Lara Rufus looks at the issue of depression within the pastoral ministry, and the steps that can be taken to combat it
To many of us, a ‘depressed Christian leader’ seems somewhat of an oxymoron. Surely Christians are not supposed to be depressed? After all, the “the joy of the Lord is our strength” and, yes, whilst this is true, we cannot afford to neglect the fact that depression and Christian leadership is a real and ever-present issue.
A new study, conducted among more than 1,700 pastors, found that members of the clergy are at far greater risk of depression and anxiety – mostly due to stress – than those with other occupations.
Many in church leadership, who constantly pour into the lives of their flock, may be in desperate need of help themselves. Question: Who does the pastor turn to if the pastor needs help?
The recent spate of suicides in the US, by a number of pastors linked with depression, is evidence of this, and is a real wake-up call to the Church – and one not to be ignored.
Having worked for a large Christian charity, I personally know of at least three people – all committed Christians – who have been clinically diagnosed with depression, including those in very senior positions.
Depression, often described as that ‘dark night of the soul’, is a real issue with many in leadership, but is often frowned upon or swept under the carpet. It can be linked with spiritual weakness or demonic activity, and many may be quick to judge it as a direct result of disobedience to God, using Saul as a reference point, who became plagued with depression after having disobeyed God (1 Samuel 15). For many, though, depression is not linked to any form of known disobedience.
Elijah fell into depression, and suicidal thoughts were part of his dark episode. ‘He prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!”’ (1 Kings 19:4). Elijah’s situation highlights several problems that can lead to depression. He was physically exhausted – another reason many people succumb to depression. By the time Elijah got to Sinai, he was weak from fatigue.
Spiritual depression is a recurrent theme throughout Scripture. Other known Bible greats in Scripture who, it would appear, suffered from bouts of depression – aside from Elijah on the run from Jezebel – include Gideon in the threshing fields, and David fleeing from Saul, evident in the book of Psalms.
Types of depression
Depression ranges in seriousness from mild, temporary episodes of sadness to severe, persistent depression. Doctors use the term clinical depression to describe the more severe form of depression, also known as major depression or major depressive disorder.
The journey into a profound spirituality for me began when I finally said, “I quit.” Refusing to continue pretending everything was ‘fine’, I told my husband, Pete, I was quitting the church – and he was the pastor!
The powerful journey we took together – to ‘quit’ the things that really do not belong to God’s Kingdom, and to embrace the things that do – changed our personal lives, our marriage, and our church. One of the key issues for me related to over-functioning. Most of us in leadership struggle with this, including myself. Like an archaeological tell, the depth of the issue only becomes clearer with time. Over-functioning can be defined as: “Doing for others what they can and should do for themselves.”
Courtesy of Leaders.com
SIGNS TO LOOK FOR
So what are the signs should we look out for? Well, some symptoms of depression can include:
- continuous low mood or sadness
- feeling hopeless and helpless
- having low self-esteem
- feeling tearful
- feeling guilt-ridden
- feeling anxious or worried
- having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming yourself
Physical symptoms include:
- moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- change in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
- disturbed sleep (for example, finding it hard to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning)
Social symptoms include:
- not doing well at work
- taking part in fewer social activities and avoiding contact with friends
- neglecting your hobbies and interests
- having difficulties in your home and family life
Courtesy of the NHS, 2013
This is not an exhaustive list, more of an indication. However, this should be reviewed wisely and with professional guidance. If you know you have a problem with depression, then one would be wise to seek medical help. One should also ‘know thyself’ and be conscious of any of these symptoms. Depression can come on gradually, so it can be difficult to notice something is wrong.
The good news is that help is available; with prayer, support and adequate counselling, depression needn’t control your life.
The National Health Service (NHS) has an excellent website, which provides a self-assessment and offers some great tips on getting help. See www.nhs.uk/conditions/depression
There are other forms of help, too, like Cornelius Browne’s, Mind Café, based in Hackney, east London. This is a great Christian initiative, offering support tools to those from BME backgrounds, who might be suffering with mental and emotional health problems. See www.mindcafeonline.com/
Premier’s Mind and Soul is another great initiative supporting Church leaders, who need support with their emotional health and who seek deeper understanding of mental health issues, as well as those who have mental health problems but also have a strong Christian faith. See www.mindandsoul.info/ for further information.
Depression is real, and is becoming more and more evident in the Church. Don’t ignore it – let’s deal with it!
“Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise Him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God” (Psalm 42:11)
Lara Rufus BA, MSc, CEO of Crowne Consultancy and former Chair of the Black Fundraisers’ Network. Visit www.crowneconsultancy.co.uk or email email@example.com for more details
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