When The Pastor Suffers From Depression
Raymond Pendleton, Ph.D.
Director of the Clinical Counseling Program,
Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling
Recently, I had the privilege of reconnecting with an old friend and former student. As we sat at lunch, he told me what had taken place in his life during the past few months. He is a man in his early fifties, married with children, and a pastor for many years since he completed seminary. As I listened to his story, it became all too familiar.
In his most recent pastorate, he had served for several years with a good measure of success and satisfaction. He recounted that for most of his life he had experienced bouts of depression but had always been able to put his head down and charge forward. Eventually, the depression would lift, and he would be able to go on as before with the work of ministry. However, this time it was different. After a long holiday season that seemed to require more energy than usual, he experienced a return of the depression that was more serious and debilitating than any previous episode.
In conversation with the lay leadership of the congregation, they agreed together that he should take some time and get some professional help to work through the depression. He found a very helpful counselor who was able to help him identify a series of traumatic losses and disappointments throughout much of his early life. He described several “breakthrough experiences” that became the source of relief and healing. He was feeling free and able to move forward with ministry again. In fact, he felt that he was more ready than ever before to engage the tasks of the pastorate.
The bombshell came when he sat with the leadership of the congregation and they asked him to resign, feeling that they wanted a more energetic presence in the pulpit and as a leader of worship. He was stunned, to put it mildly, but he had no choice but to capitulate to the irrequest/demand. As a testament to his recent healing experience, he was able to deal with this body blow with a sense of balance and reasonable calm but without sinking into a depression.
It would be a wonderful thing if this pastoral experience was unique, but it is not unusual for untrained people to see depression as something to be avoided and to be judged as a malady that disqualifies a Christian from service. A mythology is often extant that Christians should not be depressed. These folks should not read the life of Haddon Spurgeon, the famous English preacher, or the lives of many biblical characters who suffered from this mood disorder.
As a teacher of Pastoral Counseling, I spend a significant portion of the introductory course talking about depression, its etiology and the various approaches to treatment. Students need to be prepared to deal with depression in their own lives as well as the experience of depression in the lives of the congregations to whom they minister, since it is clear that pastors are a primary source for caregiving. When a person comes to consult with a pastor, it is important that the pastor be able to recognize the issues with which this individual is struggling and be able to make appropriate intervention. At the same time, I tell my students that they are always responsible for the spiritual nurture of those in their care.
In their recent book, New Light on Depression, David Biebel and Harold Koenig describe four types of depression: (1) situational depression, (2) developmental depression, (3) biological depression and (4) spiritual depression. David Biebel is a teacher, speaker and seminary graduate with a Doctor of Ministry degree. Harold Koenig is a board certified psychiatrist. Their book is a very helpful treatment of the varieties of depression and the possibilities for help that are available. The reality, I tell my students, is that anyone can become depressed. The issue is to recognize that depression is not a statement of spiritual failure. Depression happens! Pastors, lay leaders and those who provide counsel to individuals and families must be well trained to recognize the symptoms of various levels of depression and have sufficient knowledge of the resources available to respond to the particular needs of the person.
Dr. Raymond Pendleton, Professor of Pastoral Psychology and Director of Mentored Ministry, is President of the Willowdale Center for Psychological Services in Hamilton, MA. He chairs the board of FOTOS (Fish On The Other Side), a ministry to people struggling with gender identity, and is a board member of Hagar’s Sisters, a ministry to families experiencing domestic abuse. He teaches on marriage and family life for conferences and congregations. He holds an M.A. from Auburn University and a Ph.D. from Boston University