If you are on medication for a particular condition, it is important to be alert to the side effects too. Obviously it is best to be aware of such factors prior to taking a drug but it is also worth checking back later if you begin to struggle with low moods, irritability, suicidal thoughts etc. Similarly, it is well worth checking back on your family medical history. Are there any genetical factors that might make you prone to depression, is there a history of depression and anxiety within the family. Remember that older family members may not have received a formal diagnosis and yet when you stop to think, they potentially have displayed some of the known symptoms from time to time. 

I remember when we moved to Bearwood that the move involved taking up a new job and buying a new house. Sarah also had to apply for teaching posts.  As it happened, everything went fairly smoothly for us and we settled in quickly but I mention this to highlight how pastoral ministry may also involve undergoing numerous life changing events. A new pastor is likely to be to be juggling a house move (selling and purchasing), a new job for his wife and new schools for the kids. They will be leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of their old life, saying goodbye to friends and losing pre-existing support networks. If fresh out of Bible College, they are losing the security of an institutional, communal life. Often, well meaning deacons and elders instruct the church members to give the new pastor space to settle in and not to disturb the, but that may not always be best, the pastor and his family may prefer to immediately start to build up friendships and connections. It is best to talk with them rather than make assumptions.

In my first article, I observed the potential risk of depression for retired pastors and so it is worth highlighting again that they too are affected by the major life changing event of retirement. This may involve moving away from their church family and having to leave church owned accommodation to find their own property. I think it is incumbent on church networks and denominations to take their responsibility to retired and retiring ministers seriously.

The last factor listed was “substance abuse” and this is perhaps the factor we want to ignore. However, we should not just sweep it under the carpet. We cannot assume that a pastor is free of temptation in this area simply because of their position and status.  Those of us in ministry do well to keep an eye on our consumption of alcohol and watch out for the potential risk of it increasing in response to the pressures of the job.  This also means that we need to talk about the issue of sin. WE can make two mistakes when talking about depression on the one hand we can be quick to blame sin  on the other hand, we can ignore the affect of sin on our lives altogether. We will return to this in a future article.

Pastors will do well to keep on their overall health and life habits to consider how these things are affecting their mental well-being.  This means that people who love and care about the pastor, his family, fellow ministers in his fraternal and the elders of his church should be keeping an eye out for these warning signs and risk factors too.