Christian Leaders, Depression and Suicide Part 1

Recently I read a blog post on ministers and suicide.  I know of some guys, who were in ministry who have taken their own lives and I know some who have talked about it.  Christian leaders and depression is not an academic issue for me and I wanted to address the issue in three blog posts.

  1. Is there a difference between church leaders and others in church (and so is there a difference when it comes to depression)?
  2. What sorts of things cause depression in church leaders?
  3. What’s the solution.

The point here is I won’t get to the solution until the last blog post so don’t be in a hurry to shoot me down until then.

Is there a difference between church leaders and other Christians?

As much as I don’t like the word clergy (to be honest I don’t know what the word means and where it comes from) I will use it to describe the professional leaders of the church: ministers, pastors, missionaries, etc.  Importantly I want to include wives here as well.  Wives of professionals often face huge pressure and stress which often are not seen by the rest of church.  And layity to describe other Christians in church. So, is there really a difference between layity and clergy?
Yes.  Let me argue this on two levels, theogically and practically.

Theologically: the Difference

Theologically speaking, Christian leaders are to be treated differently to other Christians.   When Paul is writing to Timothy and Titus about appointing leaders, he has a list of qualifications.  This is not a list for all Christians, as in this is what you need to be to be Christian, though it is something all Christians should aspire to.  But it is a list of what all Christian leaders should be like, and, I take it to be a minimum standard for leaders.  One example of the outworking of these lists is that Christian leaders are to be rebuked publicly (1 Tim 5:20) as opposed to other Christians.

As such, church leaders and teachers are to be judged more harshly.   As James tells us “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1 HCSB) teachers will be judged more harshly.  Is a teacher judged by people or by God?  The answer is ‘yes’.  I think James has in mind that God will judge, but the reality is that people judge as well.  “His sermon wasn’t really that good this week was it?”.

They are different and are meant to be different.  But the differences, practically speaking in our current culture are also important to note.

Practically: the Difference

Because Christian leaders are held to a different set of standards, their experience will be different in the culture of church.  Some of these could be argued are unfair, but I am not writing here about fair, I am writing about what the reality is.

Clergy have different relationships with with people.  We have friendships but not friends with people in church.  We are close to people and yet ‘professional’.  Unlike anyone else in the church, staff have a code of conduct in how they interact with others, where an infringement could cost them their job.  The relationship is is different because there are going to be times when we need to have a conversation with someone that is going to be hard and rebuking.  It is sometimes hard to have the conversation with a friend.  Often I am asked to speak to someone about X, when I ask why the person who raised it with me cannot speak to them the answer is “but you are the minister…”.  Because we are leaders we aren’t the same as others.

This does not mean the relationships are any less deep, in fact quite the opposite.  When people leave the church it cuts deep.  I think when someone leaves church, most people are hurt a little but will go on and understand the decision.  For clergy it is someone we have come to care about and love.  And it effects us deeply and personally.  It is a possible reminder of our inability to do ministry.  As much as we don’t want to admit it, losing people, if it becomes a trend will mean losing a job.

The church is not just where we serve and love people, it is our whole life.  It is often where we live, what we do for a job, it is escapable.  We can’t just visit another church when we want a break.  If clergy do want to leave a church and go to another it will mean a change of house, job, relationships, everything.


All this being said, I love being a professional in ministry.  I get to study the Bible more than most people and I love that.  I get to preach and teach the Bible, people confide in me in a way that they wouldn’t to other people.  All this is a great privilege.   I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love God, his cause, and what I do in that order.

All this is basically saying that clergy and lay people are not treated the same and should not be treated the same.  Hence we should expect that there are going to be some factors unique to Christian leaders.

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.



7 thoughts on “Christian Leaders, Depression and Suicide Part 1

  1. I like Hebrews 13:17 “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” It is a great reminder to us who are a part of the laity that we also have a duty to make life easy for the minister (something we often forget!). I do struggle with the inclusion of ministers wives – perhaps an area in which I need to learn a thing or too – but I can’t see any Biblical basis for it. I also wonder at the expectations so often placed on them by congregation, husband and/or self. They are not in general trained, ordained, objectively assessed for ministry suitability or employed by the church. This isn’t to say that many aren’t quite capable of doing amazing stuff, and many really do do amazing stuff!!, but I also know of others who have been encouraged into formal ministry at an unhelpful season in their lives (for example pregnancy, babies and toddlers) and others who simply weren’t gifted with the expectations that came with being ‘the minister’s wife’ – or at least were involved in particular areas of ministry in which perhaps it might have been better if they had not. Suitability for formal ministry is often, perhaps unhelpfully, assumed with the minister’s wife (who may or may not enjoy this privilege/responsibility). I do wonder if the wives of ministers wouldn’t be in a better place to be their husband’s helper if they were in fact a bit more at a distance rather than in the thick of it themselves? Could this be an area that might facilitate the mental health of their husbands? Would it be helpful in distinguishing between the formal (professional) part of their husband’s ministry (which may also include pastorally sensitive areas, confidences etc that the wife ought not be a part of) and the informal (friendship) ministries they may do as a couple? Is there an over-emphasis on formal ministry activities being the more valuable ministry for the wives of ministers rather than the less obvious but no less valuable ministries of encouragement or even work place witness? Lots and lots of questions! Looking forward to some answers!!

    1. Hi thanks for the comments. One of the problems with clergy wives is that they are all different. Some love being in the thick of it as you say – my wife is one of those people. Others would prefer to have a distance, and some in the church interpret this as ‘unloving’ no matter how many times you explain it to them. It’s probably better to sit down with your minister’s wife and talk to her about this.

      One thing I didn’t mention that every clergy wife I have spoken to has commented on is that when their husbands are criticised they take it very personally. Most guys deal with it OK, we take what we can learn and shrug off the rest. Our wives can find it a lot hard to do and this can really get them down.

      One detail on your comment above though, you mention “Would it be helpful in distinguishing between the formal (professional) part of their husband’s ministry (which may also include pastorally sensitive areas, confidences etc that the wife ought not be a part of) and the informal (friendship) ministries they may do as a couple?”. In my experience, this is very difficult to make that distinction, that’s part of the pressure of Christian leadership, though others might have worked out how to do it.

      But thanks for reading and keep commenting.

  2. Hi Pete,

    Been a while since we spoke.

    It sounds like most people are absolutely clueless about what depression really is. And the people that do, may be too depressed to even explain it.

    Depression is not:

    It’s a gift from God. But with all gifts, if misused or not used, it creates stress. Having been down the path, and taking over a decade to understand my own depression.

    A depressed person attempts to make sense of the world and environment. You know I love Orchids, heres the reason. When I grow orchids, the truth about orchids shows up. The environment cannot lie. If I water, adjust settings and temperature…etc, it’ll affect the orchid and how it blooms. That made sense to me, it was my connection to God.

    Now (You may have forgotten this part about me), I had heaps of problems with the Chinese churches. Manipulating verses in the scriptures to suit them. To me, as a depressed person, I tried to make sense of that lie. I get stressed when it makes no sense. Hence I fall back on Orchids, look for inspiration from the Bible and Orchids.

    It’s not just church but people in general. When you give me “Third party information”, you might think it’s harmless.

    But if you don’t know if it’s a lie from someone else, you might think, hey, it’s harmless to me. But to a depressed person, it’s like inserting a computer virus in to the OS. The depressed person will attempt to make sense and make true the lie or half lie. When it does not make sense, they stress.

    In a lot of cases they’ll change the entire world in their minds just to make sense the one Lie. And as more truths come into the mind, they can’t handle it anymore… hence commit suicide.

    That’s why the suicidal are confused and cannot make sense or know where to begin.

    But as I’ve said, it’s a gift. There’s more to depression … unlocking it is the interesting part of it 🙂

  3. The existence of a difference between leaders and laity must be an accepted truth – the Bible seems quite plain on the matter.

    But who are the leaders? The senior pastor who has been at college for a number of years, gone through the assessment process of pre-ordination, made the promises of ordination and finally employed by the church is obviously a leader. But leadership seems to be dependent on context. A husband is for example the God given leader of his family. A Bible study leader is the leader (under the minister) of his/her group, etc. In the church the obvious demarcation of leadership is either employment – the assistant minister, the women’s pastor, the kids minister, the youth minister etc; or voluntary leadership roles – the bible study leader, the women’s committee chair etc. But what of ‘the minister’s wife’? It seems an unhelpful title depicting an ambiguous role that nobody is really clear on, and as you say, all wives of clergy are different – there is no ‘minister’s wife’ role within the church (though there is within her home). What I’m wondering is whether the assumption of their leadership is actually unhelpful for both them and their husbands.
    Would it be better for the wives of clergy who are keen to get involved in ministry at the church earn their way like any other lay person? If they show gifts of leadership in whatever form (bible study leading, women’s ministry etc) then they earn the role on the evidence of the gifts God has given them, rather than having leadership roles handed to them on what may be an unhelpful assumption, simply because they are married to the minister, and where there may even be lay members better suited to particular roles. This is tricky in that the clergy/husband who may assign roles of leadership may have his rose coloured bias (fantastic in marriage, not so fantastic when assessing suitability) so perhaps there needs to be a bit of advice requested in these instances?
    This then leaves those clergy wives who don’t feel that they are suitable for leadership roles, or not in the right season for them, feel free to find their way into the roles that best suit their God given gifts and circumstances, whether formal or informal.
    This seems to me to also pave the way for closer relationships within the laity where loneliness is avoided, conversations on every topic a possibility, etc because the ‘us and them’ is gone – clergy wives are a part of ‘us’ even though they are married to one of ‘them’. The laity may even be in a better position to support the minister by supporting their wife. It seems to me that this is the solution to so many of the issues that clergy wives face (I could even come up with secular professions where wives may feel much the same and so a common lament available rather than the grass always seeming greener on the other side) and yet it would take a lot to get it into people’s heads (laity, clergy and clergy wives) that ‘ministry wife’ is not a role in the church. If there is any Bible passage to contradict this I’d really like to know it. (I even wonder if gatherings such as equip ministry wives does not in fact unhelpfully add to the divide in the long term while feeling helpful in the short term). I also wonder where the line must be drawn in any profession where the husband’s job is unhelpfully impacting the wife’s mental health and so wisdom suggests a change be considered.

    Wives taking the criticism of the minister/their husband personally is such an understandable difficulty. No one likes to hear their loved ones criticized. Shame on whoever criticizes the minister to his wife! Shame on whoever criticizes the beloved to the lover whatever their role in the church or outside it for that matter. But I wonder where they are hearing the criticism from? Is it usually a direct remark? (shameful), do they hear it as gossip? (shameful) or do they hear about it from their husband as he downloads about his day? Has a lay person appropriately taken his/her concerns to the minister, but the minister has then shared this with his wife?
    This brings me to my next thought on the mental health of those in leadership.
    I wonder if there might be benefit in the introduction of supervisor/counselor roles to support those in leadership along similar lines to those in counselling and other mental health based professions where confidentiality and trust are paramount? A trained person who clergy could download to regularly, outside the church, in confidence, maintaining confidence (so not naming members of the congregation) and so having the opportunity to be accountable, upheld, more objectively counselled, and without compromising relationships within the church of which his family is a part. Aside from the obvious benefit to the minister, this would protect his wife from unnecessary relational scars (c.f. Prov 16:28b), keep work and home more distinct, help maintain the integrity of his ministry in sensitive pastoral concerns, and I suspect a whole host of other advantages. Husbands may want to download on their wives, wives may want them to, but is it wise and helpful under all circumstances? There are other professions where it would be thoroughly inappropriate – so it’s not a suggestion beyond that which occurs in other trust based professions. This is not to suggest that there is no ‘church’ communication between clergy and their wives, but that communication is based on a careful discernment of what is best for the wife and the members of the congregation without compromising the need of the minister to also be supported.

    And finally – I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t be all much better off with the return of the dog collar (I’m not sure if I’m serious) – then for all concerned – clergy, laity and clergy family – it would be clear – collar on – ‘on the job – professional – formal ministry’, or collar off – ‘not on the job – personal – informal everyday sort of ministry that everyone does’. Maybe someone could come up with a culturally sensitive alternative. How about all clergy must have an ear pierced and wear a sleeper with a dog collar charm when on the job and take it out when not…..hmmm……maybe not.

  4. Hi Peter, thanks for thinking through this. I have a fair few questions so will try and keep my points short. After reading your first part I still don’t know whether I agree about the distinction between layity and clergy – not that it is totally non-existent – but as far as consituting more of a risk factor for depression and suicide, I feel that the distinction doesn’t exist. I’m not wanting to shoot you down(!), so I hope I don’t come across that way 🙂

    Just to begin with, I find it interesting that a distinction be drawn here between layity and clergy, when in many other contexts this distinction has been purposely deconstructed. Phrases like “we are all missionaries” and “we all minister to the people around us” are preached carefully, so that we all know that we are not consumers but actively a part of the gospel work. So I’m wondering why in one case we seek to merge the two categories and in other cases we seek to split them? I’m a bit of a definition Nazi, so be patient with me if this seems overly picky!

    So here are my questions/points:

    1) 1 Timothy gives factors for choosing leaders, yet many leaders are not necessarily clergy as per you’re definiton of being a professional – I take it you mean being payed. For example, GC leaders (Bible study leaders) are leaders, and are charged with a certain degree of responsiblity. So where do we draw the line between being in Christian leadership and not? Is it as simple as whether or not you are paid? Will these (GC) leaders be judged more harshly too? If so, surely the pressures are present for them too, even though they are not “clergy”.

    2) Does 1 Tim 5:20 regarding public rebuking of leaders (elders) have in mind other circumstances, since the rebuke comes from another elder, not from layity? To support this, 1 Tim 5:1 sets the precedent for how rebuking a leader (elder) should be done: “do not rebuke, but exhort as a father”. My argument is that a public rebuke shouldn’t come from layity. If there is a rebuke to be made by layity, they should carefully consider whether to do it, and then do it in private, if at all! Which is why I’m very scared to post this response – It’s not meant as a rebuke, so I hope it doesn’t come across as one, and if it does I’m sorry I don’t mean it to cause any hurt!!!
    Also, practically speaking, I feel like many people aren’t very good at rebuking each other anyway – what I mean is, we are quick to rebuke a person, and slow to listen to them, which is terrible. Rebuking should feel like a “kiss from heaven”, not a whip. So the pain from rebukes is present again for both categories.

    3) Just as clergy recieve negative feedback and pressures from congregations “His sermon wasn’t really that good this week was it?” ins’t it also true that congregations recieve negative feedback from their pastors “I’ve noticed we as a church aren’t very good at X, we need to be doing better”. I never take such statements generally, but always personally, since I am a part of the church. So I think both parties feel this pressure. So I feel there is not a difference in this regard. Feel free to press back against this 🙂

    4) Sorry this point is more of a comment than a question. Perhaps I didn’t understand the reason you drew this distinction: “For clergy it is someone we have come to care about and love. And it effects us deeply and personally.” When someone leaves church it effects layity deeply too, as layity too have come to care about and love our fellow saints.

    This next point’s with regards to the original article, so I realise you didn’t write it, but feel the point is worth mentioning here:
    5) “The number one thing congregations can do is to create an environment where seeking help is not merely acceptable, but expected. An annual couple-checkup with a Christian counselor who is actually trained to do marital therapy (one course in grad school or seminary doesn’t count) would be helpful.”
    Agreed. We are all moral tragedies and therefore broken as well. I’ve heard it expressed in your sermons many times your hope that we don’t play a game of “I’m okay, your’e okay”. This is so good, and I appreciate it.

    So to sum up, I agree the Bible does have some sort of distinction in mind between leaders and non-leaders (though I’m hazy about what that is). I also agree with the applications from the original article; the listed steps are great ways to take care of pastors and definately should be implemented as ways of loving them. But with regards to the reasons pastors experience depression – I feel they are similar reasons layity experience it. Having never been a pastor myself, I may be very wrong on this. Any feedback is appreciated! 🙂


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