A Wounded Shepherd: When Pastors Suffer With Depression

depression 2

It’s taboo. A major no-no. Pastors never deal with stuff like depression. They certainly are never suicidal…right?

Um, no. Talk of depression among pastors is often pushed under the rug. Oftentimes, by the pastors themselves.

Thom S. Rainer says, “Depression was once a topic reserved for ‘other people’. It certainly was not something those in vocational ministry experienced. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that ministers rarely admitted that they were depressed. After all, weren’t these servants of God supposed to have their acts together? How could pastors and other ministers who have the call of God on their lives experience the dark valley of depression?”

I’m a PK (aka-preacher’s kid for all those non PKs out there). Being in pastor’s family helps you see all aspects of ministry: the good, the bad and the ugly. Believe me when I say that depression is a very real issue among pastors today.

According to Lifeline for Pastors (a publication from Maranatha Life):

  • 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout or contention in their churches.
  • 80% of pastors and 84% of their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastors.
  • 85% of pastors said their greatest problem is they are sick and tired of dealing with problem people, such as disgruntled elders, deacons, worship leaders, worship teams, board members, and associate pastors. 90% said the hardest thing about ministry is dealing with uncooperative people.
  • 90% said the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be before they entered the ministry.

To be honest, I’ve had a hard time finding people willing to talk with me about this. Most pastors I approached about this topic admit they have struggled with it but when asked if I could interview them, they said “No! If my congregation knew, I would lose all my credibility!” The stigma especially seems strong if the pastor is taking medication for his depression.

Dealing with mental illness is tough enough, but Christians can make it worse by “over-spiritualizing” depression. Believers uneducated in understanding mental illness dismiss this issue as a lack of faith or a sign of weakness.


So rather than have their faith questioned, many pastors suffer silently. Avoidance becomes the goal.

A Wounded Shepherd

Pastors are often called ‘shepherds’…the overseers who lead their church flock. The question is then, what is wounding these shepherds so deeply?

1) Spiritual warfare. “The enemy does not want God’s servants to be effective in ministry. He will do whatever it takes to hurt ministers and their ministries.” (Thom S. Rainer)

2) Exhaustion. “A pastor is like a 24-hour ER who is supposed to be available to any congregant at any time…we create an environment that makes it hard to admit our humanity.” (Steve Scoggin, Warner) Workaholism leads to burnout. Burnout leads to depression. stress

3) Unrealistic expectations. Pastors are expected to be at everyone’s beck and call, deliver ground-breaking sermons each week, visit the sick, have perfect children, be hospitable, counsel the hurting and lead the entire church body through teaching and example. These expectations are enormous and unrealistic.

And let’s face it: pastors are dealing in weighty stuff. When you consider that their work impacts eternity…well, the pressure can be crushing. Sometimes the demands don’t only come externally; they are often self-imposed. So when they think they are failing, they can turn their frustration back on themselves. A sure recipe for hopelessness.

4) Criticism. There is a wide-spread fable that ministry is a romantic line of service. You know…kneeling down in the streets of Calcutta, offering water to an orphan who later grows up to declare that due to your devotion and God’s love, they will now spread the gospel in Africa.

Let me stop right here and say ministry is not always warm fuzzies and sweet memories. Honestly, ministry is all about serving others…others who happen to be sinners. There are a lot of crazies out there doing things ‘in Jesus’ name’. I’m convinced that if people knew half of what went on behind the scenes in a church, they would be shocked.

cranky 3

People can be critical. Harsh. Opinionated. And sometimes, down-right mean. And the pastor often gets the brunt of the criticism. In addition, in our modern world there is even more exposure. Facebook, twitter, podcasts, youtube…which all have great potential to spread the Gospel, but also create even more opportunities for a pastor to take a hit.

4) Family problems. The average pastor is often torn between his never-ending duties and spending time with his family. If he’s not careful, the wife and kids will feel neglected. Then add in financial stress. Ministers are often underpaid and take a bullet on their taxes as well, since they are taxed as ‘self-employed’. The church family’s needs will sometimes creep in and affect the harmony of the home. And the pastor’s wife is supposed to be okay with sharing her husband. My mother is a pastor’s wife and jokingly quips that someday she will write a book about being a minister’s wife. She plans to title it Others May But You May Not.

You may wonder why I picked the title A Wounded Shepherd. Pastors are supposed to lead, protect and love God’s lambs.But oftentimes, the picture is more accurate of a shepherd fallen on the ground, while a wolf attacks him over and over. The sheep stand nearby, calming chewing on their cud. As he fights for his life, one of the sheep leans over to the other and says, “You know, he could be doing much better at taking care of us. And honestly, I don’t think he’s done an adequate job feeding me lately…” sheep

Meanwhile, the shepherd is exhausted and bleeding, begging for relief.


This really isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been going on since Bible times. Consider Elijah.

In I Kings 19, Elijah had just defeated the false prophets of Baal. This was a huge spiritual victory! And all done in a very grandiose, public fashion. He should have been on cloud nine.

Yet, one discouraging message and threat from the evil queen Jezebel, and Elijah panicked and ran. running away

He himself went a day’s journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, LORD,’ he said. ‘Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep….” (verses 4-5)

Elijah had insisted that his servant leave him. He was isolated and alone. Refusing the encouragement of fellow believers, especially when we’re already down, is a prime time to begin listening to those negative thoughts. When all we have is our own depressed viewpoint, the company isn’t good.

“All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked around, and there by his head was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again. The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ So he got up and ate and drank.” (verses 5-8)

Such a beautiful picture of God’s care. The Almighty sent an angel to care for Elijah’s physical needs. God is concerned about every aspect of our lives. And depression very much involves giving attention to our physical bodies, as well as our emotional and spiritual bodies.

It’s easy to forget that God doesn’t just care about our spiritual state: He cares about each and every part of us. He wants us to be whole, complete and happy in Him. Did you notice that in this passage, God took care of all three of Elijah’s needs? He gave him food, water and rest for his physical body, comforted him emotionally and then addressed the spiritual issue that had caused Elijah to run in fear. God is the ultimate holistic healer!

The passage goes on to say that God Himself came to comfort Elijah and remind him that he was not alone in his struggle.

For the Church Member: Lending a Hand…or Two

*Pray for your pastor. The best way to ward off satanic attack is to cover him and his family with prayer. pray

*Encourage vacations. “Make certain your pastor takes time off every year. Vacations must be mandatory. He likewise needs to take at least one day off each week. Look for signs that he is not giving sufficient time to his family, and help him to find the time to do so. His wife and children cannot be neglected.” (Thom S. Ranier)

*Financial. Work as a church to make sure your pastor is being given adequate compensation. …the worker deserves his wages.” (Luke 10:7)

Some churches won’t allow the pastors to work second jobs, but also can’t afford to pay him near what his family needs to survive. So his wife ends up having to work one, or sometimes, even two jobs. This puts an enormous strain on the family. You have to be willing to pay the pastor what his family needs to stay afloat or at least allow him to work. It creates a lot of resentment on the wife’s part too if she has to do all the bread winning and her husband is always gone taking care of everybody else.

Remember, if you can’t live on it, your pastor can’t either.

*Don’t be a time hog. give me, i need Driggers says, “Be respectful of your pastor’s time. He needs his study time. You know, just respect those boundaries. And of course, the world is so different now. Pastors today never get a break at all because of this,” he declares, as he pats the cell phone case on his hip. “This has totally changed everything about ministry. I cannot tell you how many times a day our senior pastor gets called. It’s absolutely nonstop. You know, call on your pastor for the emergencies but don’t call him to tell him how your runny nose is doing. A good rule of thumb is call on the Lord more than you call your pastor.”

*Encouragement and gifts. Encourage your pastor to share at other churches when he has the opportunity to preach in other venues. It will do his heart a world of good to minister to fresh faces now and then.

And who doesn’t love an encouraging card from time to time? Verbally encourage him, slip a gift into his office at random times (Not just on Pastor Appreciation Day). Listen to him if he needs to talk. Organize a ‘food pounding’ from the church: a special time set aside to give his family dry goods, gift cards, etc. Those special moments of ‘loving’ on your pastor will make a world of difference in his work.

For the Pastor…

*Take time to relax. Even Jesus took time alone to pray and recharge His battery…sometimes for an extended period of time.

exhausted pastor

*Make your family a priority. Your family is a ministry too. Don’t be afraid to think long term about how your children will grow up to view God’s work and ministry.

A pastor friend of mine offered this nugget of wisdom. “One thing I always tried to do was make my kids part of the ‘rewards’ part of ministry. If a church gave me a $200 Christmas bonus, we would give a good chunk of that to our kids and tell them, ‘We know it’s hard in ministry sometimes, but there are also spiritual and physical benefits too. I’d like to share my bonus with you, because you are such a huge support to me.’ I think it’s important for pastors to help their children recognize the advantages and blessings of working in ministry; not just griping about the hard stuff.”

*Set boundaries. I think of Moses; how did he manage to lead and pastor over a million people without cracking? And you know, those Israelites did some complaining! “We’re hungry…we’re thirsty…we want meat…we’re sick of meat…we’re tired of manna…it was better in slavery…Moses, are you trying to kill us?”


His father-in-law Jethro even noticed how badly the people were draining Moses. He encouraged him to set boundaries and delegate responsibility. Moses heeded Jethro’s wisdom and saved himself from years of mental and physical anguish.

*Find a confidante. Ask God to send you a friend, a fellow pastor or confidante that you can share openly with; someone who will listen, point you up to Christ, pray with you and can keep a confidence.

*Seek medical help if the depression persists. Contrary to popular belief, needing medication does not mean you’re crazy. It means your human with a mortal body that wears out from time to time. Medication is simply a tool God has provided to help until we receive those glorified bodies He’s promised us. Medical help treats the symptoms while the Holy Spirit helps reveal the cause.

*Nurture your relationship with God. You can’t give what you don’t have. You will have a hard time dropping love and truth into the church folks if you are dry and empty.

When asked what advice he would give to young pastors, Bill Driggers offered this wisdom: “If you want to stay in it for the long haul, you have to maintain your closeness to the Lord. Everybody is going to be pulling on you from every direction and you have stay close to Him if you want to make it. And being a pastor is more than just studying; it’s about serving people and loving them.”

Recovery from the landmine of depression is possible. Hope abounds. Reach for it. Reach for Christ and the rest He can give.

To learn more about depression, people pleasing and a host of other problems that can make a Christian feel ‘unvictorious’ in their walk with God, hollow victory check out Hollow Victory here: http://www.amazon.com/Hollow-Victory-Landmines-Victorious-Christian/dp/1484100131/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1443011206&sr=8-1&keywords=hollow+victory+tara+johnson


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