A few years back I was asked to cover a couple of sessions for a ministry training course. One of the sessions was on “failure.” The request came with a couple of those expected awkward jokes along the lines of “we aren’t picking you for any specific reason.” Indeed, at the time, arguably I’d not particularly experienced real failure in ministry. By which I don’t mean that I’d never experienced failure or that everything we had tried had worked. However, at the time, things seemed to be going positively. Our church was growing. We were seeing congregations multiply, we were planting. There was of course a crash to come when I was hit by depression and that coincided with an incredible time of trial when everything was thrown at us so that my reaction on the day I crashed was “I’ve failed.”
However, I can’t help thinking that the awkward joking around “failure” helps explain something else, at least a little. After I had been off sick with depression, I shared a little of my experience in blog posts and on You Tube. You can listen to the YouTube talks here. I started to get feedback from other pastors, some I knew already, some were new friends, some I either knew or had a feeling had suffered with depression, with others it was a surprise. A common theme was that there was relief and hope that pastors were talking about the subject. Out of that a small website, “Grace in the Depths” was born and then a book, The Pastor With a Thorn in His Side, edited by Steve Kneale, one of the first pastors I know to start talking so openly about the subject. We felt that just sharing our stories was a crucial first step and our reason was simple. There was still a taboo among Christians about talking about mental health. When it came to pastors and leaders, the taboo became worse.
I want to suggest that we can trace this taboo back to the problem of failure and to two linked misconceptions.
Misconceptions about Ministry
The first misconception is about ministry and about pastors and leaders. I’ve talked to people from some cultures who have seen this problem displayed so overtly. Pastors are expected to be successful because success is a sign of blessing and blessing is a sign of fruitfulness and faith. Pastors therefore must convey strength. I come from a culture where that is less overt and yet there is still an expectation that your pastor should be omnicompetent. They must not be allowed to fail.
Yet the idea of the omnicompetent pastor is a completely at odds with Scripture. The title of our book is part a play on a Smiths’ song title and part a reference to Paul’s words where he describes the thorn in his flesh which he pleaded with God to be removed. God’s response was to insist that his strength was made perfect in weakness. The New Testament model is of weak and imperfect leaders who are completely dependent on God’s grace. Indeed, our chief role might be said to be to model the experience of grace in our lives.
Secondly, if Jesus experienced suffering, then how can we as his followers and under-shepherds expect to go without suffering ourselves? When Christ is not unable to sympathise with our trials and sufferings then how can we expect our pastors to be immune from pain and suffering.
Your pastor is a fellow believer, a sinner saved by grace living alongside you in this fallen world. He does not have any superhuman special powers guaranteeing success in everything. He is not impervious to pain. The only authority he carries is a delegated authority to teach you God’s Word. He best helps you when he too is subject to God’s Word and God’s discipline. He best leads when he does so by setting an example of living under grace.
Misconceptions about depression and illness
The other place where we see a misconception is in terms of depression itself. It is still seen by too many of us to admit that we are weak and have struggled with our mental health. First of all, there is the general problem here. This is particularly so I think where the good and healthy teaching of complementarianism with its expectations on male elders, husbands and fathers to take up their responsibilities has been replaced by a macho Christianity where the mythical idea of Biblical manliness creeps in. It’s bad enough in such contexts to admit to physical weakness never mind mental weakness.
Secondly, there is still a bit of an undercurrent which suggests that depression is a sign of possible moral failure either because the mental illness is itself then failure or it is perceived as a deflection from it. Yet ironically, that viewpoint makes it highly unlikely that a pastor will try and hide behind mental health. Indeed, we are more likely to use the language of burn out and exhaustion. It’s manly to get burnt out and exhausted going full throttle in leadership, less so to get depressed.
As I’ve talked about elsewhere
- There are a number of potential causes for depression so that it is not necessarily evidence of moral failure
- Given what we’ve already said above, admitting to weakness is not in and of itself an admission of failure. It is simply an admission of weakness.
- There are enough stories of mental suffering as well as physical suffering in Scripture, including some of the Psalms to warn us off this kind of assumption.
Scripture and the Gospel should give us enough both to know that when our pastor admits t struggling with depression that this is not in itself failure and that even when he does fail then that is not incompatible with pastoral ministry.