Pastors and Depression

August 10, 2011

In just the past month, I’ve spoken with three depressed pastors.  Consider this startling data from Barna, Focus on the Family, and Fuller Seminary:

  • Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • Fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.
  • Eighty percent of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.
  • Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.
  • Seventy percent of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.

Now, while there is much to talk about here, my interest right now is depression.  It’s often when pastors hit their early to mid-30′s that they report some form of depression, described with words like “tired,” “discouraged,” “fatigued,” “burned out,” “unmotivated,” and more.  Some wonder if they’ve ‘lost’ their call to ministry.  Others share feelings of suicide, temptations to act out sexually, or a desire to quit ministry altogether.

While I do believe some form of clinical depression may be at work, I’m also quite convinced that the 16th century mystics like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila have something to say too.  Seeing many of these same symptoms, what John and Teresa found was that something deeper was going on, a phenomenon John called “the dark night of the soul.”

I saw this recently in a 38 year-old pastor who called me for advice.  His church wasn’t growing.  His praying lacked passion.  Previously helpful spiritual practices no longer delivered.  And growing temptations to look at pornography or lose himself in Fantasy Football were worrying him and his wife.  Feeling inept and despairing, he wondered if he’d hit a ministry wall.  I told him that I sensed an extraordinary moment of grace and growth.

As I often do, I told him that he needed to see a psychologist to talk about medications and to evaluate therapeutic issues.  While St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila first envisioned the dark night with both its purgative and illuminative spiritual qualities, they were by no means dualists who discounted psychological difficulty.  Though they did not have modern categories or insights, they were some of the most adept psychological minds of their day, and ours.  St. John specifically counseled men and women that melancholia, or depression, would often accompany the dark night.  For him, it wasn’t an either/or, but more often a both/and.  The spiritual and psychological are interconnected.

One lesson we learn from the sixteenth century Spanish mystics is that moments like the one the pastor experienced are not problems, but opportunities.  This may be the key distinction, one that moves us beyond the question “How do we fix this?” to the question “What might I learn in this?”

In our North American context, failure and struggle is often viewed as a problem, a jagged detour on what is supposed to be the straight road of life.  It’s a uniquely American phenomenon, but one that subtlety impacts our Christian perceptions.  Thus, pastors feel as if depression, doubt, or distance from God amount to obstacles to ministry, rather than opportunities for it.

When that pastor called me, he was worried for himself, for his family, and for a congregation that expected him to be ‘on’ each week.  As I listened, it was clear he’d benefit from some therapy.  He had never explored his family-of-origin before, and a few questions showed that Dad’s high expectations manifested in self-criticism and a fear of failure.  That was clear enough.  But was his issue a family-of-origin problem to be fixed?

St. John of the Cross would say No.  And I’d agree.  Most psychological issues parallel real spiritual issues.  And what we call difficulty or failure or even “issues” afford us moments of awakening.  I suspect St. John would see this pastor’s prayer difficulty, or his lack of passion, and even his pull toward pornography as signs of the dark night.  The purpose of the dark night, of course, is to strip us of our futile attempts to find God on our own terms, and to awaken in us a much more simple desire for intimacy with God.  And what I find in my work is that time and again, pastors tell me that they’d just like to know God…more purely, more simply…beyond the complexities we create as the neurotic men and women we are.

What we often find through this process is that we’re stripped of what we thought God to be – our theological certainties, our moralistic practices, our emotional highs – and drawn into a more pure, simple, and substantial intimacy.  However, pastors who fail to see this opportunity often devote themselves to working harder and succeeding more, all in an effort to cast out their demons of depression and despair.  It doesn’t work.

However, if we’re willing to listen in to our lives a bit more closely, we might find that God is looking for us, even in our darker moments.  The mystics were convinced God works even when we’re asleep.  And if we’re ready and willing, we may even awake to the dawn’s fresh light, more convinced than ever that God speaks not only in our successes, but even in our difficulties.