Christian Leaders, Depression and Suicide Part 2

In the previous post, I started to look at the issue of depression and Christian leadership.  I looked at whether Christian leaders were really the same as other believers in church.

In this post I want to look at some of the distinct reasons why Christian leaders might suffer from depression.  This is a summary, updated with my thoughts from Charles Spurgeon.  His chapter from Lectures to My Students entitled, oddly, ‘The Ministers Fainting Fits’ is still, I think, one of the best reflections on the topic of the distinct sources of depression clergy can face.  Again, as I reminded you in the previous post when I say ‘clergy’ think all people in professional ministry and their spouses, especially wives.

  1. We are human.  We, and lay people, can forget this.  We grieve, we get burnt out, we sin, we grieve that sin.  There is a myth that all things emotional just bounce off the chest of the super-Christian, the church leader.  But it does affect us and forgetting this, putting it to one side, and getting on with things can build up and build up to a point of unavoidable crisis.  We are indeed clay vessels that can be easily broken.
  2. The work is beyond us. What we do in ministry, the feeding of the saints, the building of the church, the bring of new life to unbelievers is work that is beyond us.  It is supernatural.  Losing sight of this can be crushing.  What is harder is that successes can not be attributed to ourselves.  The day to day grind can grind us down.
  3. The position is lonely.  By virtue of the appointment of leaders, there is a form of a hierarchy in the Christian community.  The higher you are in that hierarchy the lonelier it can be.  As I mentioned in the previous post, leaders can have friendship, but not friends.  They are not equal to people they are leading, there is dynamic to the relationship that is not the same and hence leadership can lonely, more lonely the higher you are.
  4. Ministers tend not to look after themselves.  This was something I have been told again and again. But hearing it from Spurgeon it had some extra weight.  He in turn quotes Burton from the Anatomy of Melancholy:”Students are negligent of their bodies.  Other men look to their tools; a painter will wash his pencils; a smith will look to his hammer, anvil and forge; a husbandman will mend is plough-irons, and grind hatchet if it be dull; a falconer or huntsman will have special care of his hawks, hounds, horses, dogs, etc.  a musician will string and unstring his lute; only scholars [including clergy] neglect that instrument (their brains and spirits I mean) which they daily use.  Well saith Lucan, ‘See thou twist not the rope so hard it will break'”.  In an effort to put others first, we may lose sight of the long race and not be able to finish because we have not looked after ourselves.
  5. Spiritual attack can come, especially before a great achievement.  This, of course, is why the devil only approaches Jesus in his earthly ministry before it starts publicly and before the cross.  It is the same with us, when a big event, or achievement might come then it is when we feel the worse and that is not a co-incidence, it is part of the war.  It may be big or it may be that doubts and feeling low just before you head out to do some evangelism.  It is the last thing the devil wants you to do.
  6. One crushing stroke can bring a minister down low.  Again this is something I have experienced and seen others experience, yet Spurgeon’s words seem to add some extra weight to the experience.  Bringing ourselves close to another opens ourselves up to exposing our weaknesses.  I would like to say that this means we never get hurt, but it is the ones that are closest to us that hurt us the most.  We expect opposition from those outside the church, but from those at our side, opposition is most painful.  (I should point out the inverse is also true: people who are hurt by clergy are most hurt, but this is not the point of the post).
  7. We don’t have control when people make dumb decisions that effect us.  This is not one of the things that Spurgeon mentions but it is a topic of countless conversations that I have had.  One of our key volunteers come to us and announces “from next week I will heading off to a round the world trip for 3 months” or “I won’t be coming to church for the next 6 months because my child has sport on Sundays”.  While we are trying to be supportive, a series of questions fall into our heads: Why?  How will you grow as a disciple of Jesus during this time?  Why not give us some warning here?  What example does this set to others who look up to you?  Who will take the place of the ministries, formal and informal, that you have?”.  This kind of announcement, I have found, is usually left to the last minute.  When I have enquired as why, the answer has been “because I didn’t want you to talk me out of it” which makes me wonder if the person knew it was not a good decision and they knew it would hurt us.
  8. Sometimes it just happens with no reason.  Sometimes none of the reasons above are true and church leaders or their wives just get worn down over time, or there is no reason.


Again I want to remind both lay and clergy, there are lots of good reasons why people do professional ministry and there are lots of joys to the job as well.  For the sake of these posts I am only focusing on the negative and actually that is one of the keys to dealing with depression in ministry…

Next: Are there particular stressors that lead to depression in clergy….

If you would like to know more thoughts on depression and the Christian you read this article or head to our website where we have some talks on the issue.  If you think you might have depression, or more importantly, people around you are worried see your local G.P. or head to Beyond Blue.



5 thoughts on “Christian Leaders, Depression and Suicide Part 2

  1. Hi Peter. Again I’m struggling not to see resemblance for any Christian diligently trying to serve God and others in their workplace, community and homes – except perhaps that, as you said in Part 1, it is your whole life. And I wonder why is it? And is that helpful? I look forward to your solutions and appreciate any corrections to my thinking you may have.
    I’d really appreciate you addressing the ‘why’ of wives being regarded as leaders in the church (unless you are intending to address this in the next post), because as you say – it is lonely at the top. I don’t understand how it is helpful to the wives of ministers to put them in this position as well as their husbands without good reason (and perhaps there is good reason and I just need to learn what it is). Most of the wives of ministers I know don’t regard themselves as leaders in the church as such, though they may lead in various ministries alongside other lay women, but regard their primary role as supporting their husbands (which is the role of any wife really) and that being involved in too many ministries may even be a hindrance to this (this being dependent on the individual’s abilities, energy levels, stage of life, their husband’s disposition etc of course). I guess the angle I’m coming from is that the more those in ministry see the differences between themselves and their spouses and those of the laity rather than the similarities, notwithstanding the obvious leadership of the ordained minister, the more the challenges to mental health will arise. Again, I look forward to your solutions.

  2. Hi Leigh,
    Thank you for your concern in this area and wanting to ask the question.

    As Pete’s wife, I thought that it might be helpful to try address some of your questions, living this situation myself. I hope that’s OK.

    A lot of your questions can be answered in understanding the ‘oneness’ of marriage itself.

    Yes, Pete leads the church. He makes the hard, unpopular decisions. He receives criticism for those decisions. It’s the responsibility that God has charged him in this role. However, I’m also the other half of that team (via marriage), and because people know that I love and support my husband, the negative feelings that can result in such things can overspill into relationships with me, that is the annoyance or negative feelings that people may have for Pete can also be directed at me, because the instant perception is that I agree with it, and am completely supportive.

    So, what does it mean for me? I can be isolated and avoided because of it. People won’t want to confide in me because they feel they can’t completely trust me . People may even use me as a ‘go between’, between Pete and I to plead their side. Having said that, I would really like to point out that I haven’t experienced ‘these’ particular things in my current context. Though having said that, in the past I have been seen equal to Pete in his role, even to the point of accusation that Pete was my puppet because people weren’t happy with some difficult decisions he made. Either way, I’m not really perceived as a normal ‘lay’ person as such am I? I do see myself as part of the perceived leadership relationally, even though I do no official role. And I’m very clear about what I can and can’t do to set people’s expectations to reality straight away.

    My official role is to love and support Peter in a way that no other person can. That’s why I see it as an ‘Us’ not a ‘him’, even though he makes the calls. We are a team.

    So what do I see as being the solution?

    Peter and I aim to be transparent about things that need to be transparent , and that helps with those perceptions. Ministry is about relationships with God and one another and the more we can be transparent with others, the more we can break down unrealistic expectations and perceptions, and lessen the great divide between the ‘Leadership’ and the ‘Laity’ in the context of building relationship.

    We are not any holier or any more godly than any other person that we care for, but God has definitely appointed us to lead the church to cross the finish line, together. Sharing some of the struggles together can help and spur others to grow in their faith and continue their walk with God. Hence, the need for Peter to write this blog about depression and leaders.

    I hope that I have answered your questions.

    I would recommend reading this article that I was sent to me about what Minister’s wives experience . I probably have experienced every point at various stages of church life and seasons of family life.

    In Christ,
    Audrey 🙂

  3. Hi Audrey,

    Thanks for taking the time to address this – I really appreciate it.
    I can see that you feel very strongly about your role, which is going to make this a bit tricky, because I can’t agree with your original premise. Please excuse all my bluntness – it is only for the purpose of clear communication. Feel thoroughly free to critique.

    The argument about the oneness of marriage, when applied to formal ministry, makes no more sense to me than applying it to a surgeon’s wife assuming a place at the operating table. Put in this context, it is of course absurd, unless the wife is appropriately equipped and accredited for the role. I believe pastoral ministry can be as sensitive to a botched job (psychologically/spiritually/relationally) as surgery can be (physically). To take on the role of leadership in the church suggests to me that the person accepted for the position needs to be appropriately equipped, gifted and objectively assessed for fitness to the level appropriate for the given responsibilities. Leadership suitability doesn’t seem to me to have been appropriately determined if it is merely by a relational association.

    As far as I can make out, the current view of the oneness of marriage when applied to formal ministry is an over-extension of the Biblical meaning of the oneness of marriage.

    In Genesis, God creates man and woman and they are charged with being fruitful and multiplying, and filling the earth and subduing it. I think the order is important (as well as logical).

    Later when Genesis reads that a man will leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and they shall become one flesh – as far as I can make out the indication is that through the procreative act they are creating a new family – not becoming one person in a literal sense (which is obvious!) but creating a new family unit.They still have individual souls, personalities, strengths, weaknesses, roles, etc. Spiritually, husbands and wives are individuals – in heaven there is no marriage between men and women. It has its purpose at this time in salvation history, but it is not eternal. The one fleshness in the sexual union of the husband and wife is fulfilled in the creation of a new human being who is at once both the father and the mother – one flesh. The leadership role of the wife, then, is a family focused one, helping her husband in this little church called family. In this regard, the team is the husband and the wife, better maintaining the solidity of their union by sexual intimacy.

    Next is the filling of the earth and subduing it. It seems that man and woman, along with their expected progeny, were charged with extending the sanctuary of Eden to the ends of the earth – Eden, where God dwelt with man (humanity). Since the fall and throughout the colourful history of God’s people we have seen God’s work in creation drawing a people to himself among whom he will dwell. This extending of the Kingdom doesn’t seem to me to be a ‘husband and wife’ job per se, but a family job. Before Christ, the family whose job was to extend the kingdom was Israel. This side of Christ’s ascension it is the church family job. In this regard, the team is the church with Christ as its head and united by the Holy Spirit.

    Within the church, then, are different roles according to the gifts God has given us. Some will be overseers and deacons, some will have other gifts for the building up of the body. I can’t see any Biblical precedent (let alone directive) to assume that an overseer’s wife is also to be considered a leader. There are examples of husbands and wives obviously showing a united hospitality and there is a reference to Peter and other apostles taking along their believing wives (1Cor 9:5), but as far as I can recall, there is never a suggestion that an overseer’s wife is a leader – not even in description, let alone prescription.

    I had read the link you shared when Peter first posted it, but had difficulty not being able to relate to much of it myself, though the context obviously varies. I don’t believe they are experiences reserved for the wives of ministers. The various experiences you describe above seem to me to be the natural flip side outcomes of this over-extended ‘oneness’ in the minds of many congregational members, ministers and wives of ministers. It seems unrealistic for a minister’s wife to accept the privilege of assuming leadership alongside her husband without accepting the inevitable negatives alongside her husband. If a united leadership between the husband and wife is assumed, then unity of mind, united responsibility for decisions, lay unwillingness to share confidences, even a sense of appropriate access (women through the wife to the minister), are all possible (inevitable?) outcomes. i just don’t believe it’s helpful or needs to be that way. I do believe that how minister’s wives are perceived is a reflection of the manner in which they, or their predecessor, have involved themselves among other members of the church.
    It has long seemed to me that this over-extended application of the concept of oneness in marriage in ministry circles has been unhelpful for many, both in formal ministry and in the laity.

    I hope you will not misunderstand me though. I don’t disagree with the wives of ministers being heavily involved in ministry in the churches over which their husbands have oversight. I just (currently!) disagree that they have any entitlement to leadership, or to take on roles over other members of the laity who are equally equipped and gifted, or worse still, over those women who have actually become as thoroughly trained as the minister himself, are appropriately gifted, and are in full time formal ministry roles. I think young mums need to be careful that they are not neglecting their little ones and keeping the home fires burning by focusing too much on a perceived ‘ministry wife’ role. I also don’t see why those wives who have come to realise that they are not gifted in formal ministry should feel second rate or carry on struggling in a perceived role that God has neither ordained nor gifted them for.

    I question the concept of the minister and his wife being a team in the leadership of the church (though they are a team in the leadership of their family). To me it seems that the leadership team are those who have been equipped, gifted and objectively assessed for leadership – a list that the wives of ministers don’t necessarily fulfill. I really appreciate that Moore offers the first year to wives of potential clergy so that they have the opportunity to become better equipped (though not all take the opportunity or are able to), but this doesn’t automatically allocate giftedness or objective assessment of suitability. I also believe, that in areas of pastoral sensitivity it can be inappropriate for a minister to involve his wife (endorsed by “Faithfulness In Service”, yet undermined by general practice), which is why I advocate the development of a system whereby ministers have recourse to confidence and counsel from someone totally outside the parish. This can act to protect all parties from spiritual/psychological/relational difficulties – minister, his wife, and other parishioners.

    In conclusion, I see no evidence that there is any Biblical precedent for the assumption to leadership of an overseer or deacon’s wife, and I don’t see that the argument from the oneness of marriage holds water. It seems to me that the solution to many difficulties begins with reigning in the over-extended application of oneness in marriage and stick to its Biblical meaning.

    So, with great hope that I haven’t misrepresented God’s word, my question remains – why are the wives of those in formal ministry (eg ordained ministers) regarded as leaders in the church?

    God bless,

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