We often call our pastors “shepherds of their flocks.” That means they are constant sentinels, always alert for potential danger lurking in the shadows, waiting for a prime opportunity to snatch sheep. Staying at a high level of alertness is not sustainable on an endless basis; the adrenaline stream has to periodically shut off for periods of replenishment. However, most of our pastors are bi-vocational, meaning they work hard at a “day job,” come home to address family matters as head of the household, and bear the responsibility of speaking on behalf of the Lord to his parishioners several times weekly. If you think the “full time” pastors have it easier, ask them about the constant drain of requests for their time from committee meetings to hospital visits, to counseling to study time.
Pastors are often some of the most dried up folks I know (spiritually speaking). A good friend describes this as “the starving baker” syndrome; the baker feeds everyone else but does not take time to nurture himself. Sacrifice is noble when it honors the Lord and benefits others, but it can be the slain goose that lays the golden eggs if we neglect ourselves as ministers. When this becomes the norm instead of the exception and lasts over an extended period of time, why are we surprised when depression settles in? Consider these signs:
Denial—our ability to judge a person’s warning signs of depression is usually the worst when aimed at ourselves. Somehow the myth persists that to suspect depression in ourselves means failure, or lack of spirituality, or inherent weakness. We need accountability partners who have access to our private actions and thoughts and permission to ask the hard questions. Does your pastor have trusted individuals the pastor allows to confront him if he is going off the deep end and denies it? If not, why not?
Drought—Time in the Word spent only in sermon prep doesn’t cut it; a pastor needs time to refresh his own spirit in order to refresh others (listen next time the flight attendant talks about the masks from the ceiling). Time spent with loved ones that becomes resented because it keeps the pastor away from his calling is warped reasoning; without the marriage, without the family the pastor loses his credibility and his ministry.
Deadlines—I mistakenly think I’m in charge of the spigot and can turn it all off when I want. There is no surefire way to determine how long I will grieve a loss, or when a day will be the intersection of every wrong turn and decision in my life crashing together. The Lord promises not to give us more than we can bear, then seems to pile it on. (Prov. 16.9) There are periods of our lives that just stink, don’t fit, or crash and burn. It’s not automatically an indicator of your failure; it is more likely an affirmation you are part of the human race.
Here is my personal progressive checklist and selected examples, feel free to add to them:
Chemical/Physical: seasonal affective disorder (too little daylight); thyroid fluctuations (trust me on this one); adverse reactions to medication; lack of sleep; diet changes
Psychological: reduced stamina (I’m 66, but deceive myself to think I’m 27 and indestructible); tendencies to think I’m useless; the world would be better off without me; deteriorating marriage or other relationships; letting everything drop and not caring; no energy even though I slept and slept; dreading the workplace, the family, even dreading time off (workaholics are bad about this, feeling guilty for taking time off); realization things may not get better physically (terminal or chronic diseases when others don’t have them)
Spiritual: don’t be too quick to cast blame on God or the evil one for your travails; when Elijah complained to God he despaired to death, God told him to take a nap. Oppression by demonic forces is scriptural and real, but should be addressed only after the first two have been vetted.
Suspect your pastor is depressed? As a first step read Proverbs 17.17 and 27.6, cue up James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” and after hearing it go be that friend to your pastor. Then get help, collectively and professionally if necessary. Depressed, Pastor? Be real with yourself, your spouse, and your congregation, and don’t abandon God even when the dark night of the soul makes you feel He is silent and a million miles away. He is worthy when I feel like a million dollars and the praise band is cranking out a rollicking song; He is still worthy when I can’t hear or see Him.
We’re conquerors in Christ, but we’re not supermen; let’s speak truth in love to ourselves and each other.