What Kind of Church Welcomes Those With Depression?

Recently I was shocked to hear the news of another young man, a pastor, who had taken his own life, leaving behind a beautiful wife and three gorgeous kids. It is heartbreaking to say the least.

This article could go in many different directions. But I’m choosing the direction that seems to me to be most obvious. The world needs a church where the sick are welcome, and where even the senior leaders are allowed to be sick even in their appointed seasons of ministry.

Why? Because it happens.

The system of church must be able to cope with it, especially given that the church is a hospital for the sick.

What I talk about here is not physical disease, but the mental, emotional, spiritual maladies that so many of us have been dogged by. I have had three major bouts of depression, I have suffered panic attacks, and I have endured enough grief to understand and accept that suffering is endemic to life.

So why is there a perception that those with depression are not welcome in the church?

Why would there not be the appropriate support and counselling and programmes of training to help sick people? Well, sometimes there are resource constraints.

Part of the reason, perhaps, is that our modern world is so geared around slick and efficient operations, and pastoral leaders feel driven to replicate that in the church.

This perfectionism that can never be satisfied has become part of modern church culture.

So many young and not-so-young men and women in the church today are under enormous pressure to serve well enough to please the people they serve as well as the church boards they work for.

The church needs to be a place where we can be rewarded for our honesty regarding our weaknesses.

After all, it’s a biblical idea that we receive Christ’s strength when we admit our weakness. The trouble is we live in a day that has forgotten biblical tradition, and that has bought the lie that successful church must be competitive, and that successful ministry must be both effective and founded in excellence. Church is run like a business, competing for its members, with its sales and marketing strategies, instead of simply rooting itself in living out the gospel.

There are many reasons why churches may not embrace the concept of strength-in-weakness within their ministries. Many forces collide. Part of the issue is the intrusion of prosperity, name-it-claim-it, doctrine.

It seems to me that if we are to improve the acceptance of mental health issues like depression in our churches we need to embrace them across the board. What would Jesus have us do? Deny the reality? By no means!

I cannot think of a better way of doing this than one of the pastors or key leaders being completely transparent about a current struggle. Oh, I know that that used to be a no-no. As a pastor you would not share on anything unless you had overcome it. But pastors also need to lead the way in vulnerability which shows humility.

Pastors need to show courage, ironically in their weakness by being vulnerable, to encourage others in their weakness.

That sort of example of weakness begins with the pastor!

But churches don’t seem to like their pastors being weak.

This is because we’ve fallen for the lie that leaders are strong.

In many things in life, however, ‘overcoming’ is fanciful, as if we could click our fingers and overcome depression. Anyone who’s been depressed knows that is nonsense. We don’t have that sort of control over this black dog. And this is entirely biblical. The Bible would lead us to the lament psalms, Ecclesiastes, the book of Job, the prophetic writings, and in the New Testament, Second Corinthians, and specifically, that thorn in Paul’s side, among many others. The idea is suffering is central in the Bible. Moses, David, Jonah, Elijah, Jeremiah, the list goes on and on. Can the suffering servant Jesus of Isaiah 45-55 not understand our depression, especially in the light of the cross?

Why is it that pastors need to project the image that they have it all together? None of us do…

Their heroes in the Bible didn’t.

There seems to be a system of development for pastors that does not allow much leeway for them to have genuine and ongoing struggles. Like, that kind of weakness counts against them or counts them out. Yet this tradition forgets about some of the best pastors who suffered, like Spurgeon. I know from a writing perspective that I am more deeply connected to God in the words I write when I am struggling. There is a deeper kind of ministry that we may tap into in our depression, so long as we don’t feel overwhelmed by it, and so long as a deeper kind of ministry would be allowed. Acceptance is a powerful economy.

Pastors with depression must be embraced all the more! Pastors who have suffered depression are all the better equipped for ministry. And churches need to wrestle more with how effectively they support people in the darkness. Smoke machines, brewed coffee and stealth-like efficiency make a mockery of the tenets of the church with its own book on suffering.

Churches are complex environments for those who work in them, whether they are paid or volunteers. Those who are paid always put in many more hours than they are paid for, and those who are volunteers give hundreds of hours per year for the love of it.

It would be okay if it was satisfying work, but many times it’s not worth the conflict, or the constant not meeting of the high standards many churches set, and I’m not meaning standards of holiness, but standards of effectiveness. The workplace environment in churches can be more toxic than the comparative workplace environment in secular workplaces. The sense of inadequacy, the conflicts that don’t go away, the pressure from leaders and members, the pressure to lead, and the spiritual warfare that is part of the environment all contribute to the chaos that broods in a pastor or ministry leader and threatens to burn them out in a spirit of despair.

Surely, we could understand that there are a plethora of precursors that predispose people in the church to suffer depression and anxiety-related disorders.

I suggest that the kind of church that accepts and even embraces those with depression, especially those within the ranks of its pastors, is Christ’s church.

Surely it must grieve the Spirit of God that so many pastors, and anyone for that matter, are suffering alone, not to mention the ones that are dying!

Here are some things that the church provided that I found helped me when I suffered depression in ministry:

  1. Even more so I was embraced within leadership, as the leadership understood that I needed the support of fellowship. When we are feeling weak we need much encouragement, and the best encouragement comes from those who are most mature in the faith. Leaders who are suffering depression must be around leaders who are compassionate and wise.
  2. There was a culture that embraced both weakness and honesty. Both are needed. We are only strong until we become weak, and it is only a matter of time. When we are weak we need to be honest, and the church must build a culture that demands honesty and provides safety for everything that is disclosed.
  3. There was a devotion to prayer, which is another way of saying that the ministry of healing is God’s business; that those within the Church understood that clich├ęs and advice had limited or even damaging effect.
  4. As I shared my burden and my incapacity, I was still allowed to do what I felt I needed to do, but other leaders took on the more onerous responsibilities. This often meant that they would delegate off single tasks to others which was an opportunity to develop them. What I found most encouraging is these other leaders would not make me feel guilty. They simply understood. Churches need to nurture a culture that exemplifies empathy and compassion.