Christian Leader, Depression and Suicide – Part 3

In the last two posts I have talked about the difference between the church experience of Christian leaders (whom I call clergy for the sake of these posts) and their wives and that of other Christians.  I have also talked about particular causes of depression among Christian leaders.  So is there a solution that is particular to Christian leaders?

Denominations and Structures

Some have said we should be looking to the diocese, denominational structure, missionary organisation or whatever oversight body the clergy are under.   These structures can provide some great help, but at the end of the day they are basically administrative structures, they are not built to do the job.   To look to them, or worse hold them accountable, is overly simplistic.  They might provide some great resources,  or better, be able to point people to the right resources, but aren’t going to be the place we need to find the help.

Local Churches

Alternatively, some might say it is the local church’s responsibility to make sure that clergy are avoiding mental health problems.  Like denominational structures, these can be helpful, but not the key point of where people should be looking.  Average everyday people, even elders, are not really equipped to deal with the issues that clergy are going through.  This is not to say they shouldn’t have any input, but this is a little like expecting someone in church being able to perform surgery just because they are a Christian.

I have a great relationship with my church.  For those who don’t know, I suffer from cyclical depression and the church knows this.  They are understanding if I need to cancel meetings or need extra time to recover.  I think we have a great working relationship in this, but to expect them to deal with my depression is not really realistic.

Medical Professionals

Perhaps it is mental health and other professionals, after all in each of these posts I have suggested that if you are in doubt about your mental health then talk to your GP or head to Beyond Blue.  I am definitely not one of the people who think that mental health issues should be something you should “just pray about”, in fact I am yet to meet someone who holds this view seriously though I am sure they are out there.  Would you just pray about a broken leg?  There are some great professional resources out there and if you, or more importantly people around you, think you need help go and get yourself checked out, even for peace of mind.

But this is the place we head up when things are probably too late, this is about treatment and we are talking about prevention.  That being said, I think a lot of Christian leaders head there too late, are afraid of taking medication, etc.

So where does a professional church leader turn to avoid depression?

An Underrated Resource

But there is one place that people rarely turn to to avoid depression and I think it is one of the most underrated places, in fact I think it is the cause for a lot of the reactive depression caused by ministry: God himself through good theology.

Since I am expecting to get some flack for this here is my disclaimer: this does not make one immune from depression at all, but it will help with dealing with the particular issues that ministry causes in depression.  Did you get that?  Most of the issues in the second post were about the crushing nature of ministry.  Good theology will help us to bear that weight.

Let me give a few brief points on this addressed to clergy, please not that this is brief and few:

  1. You need to remember that we are sheep before we are shepherds.  While I have mention in the first post that the Christian experience is different for leaders, actually it should be very similar in many ways.  We need to remember that for us to be effective leaders, we need to be sheep.  We need to rest in the work that Jesus has done.  Go back to the shepherd who has given his life for you.  (1 Peter 5:1-4).
  2. Redemption means that you have been taken from a life of sin to a life of service to God.  Your job is to honour God.  Taking your own life is going to hurt those around you, destroy all the ministry you have built, cause a huge amount of pain the the brotherhood of other clergy and will, most importantly dishonour the God who redeemed you.  It’s not your life to take (1 Corinthians 6:19).
  3. Don’t lose sight of who God is.  One of the main reasons I see ministers get overwhelmed is that we are looking at the task and taken our eyes of how great and glorious the God we serve is.  Paul Tripp is one of the people who have served the community well in pointing ministers back to a vision for God.  But a better resource is the Bible.  Taking some time where you are not preparing a sermon, or thinking about a pastoral issue, but reading the Bible for yourself is key in ministry.  Seeing the church and the work without seeing God is simply going to crush you.
  4. Justification by faith is for clergy as well as all Christians.  The danger of the pastoral examination is that we end up in “justification by ministry”, that is we are only acceptable to God because of our ministry.  This is a clear heresy, so repent. Comparison with other ministries can be crippling.  While we need to be fruitful, our salvation is not dependent on this and we can lose sight of that. (Luke 10:20).  Rejoice in justification by faith.
  5. God is sovereign and powerful.  I remember one of the most important lessons I learned doing a ministry apprenticeship was dealing an issue of people I could not minster to for some reason or another: they had left the church or other reasons.  My trainer reminded me “God is building the church, we are just helping”.  He will look after people we can’t look after, in fact he looks after the people we help him look after.  He is the one who will provide that resource you desperately want.
  6. You need to work in the power of the Spirit.  The work is beyond us.  We cannot do it in our own strength and yet we continue to think that we can.  We need to ask God continually that he will send us his Spirit to strengthen us. (Colossians 1:29).  But really how many of us do that?  Daily?  Really?

There is far more to be written here than I have time for.  One day I hope it will become a book, but in the meantime, I hope that you see that one of the key antidotes for depression in Christian leaders is God himself.

It means that there may be times that we need to step away from ministry, because we have lost sight of that, and I have a huge respect for those who have done this rather that continue to limp along in ministry.

If you are one of the lay people who are reading this, then ask your clergy: “What exactly are you doing right now to have a clear vision of God?  Because without that, you are not going to be able to serve me very well at all”.

To be honest, this has post has been sitting in my drafts box for a little while now because I know people are going to react to it and it has taken me some time to work out why.  I think it is that we don’t really think that God, or good theology, can help with depression.  I think this is why we tend to get people making polemic straw men of “you either need to pray or get professional help”.  I still don’t know why the answer can’t be both.  More importantly why God, and good theology, gets relegated to the bench, even though he is the one we serve, he is the one who made us, and he is the one who redeems us.


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.   But please get help.


2 thoughts on “Christian Leader, Depression and Suicide – Part 3

  1. Hi Peter. I so thoroughly agree – and I know that you are particularly addressing those in leadership, but can I say, from experience, that good theology is also the foundation for managing depression in the laity? But it seems to me to be the foundation which necessarily must have built on it a number of other factors (as you indicated) but also including how we do community and how we do ministry. This is why I keep coming back to the distinction regarding the wives of ministers and also, from my original post on your facebook, about young people being encouraged into ministry too young and before they have developed a resilience that often comes with working in the secular sphere. Even Jesus did not start his formal ministry until he was thirty – not a prescription I know, but perhaps a good model. Assuming capacity prematurely seems to me to be a recipe for depression. Why is this done to the minister’s wives? Why is this done to the young people?

  2. Thanks Peter for sharing your experience and wisdom on this topic over the three posts. I especially enjoyed in this last one the 6 brief points and think it’s a great place to start with regards to depression.

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