We have a problem and we can’t ignore it any longer.
It’s time we were honest with ourselves and with each other. To pretend we don’t face a serious issue would be a life-threatening mistake. I’m talking about depression among pastors and ministers (and everyone else). Depression is a reality, and I can’t bear the thought of losing one more pastor, one more person, to depression that ends in suicide.
Two weeks ago, Pastor Andrew Stoecklein, 30, of Inland Hills Church in Chino, Calif., took his own life after an extended battle with mental and physical health. Stoecklein left behind a beautiful wife and three young boys, the oldest 5. What ripped my heart out was reading what Smith, the oldest son, asked his momma. “Why didn’t he say goodbye?”
Mental health and depression are realities sitting in our churches and standing behind our pulpits. According to a Pastoral Care, Inc. report based on research from the Barna Group, LifeWay Research and other like-minded organizations, 35 percent of pastors battle depression or fear of inadequacy, more than half report the role of pastor is overwhelming and a whopping 70 percent report they have a lower self-image now than when they first started in ministry.
Don’t brush aside those numbers. The numbers are real people. Put a face on them. The 35 percent represents slightly more than 1,000 Tennessee Baptist pastors who are dealing with some level of depression or a feeling of inadequacy that in many cases is a precursor to depression. (The Schaeffer Institute actually puts the number of pastors fighting depression at 70 percent).
Pastor, if this is you, I’ve been there. I had my own bout with depression in 2000. It was after my father died. My ministry had been successfully clipping along, but I hit a wall. Depression settled in. Preparing to preach was drudgery. When I went into my office I didn’t want to be there. I found myself getting angry when other ministry needs popped up. Thank God for an incredibly supportive and sensitive wife and some good and godly men in my church who boldly stepped in and gave me a six-week sabbatical. They saved my ministry and probably a lot more.
A few other statistics jump out and cause me concern reading through the Pastoral Care, Inc., report (https://www.pastoralcareinc.com/statistics/). For instance, 70 percent of pastors do not have someone they consider to be a close friend yet 84 percent desire to have close fellowship with someone they can trust and in whom they can confide. Brothers, it is dangerous to live on islands. Nothing good comes from your isolation.
Here are some commonly accepted warning signs (from Caring.com) that you are suffering from depression or are heading in a dangerous direction.
(1) Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
(2) Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, or helplessness
(3) Frequent crying episodes
(4) Increased agitation and restlessness
(5) Fatigue and decreased energy
(6) Loss of interest in activities or hobbies that were once pleasurable
(7) Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
(8) Sleeping too much or not enough
(9) Poor appetite or overeating
(10) Expressing thoughts of dying or suicide
(11) Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that don’t ease with treatment.
What can you do if you or someone you know is demonstrating these warning signs, especially expressing thoughts of dying or suicide? Get help immediately. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). The North American Mission Board also has a confidential crisis line at 1-844-727-8671.
If it is not an imminent emergency, call your director of missions or call me (615-712-0382). Both your DOM and I have trusted, professional people to whom we can refer you if necessary.
Here are some other steps you can take that will support you and hopefully prevent you from traveling too far down the road of depression or other mental health challenges.
Have a regular quiet time and pray. I can’t stress enough the importance of crying out to God. He is not threatened by your anguish. The Apostle Paul drew strength from Christ in his darkest moments. We must have faith that Jesus will carry us when we find ourselves in similar circumstances, but we must stay connected to Him.
Drop the bulletproof facade. Ministry is tough and it takes a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual toll. You need to be honest with yourself before you can be transparent with someone else. You’re never going to get all the work done, so don’t try. There is no badge of honor for appearing perfect.
Develop friendships. You don’t need many; you need quality. Go deep. This is why your association and our state network of churches is so important. Leverage those networks for relationships with like-minded people. Do not neglect the pursuit of meaningful relationships.
Rejoice with the wife of your youth. She is your first line of defense; a trusted partner in ministry. Invest everything you have in that relationship, ministering to her and allowing her to minister to you. I can assure you, your wife will spot warning signs in you before you will. Listen to her.
Finally, a word to church members. Seek ways to honor your pastor, ministers and their spouses. Bear with them the burden of ministry. Pray regularly for them and love them well. Support them in their ministry to you and I believe the blessing will be returned to you.
Depression is not a sin; it is not a failure; it is not a sign of weakness. Depression is real, it’s debilitating and it is dangerous. It’s time we openly talk about it.
It is a joy to be on this journey with you … even when the journey is difficult.