Depression and the Ministry, Part 1: The Setup

Editor’s Note: The following is part one of a five-part series on depression and the ministry. The series is a joint effort of the Biblical Counseling Coalition and The Gospel Coalition.


Sam’s Story

I was there the week it happened. His wife asked to see me. Tearfully she told me that he had walked into the church building that week and announced to his staff that he was “done.” He said he couldn’t face preaching another sermon; that all that he really wanted to do was to run away from his own life. Sam was 45 and the pastor of a vibrant and growing church.

I am convinced that there are important changes needed in pastoral culture and that the number of pastors who find themselves in the range from discouraged to depressed give clear evidence of this. Let me suggest four potential setups of this discouragement/depression cycle in ministry.

Setup #1: Unrealistic Expectations

I taught a class at Westminster Seminary on pastoral care and was impressed year after year about how unrealistic the expectations of my future-pastor students were. Year after year my students seemed to forget the two things that consistently make pastoral ministry hard. What are they? The harsh reality of life in a dramatically broken world and what remaining sin does to the hearts of us all. These two things make pastoral ministry a day by day spiritual war.

But there is another area of unrealistic expectations. It is the congregation’s unrealistic expectation of the pastor. Churches forget that they have called a person who is a man in the midst of his own sanctification. This tends to drive the pastor into hiding, afraid to confess what is true of him and everyone to whom he ministers. There is a direct connection between unrealistic expectations and deepening cycles of disappointment.

Setup #2: Family Tensions


There is often a significant gulf between the public persona of the ministry family and the realities of the day-by-day struggles in their home. We almost assume that the pastor will feel regularly torn between ministry and family and will be often forced to make “lesser of two evils” choices.

Yet this tension is not a major theme in the pastoral epistles. Could it be that we are asking too much of our pastors? Could it be that, as pastors, we are seeking to get things out of ministry that we should not get and therefore make choices that potentially harm our families? This tension between family and ministry robs pastoral ministry of its joy, and its seeming insurmountability is a sure set up for depression.

Setup #3: Fear of Man


The very public nature of pastoral ministry makes it fertile soil for this temptation. I know what it’s like to be all too aware of the critical person’s responses to me as I preach on a Sunday morning. I also know the temptation of thinking of what would win that person as I am preparing the sermon!

Fear of man is actually asking people to give you what only God can deliver. It is rooted in a gospel amnesia that causes me to seek again and again for what I have already been given in Christ. This then causes me to watch for and care too much about the reactions of others, and because I do this, to feel like I get way more criticism than I deserve. Each new duty begins to be viewed as another forum for the criticism of others and with this, the emotional life of the pastor begins to spin downward.

Setup #4: Kingdom Confusion


It is very tempting for the pastor to do his work in pursuit of other glories than the glory of God and for purposes other than God’s kingdom. Personal acclaim and reputation, power and control, comfort and appreciation, are the subtle little kingdom idols that greet every pastor. Yet in pastoral ministry, the kingdom of self is a costume kingdom. It does a great job of masquerading as the kingdom of God, because the way you seek to build the kingdom of self in ministry is by doing ministry!

The reality is that the God who the pastor serves has no allegiance whatsoever to the pastor’s little kingdom of self. In fact, I am persuaded that much of the ministry opposition that we attribute to the enemy is actually God getting in the way of the little kingdom intentions of the pastor. It is God, in grace, rescuing the pastor from himself.

So as the pastor wants recognition, his Lord wants gospel transformation. As God is calling the pastor to spiritual war, what the pastor wants is to be liked. As the pastor is wanting just a little bit of control, God is demonstrating that He is in control.

It is discouraging and exhausting to be serving God, yet not be on God’s agenda page. This kingdom confusion robs the pastor of the deep sense of privilege that should motivate the service of every pastor. My pastor friend said it well to his wife, “I just want to go somewhere where life is easy!”

Run to Him

Depression in the pastor may be set up by the culture that surrounds him, but it is a disease of the heart, and for that we have the presence, promises, and provisions of the Savior. Pastor, he is in you and with you and for you. No one cares more about the use of your gifts than the Giver. No one cares more about your suffering than the one who suffered for you. And no one shoulders the burden of the church like the one who is the head of the church and gave himself up for it.

In your despondency, don’t run from him, run to him. Jesus really does offer you the hope and healing that you can find nowhere else.

  • Murray Lincoln

    I am 67 years old, a retired Pastor now for three years. I have witnessed all of the above steps in the Ministries around me and in my own Ministry. Yet while I was “in” the Ministry for 35 years – I only saw what others were going through – now that I am “out” of the Ministry – I see more clearly what I was facing personally… and how dangerously close I came to walking out and away. There is a secondary level to this also – my precious wife. In our case with the normal changes chemically with aging we faced a huge battle together… all the time “some” in the local congregation we were serving in was sensing Step #3 and some of the less lovely made it their purpose to focus in on the kill. Now three years later it still feels like an African Adventure Film with the Hyenas about to take down their prey. I know now that I could never have dared write any words here while I was “in” the Ministry for fear that fellow ministers and denominational leadership might see it and never allow me to minister anywhere again. Even now a group of these fellow minister/believers will be reading this and it will potentially ostracize me – that feeling is real – maybe not accurate – but real.

  • Gareth Simpson

    Thanks for this post Paul. I think that it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between burnout, discouragement, depression and disillusionment. Objectively looking in the mirror of self-evaluation is a great challenge.

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  • Evan C. Hock

    This first part is a good start to a vitally important discussion and deeper reflection. The increased professionalized grooming of the ministry, coupled with the heresy of a performance-oriented gospel, compounds the pressures already assaulting and conflicting the heart that leads to “cycles of discouragement” that invite an even darker plight. Give me Jesus…Jesus, the Restorer! Bonhoeffer had it right: “When God calls a man, he bids him to come and die.”

  • Brian

    The piece of this that struck me the most strongly was in item #2, where you said.” Could it be that we are asking too much of our pastors? Could it be that, as pastors, we are seeking to get things out of ministry that we should not get”? While that applies to family life, I do believe it goes larger as well. Pastors are expected to do so much; it really seems like the norm is to expect pastors to run themselves ragged and spend valuable time on things that are not real kingdom work. Pastors, how much are you involved in that is not direct;y relevant to soul winning?

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  • Philip

    May I give a little account of a personal trial…it may help someone.

    I’m just recovering from 10 years of depression. I thought I had died inside and my organs had rotted while I was still alive (honestly) – it was virtually psychotic and was like being in hell (in as much as I can think and feel what hell might be). I could feel something like a demon inside me, his claws dragging continually at my chest. I slept of about 18 – 20 hours a day (hypersomnia) and experienced years of moving so very slowly (psychomotor retardation). I was fortunate to be able to access a Christian psychiatrist who is a good friend to me, and he prayed with me as well as medicated me. When I went to talk to my Bishop he said that he didn’t like ‘reformed evanglicals’ (me!) and seemed only to happy to get rid of me (though I concede he may well have had a point!)

    And yes, before I entered the ministry I was a charge nurse in psychiatry and then a manager, and the psychiatrist used to be my boss.

    I lost my ministry, my confidence, my money, my house, and began to drink too much (my excuse was to stop the feelings and the thoughts, espeically those that focued on believing myself to be ‘totally useless’ and knowing that I should kill myself)…..I ended up in thousands of pounds of debt just trying to keep alive and though I am getting a grip on this, I am not out of the woods yet.

    But my wonderful wife stayed at my side and when people stopped visiting I discoved I had only had a very few friends, but what good and faithful friends they were and are!!!!. They stayed with me and prayed for me and helped restore me.

    What is changing? Well I began to get a balanced view of the gospel with thanks to Mark Driscoll et al on the web and Terry Virgo in the UK (where I live) and the love of my wife and a very loving and supportive fellowship and church who have called me and upheld me even when I was ‘damaged goods’. I have begun to see that my Reformed theology (which I still treasure and hold on to) was yet too rooted in tradition. The Holy Spirit is now part of my ministry in a way I never acknowledged before – with all the advantages for wholeness that He brings. I then made adjustments and told the devil to get out of my life and boy it helped. Wish I had done it sooner! No I do not think it was all demonic…. but more of it was than I had acknowledged.

    Others played their part in providing furtile ground for my mental illness but seriously – I had crazy expectations of myself and MY ministry….and so I neglected my spiritual life and allowed superficial spiritual arrogance to chain me. This (ministry) can be a brutal business but by the Lord’s grace I am being resored after 10 years and I pray for all those going through the tunnel with the black dog nipping at thier heels.

    I have been taught some wonderful lessons… my last years in the ministry may yet be (by His amazing grace) the most fruitful. But should I relapse know this…. Jesus is my Lord and Saviour and in His divine providence I am kept and sheltered in the palm of His hand.

    To His glory, evey second of it!!!!!!

    Amen and amen.

    • PaulB

      Thanks for baring your soul. You just don’t know how much you ministered to me.

      • Philip

        Dear Paul,

        if I can help in any way from prayer to simply being there when it really dips, please leave a comment at my blog. It would be my delight.

        In His Grace

    • David Bonnet

      Hello Philip
      My experience can echo much of yours as I went through 15 yearss of depression after coming out of a cult and being born again along the way. If you are stll recovering, a book I wrote about 4 years ago ( Coming out of Hell: A Journey from Chaos to Redemption) might help and I would like your opinion of the book in view of your experience.

      David Bonnet

      • Philip

        Hi David,

        thanks for post – I have not read your book but I shall – I am in the UK and need to check it is available over here. 15 years is a lot of time…. Dear me, are you ok now? If you want to keep in just touch click on the blog – do you have a blog about depression?

        In His Service,

        Philip (maninacave)

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  • Steve Cornell


    Have you read “The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sadness Into Depressive Disorder” by Alan V. Horwitz and Jerome C. Wakelfield? They show how standard criteria for diagnosing depressive disorder does not adequately distinguish intense normal sadness from biologically disordered depression. The chapters exploring the anatomy of normal sadness and the failure of the social sciences to distinguish it from depressive disorder should be required reading for all medical and psychiatric professionals who work with patience battling depression. I wrote a brief review at “No room for sadness (a closer look at depression)” see:

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  • Gary Shepard

    The article plus all of the comments struck me deeply. After 25 years of walking with the Lord, and after a 10 year period in pastoral ministry. I would be inclined to agree that this list may be among the most salient issues facing the minister in this modern milieu. But I think that there is one other aspect that is missing. The lack of support and conflict; I believe this must be included in this list! Recently I read that it is estimated that about 75% of all ministers live close to the poverty level. And it should be noted! There are number of factors contribute to this increasing problem!

    Now, I wish that I had the space to write with more depth on this next comment. Today, I believe that many pastors are truly up against a powerful weapon! What I would call The Pareto principle of the Christian pew! And it’s a large part of elephant in the house of God!

    Consider that 59% of the churches in America have less than 100 members. Apply the Pareto principal to giving in that context, ad to the mix complacency in the pew, throw in the overwhelming message that a big and growing bigger church means success, and by-the-way; it is propaganda that can be heard loudly, and not just from the culture but also from some of the 2.41%, of churches that have 1000 or more congregants. Even though there are pastors, who might be willing to be transparent and testify that bigger is not always better!

    And should we be surprised, that we have high rates of depression, a debatable high rate of church plant failures, and what seems to be a growing number of pulpit vacancies.

    The message of failure is so easily fueled by these factors, and yes it may well be a disease of the heart, but like some illnesses; removal from the environment maybe the best cure.

    I would say, that I am perfectly content, with leaving the church management ministry behind, and now working at a personal level with men; disciplining them, one on one, and life to life.

    The warfare is the same, but battles are very different. Sort of like hand to hand combat, where the short sword is most effective, and the victories are deeply meaningful and very personal.Dealing with depression in this context, is vastly different!

    • Philip

      Yep thank you, yes thank you for raising this.

      I read an article on a blog some time ago about the Logos softwear with some richer American minister urging others to buy it because it is sooo good (and I suppose it is) but in the comments thread was a post from some smaller church minister who didn’t have two pennies to rub together let alone spare for a sophisticated computer programme!

      Ministers are living on different planets from each other! And then some of us get depressed because we think we have somehow failed …… hey, know what – there is a lot in the ministerial world only reinforces that notion and all the platitudes don’t make much difference on the ground.

      Kingdom of God – first or second class please…..?

      Cynical me!

      OK a rant, but it’s in love (honest)!!!!!!!!!

  • http://ChristianPost S Buck

    I am not a Protestant or a Catholic and I disagree with a system that employees men or women for the purpose of teaching the gospel. But I do believe that these are mostly good men who are trying to the best they can for God and equally for mankind’s welfare.

    I can’t imagine what the world would be like if we didn’t have pastors to watch over the flock. They are often the primary buffer between evil and goodness. They remind us that society needs God and in doing so they give people hope for the future.

    My only suggestion is that perhaps basic salaries be reduced and that their congregation to do more of the work of their ministry. When you think of the great men of the Bible they sacrificed much. I kind of have the feeling Our Father in Heaven expects one who bears his name to suffer a bit more than others.

    • Eugene C. Scott

      S Buck:

      I’m not sure I understand your point. And I’m not at all sure you understand the issue of pastoral depression.

      Your suggestion seems to be that I, as a pastor, get paid less and suffer more and that will help with any bouts of discouragement and depression. That makes no sense.

      As to pay, I already have two other streams of income in order to support my family. Plus the New Testament does not suggest that pastors should not be paid and that they should suffer more than others. Are you suggesting that a lack of money equals holiness?

      As to suffering, we are all–no matter our gifting or job–called to deny ourselves and bear the cross of Christ. Are pastors supposed to carry a heavier one than everyone else?

      And when you say you are not Catholic or Protestant, are you confusing Protestantism with just one more denomination such as Baptist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran? Protestantism is a theological stream (that broke of from Catholicism) that includes many denominations. Catholicism is both a denomination and the original theological stream that modern faith flows from. Unless I am mistaken, all of us modern followers of Christ stand (with at least one foot) in the stream of the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, or the Protestant Church.

      Finally, I have struggled with being a paid pastor. But, as I said, there is no command against it. Rather it is clear Paul and others were supported by friends and churches so that they could focus fully on the gospel and not have to make tents. And I know that many churches do well on all lay led ministries. But to be paid so I can concentrate more fully on my gifts and calling is why my congregation supports me with their prayers, gifts, and finances.

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  • Jimmy Justice

    Depression is horrible for anyone to experience. And liberty is glorious.

    Was wondering about pastors knowing a truth that might set them free…

    In the Bible…

    How come no disciple of Christ was called to be a pastor leading a church?

    • Gary Shepard

      I think your understanding of pastor is a bit skewed by a modern perspective.

      While we use the word pastor, let us not forget the word is for someone called to have the oversight of the flock of God. Jer 3:15 And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.

      Again the old testament, Jer 23:2 Therefore thus saith the LORD God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the LORD.

      The word is raw-aw’ A primitive root; to tend a flock, that is, pasture it; Paul, John and Peter all did this, Note this text
      1Pe 5:1 The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: 2 Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind;

      Then we have 1Co 7:17 However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches And 1Co 16:1 Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. Also 2Co 11:28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. How is that not the work of the pastorate?


      I am not sure what you mean about “its in the bible”!
      Depression can be a powerful emotion, an just saying that its in the bible, is not always sufficing to the issues at hand. Spiritual discipline is a matter of sanctification, and telling a pastor is in the bible, is like telling an expert chef that salt dry’s meat! In fact, it’s a bit ostentatious to assume that a pastor is unaware of what the bible has to say about this matter! Especially, if he is doing the work of a pastor, and walking with the Lord; spiritual insight comes with the territory, albeit not always obvious.

      Walking with a pastor, person to person, life on life, is altogether a different matter! What you seem to be suggesting is that, if I throw the bible at the problem, and hit the pastor with some kind of truth! That will just fix the problem. Not so, but being a disciple of a man, knowing who he is, walking in his shoes, gaining understanding and his confidence, as to promote a dialog in which truth can not only be examined, be full digested. To the extent that is becomes a core conviction, rather than a sincere belief, is not always a kind of relationship pastor have in their work.

      They are looked at as individuals, who do this for others, without having the benefit of having that kind of relationship for their own lives!

      That is one of the points in the article! It takes very little effort to point out a problem, But Pro 20:5 says: Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.

      If you think this gift is resident and working in everyone who walks with God, then I will respectful say you are mistaken. Pastors have boards, pastors have deacons, pastors have elders’, but there is no guarantee that among these groups, pastors have deeply personal friends of whom they can share and dialog about their challenges, or even friend who have this gifting.

      Pro 27:17 says; Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another.

      Plastic cannot sharpen iron! Plastic is the elaborate fig leaf that is encountered when individuals, yes, even pastors show when they don’t trust whom they are dealing with! \

      Pastor, don’t just open up to anyone! It’s a very dangerous prospect even if it’s another pastor.

      • Philip

        Gary, much wisdom in your post, thank you.

  • Eugene C. Scott

    Thanks for the article, Paul. I look forward to reading the rest. I have experienced depression in pastoral ministry and all of the factors you listed as setups played larger or smaller roles.

    I wonder if you are going to discuss how the prevalent large church-pastor as CEO model is impacting feelings of failure and depression. I believe this model has been blindly adopted even by smaller congregations and the false expectations it places on the pastoral ministry are devastating.

    For that matter, I believe adopting so many business models and practices in the church is a major cause for laypeople and pastors alike to despair and depart the church. I know now that I have gotten help (counseling, prayer, friendship, change, medication, etc.) with my depression, I have worked hard to change my scorecard as to what it means to be faithful and successful in the gospel ministry. I am still wary of myself and my work. But I am enjoying serving Christ within a spiritual community more than ever. Thanks for the article. Eugene

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  • Jimmy Justice

    Gary – Best I can figure – if someone has taken the job of pastor, and is challenged with…
    #1: Unrealistic Expectations. #2: Family Tensions. #3: Fear of Man. #4: Kingdom Confusion. – and is now battling the depression this article talks about… If they will go to “The Word of God,” go to Jesus, who is the Word, and ask Him the question stated, study the Bible asking this question stated… believing for answer… When the truth of that question is understood…

    The truth is there to set them free…

    And often, the healing begins…

    John 10:27 My sheep hear my voice…

    John 18:37 …Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

    Here’s the question…

    Lord Jesus – In the Bible…
    How come no disciple of Christ was called to be a pastor leading a church?

  • Jimmy Justice

    Gary – Thank you for the scriptures from the OT about pastors. Especially Jer 23:2. Not many have the courage to post the downside for a pastor who scatters and drives away God’s flock. God says, “I will visit upon you (pastors) the evil of your doings, saith the LORD.” Many are leaving the Institutional Churches today. Are they being scattered and driven away by pastors?

    Here are a few more that not many want to look at…
    Jer 2:8 …*the pastors* also transgressed against me…
    Jer 10:21 *the pastors* are become brutish…
    Jer 12:10 *Many pastors* have destroyed my vineyard…
    Jer 22:22 The wind (Spirit) shall eat up all *thy pastors*…
    Jer 23:1 Woe be unto *the pastors* that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!
    Jer 23:2 …thus saith the LORD God of Israel *against the pastors* that feed my people…
    Jer 50:6 *My people* hath been lost sheep: *their shepherds* have caused them *to go astray*…

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  • Brian Mikul

    Looking forward to reading the follow-up posts. I think there is another issue that sets up depression for a pastor – isolation: a lack of other pastors to encourage and strengthen and bounce ideas off of and simply be friends with. We need each other!

  • Gary Shepard

    Hello Brian, I hear you! My experience in this aspect of ministry was not favorable in any way! I often struggled with if this was just an isolated and subjective experience. I even find it very hard to write on the subject, without coming across as condemning, or wounded, neither of which I desire or feel.

    It pains me to say this, but I have found among the community of professionals and many who were non-Christians, a better relationship, than among the cohort of pastor. The upside was in the development of those relationships, I was able to find a connection that enable me to be the person of Christ. The down side, was that I was never really able to connect with other men in the ranks, especially in America, there always seemed to be a “elaborate fig lief” or the atmosphere of mistrust! making openness and vulnerability a dangerous prospect!

    I did write more, but I think this is enough!

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