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.

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.

But…

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.

 

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.