Five Reasons Many Pastors Struggle with Depression

Many pastors really do struggle with depression.

Most church members have no idea their pastor was depressed. They don’t know until they are awakened to the reality of some of the dramatic consequences of the depression: broken marriages; sexual affairs; resignation from ministry; and even suicide.

If you are a pastor reading this post and you are struggling with depression, please get help. Too many of you pastors have been taught that depression is a sign of failure in ministry, that it is something that must be hidden from view. Those are lies, blatant lies. Please get help. Now.

But the primary purpose of this post is to explain the precipitating factors to depression. More clearly, these are the five primary causes pastors identified as the reasons behind their depression. Each of the causes is followed by a direct quote from pastors who shared with me their struggles.

  1. Spiritual warfare. “I don’t mean this in a profane way, but there was a point in my ministry when all hell broke loose. I can’t explain the attacks any way other than spiritual warfare. The Enemy was intent on destroying my ministry, and I began to spiral downward emotionally.”
  2. The surprising reality of pastoral leadership. “I wish someone had told me how tough it is to be a pastor. My single counsel was to preach the Word, and I understand the priority of preaching. But, after a year or so in my first pastorate at age 31, I saw the underbelly of local church life. I was just caught off guard. And it took me some time before I realized I was truly depressed.”
  3. Sense of inadequacy. “My church is declining. While I don’t get hung up on numbers, my members started talking about the decline. And when we had to delete a position because we could no longer pay the person, I really begin to hit rock bottom. I felt like it was all my fault.”
  4. Critics and bullies. “Pastoral leadership really can be a death by a thousand cuts. It’s not any one person or criticism; it’s the constant and steady stream of criticisms. It wears on you. My depression came on gradually, so by the time I was in deep depression, I did not see it coming.”
  5. Loneliness. “It’s really hard to find a true friend when you are a pastor. And when you have no one to talk to about your struggles and questions, life can get lonely. That is why Church Answers has been a God-send to me. I get to ask questions and share my struggles in a safe place.”

The pastor in number five mentioned Church Answers, a dynamic community of church leaders. It’s a place where you can get your church questions answered 24/7. And, more importantly, it’s a place where you will never feel alone. I urge you to become a part of this community while it is open this week. It may be one of the best decisions you make in ministry.

Depression is real with pastors. It seems to be pervasive. May we who serve alongside them, staff and laity alike, take a few minutes a day to pray for our pastors.

It could very well be one of the most important ministries we have.

Posted on February 26, 2018

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Steve Turner says on

    Thank you for this excellent article! As a pastor who suffers from clinical depression and anxiety issues, it’s refreshing to hear church leaders saying it’s OK to have these issues. For far too many years the church ignored these problems or said “your faith is not strong enough.” That is a lie straight from Satan! God has been with me as I’ve walked this journey of my depression, and He has blessed me with doctors/therapists who use their God given talents to develop treatments for it. My medication corrects a simple chemical imbalance in my brain on a daily basis. I am so thankful that God gave someone the wisdom and knowledge to develop that! I would also add that pastors should NEVER feel ashamed for asking for help. Never forget that Jesus promises to walk with us through our difficulties. I am also blessed with a wonderful wife and children who are there for me when I go through these bouts of depression. Whether it’s a hug, a listening ear, or a shoulder to cry on–it really makes all the difference in the world. I do feel it has even helped my ministry. I can share openly with people that I struggle with depression, and it has opened doors for me to minister to others. They truly know that I understand what they are feeling. We can build each other up! Blessings to those who struggle with this, and thanks again for this wonderful article!

    • Steve,

      Absolutely right on your perspective. Struggling with situational depression made me a much more compassionate and empathetic pastor. Being transparent about it as a leader has helped empower many who struggle. I am under no illusions, however, that some still hold the stigma and consider me weak because of the struggles I had. It’s a cost I’m willing to bear. I’ve always loved the psalms, but now I have lived them and they have become my prayer language. I would not exchange that gain for a painless life.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you so much, Steve.

  • Thom:
    I’ve been in ministry 42 years, 27 as a pastor and 16 as a Director of Missions! I was never depressed until I entered the ministry. I have experienced all of the points you have mentioned. I have pastored growing churches and declining churches and pastored the church where “all hell broke loose”. Thank God for a supportive wife, and time in the Word and prayer, that’s what kept me going! I have never suffered clinical depression, some do! In our Florida I’m told 4 pastors committed suicide and one DOM last year!

  • My diagnosis was “situational depression” and it lasted for about two years. I don’t technically know the difference between “clinical” and “situational,” but my wife has been living with managed “clinical” depression for years. Experiencing clinical depression as a “care-giver” and situational depression, I believe the symptoms can be similar though the causes are different. In the long run, I think “situational depression” can be easier to deal with than clinical, provided you can deal with or change your situation.

    I experienced all of the points made in the post. I was surprised at the darkness of it all, as I had suicidal thoughts many times. They were never entertained, but it was as though Satan was literally breathing down my neck. They shocked me and it was my dark thoughts that eventually led me to make an appointment with my doctor. Interesting, however; if you have a cold, a doctor’s staff will get you in the day of your call or early the next day. For my depression, I had to wait over two weeks for an appointment. Something definitely wrong with that!

    Having an understanding wife who has battled and managed depression most of her adult life was a big help to me, as she would often coach me through my symptoms.

    The cause of my depression was the action of church bullies. I eventually resigned because of the toxicity. I never learned how to fight in a godly way. I don’t think most pastors know how to do that and I think that is a lacking skill for most of us. I believe Jesus knew how to “fight.” I suspect all of his Apostles did. Paul certainly did. It’s a skill I have yet to acquire.

    Many godly leaders have battled depression. I don’t wish it on anyone. I have, however, been very transparent about my battle in an effort to empower folks who struggle with it and remove the stigma from the congregations that I serve. I know that God has used that in very powerful ways. God has been good to me in bringing me to a good place of healing. “Great is Thy Faithfulness” means more to me now than it did three years ago.

    I would also add this: if you see a fellow pastor struggling with his/her church or with depression, reach out to that person. When I started having struggles at my church it seemed as though I had leprosy from the perspective of other local pastors. Some tried to tell me how to “fix it” but none showed me any real empathy. Perhaps we think that troubles at one’s church are contagious. I know I did that in the past and I repent. When I see a fellow pastor struggling, I will boldly reach out to that person now. Being a struggling pastor is very lonely.

    BTW, Church Answers is a very good place for struggling pastors.

  • Ruth Cooley says on

    Please, pastors, consider you may be being doing spiritual battle as well for the many who deal with this within your reach of ministry. Remember Jesus took a stripe for our healing. He walks with us through the storms and His called shepherds should do the same. I walked with a loved one through 14 tormenting years of depression in one stage or another. He is fully healed and helps so many others today.

  • I would also add:
    1. A focus on comparison rather than faithfulness to a unique call.
    2. Unrealized perceived vision.
    3. On going struggles in the home.

  • Pastoral ministry can be especially hard on a “people person.” I’m a process driven introvert. It’s not that I do t like people, I love them, but my motivation is seeing the task accomplished. I think a lot of (lay) people think it’s better to be a “people person” who thrives on relationships to be a really good Pastor, but so personally see a lot of those guys burn-out and get frazzled. There are advantages to being able to “detach” and “work the (Biblical) plan.”

  • In addition to the stated causes of depression that are all very real, for me there is another regular occurrence of depression that I deal with. Seasonal Depression. After 45 years of ministry I have learned to recognize a depression that follows the seasons of the year. Winter is a challenge. It’s usually a month into this season before I come to terms with what is happening and that I’ve been here before and most importantly “this to shall pass”. It ultimately brings about freshness and renewal but sometimes the journey is sad and dark filled with self doubt.

  • The statistics show Pastors are not faring well. A lot of the problem is due to low correlation of gifts to tasks. Ephesians Chapter 4: 11-12 lists the primary ministry gifts:

    “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”

    What happens when an apostle tries to be a pastor; or worse yet, a teacher does that?

    Why do we ignore so important a scripture when it comes to training and selecting individuals to fulfill the five positions of ministry service?

    Well, what happens when a truck driver performs brain surgery?

    Here’s a more complete list (from

    72% of the pastors report working between 55 to 75 hours per week.
    84% of pastors feel they are on call 24/7.
    80% believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families. Many pastor’s children do not attend church now because of what the church has done to their parents.
    65% of pastors feel their family lives in a “glass house” and fear they are not good enough to meet expectations.
    23% of pastors report being distant to their family.
    78% of pastors report having their vacation and personal time interrupted with ministry duties or expectations.
    65% of pastors feel they have not taken enough vacation time with their family over the last 5 years.
    28% of pastors report having feelings of guilt for taking personal time off and not telling the church.
    35% of pastors report the demands of the church denies them from spending time with their family.
    24% of pastor’s families resent the church and its effect on their family.
    22% of pastor’s spouses reports the ministry places undue expectations on their family.
    66% of church members expect a minister and family to live at a higher moral standard than themselves.
    Moral values of a Christian is no different than those who consider themselves as non-Christians.
    The average American will tell 23 lies a day.
    53% of pastors report that the seminary did not prepare them for the ministry.
    90% of pastors report the ministry was completely different than what they thought it would be like before they entered the ministry.
    45% of pastors spend 10-15 hours a week on sermon preparation.
    85% of pastors report the use of the internet and other resources have improved their study time compared to when they first started their ministry.
    50% of pastors state they spend 1 hour in prayer each day.
    95% of pastors report not praying daily or regularly with their spouse.
    57% of pastors believe they do not receive a livable wage.
    57% of pastors being unable to pay their bills.
    53% of pastors are concerned about their future family financial security.
    75% of pastors report significant stress-related crisis at least once in their ministry.
    80% of pastors and 84% of their spouses have felt unqualified and discouraged as role of pastors at least one or more times in their ministry.
    52% of pastors feel overworked and cannot meet their church’s unrealistic expectations.
    54% of pastors find the role of a pastor overwhelming.
    40% report serious conflict with a parishioner at least once in the last year.
    80% of pastors expect conlfict within their church.
    75% of pastors report spending 4-5 hours a week in needless meetings.
    35% of pastors battle depression or fear of inadequacy.
    26% of pastors report being over fatigued.
    28% of pastors report they are spiritually undernurished.
    Over 50% of pastors state the biggest challenge is to recruit volunteers and encourage their members to change (living closer to God’s Word).
    70% of pastors report they have a lower self-image now than when they first started.
    70% of pastors do not have someone they consider to be a close friend.
    27% of pastors report not having anyone to turn to for help in a crisis situation.
    81% of pastors have been tempted to have inappropriate sexual thoughts or behavior with someone in the church but have resisted.
    17% of pastors report inappropriately texting with a church member at sometime in their ministry.
    34% of pastors wrestle with the temptation of pornography or visits pornographic sites.
    57% of pastors feel fulfilled but yet discouraged, stressed, and fatigued.
    84% of pastors desire to have close fellowhip with someone they can trust and confide with.
    Over 50% of pastors are unhealthy, overweight, and do not exercise.
    The profession of “Pastor” is near the bottom of a survey of the most-respected professions, just above “car salesman”.
    Many denominations are reporting an “Empty Pulpit Crisis”. They do nto have a shortage of ministers but have a shortage of ministers desiring to fill the role of a pastor.
    71% of churches have no plan for a pastor to receive a periodic sabbatical.
    66% of churches have no lay counseling support.
    30% of churches have no documentation clearly outlining what the church expects of their pastor.
    1 out of every 10 pastors will actually retire as a pastor.

    • Was feeling pretty healthy until reading this. Now I’m really depressed!

      • Well, Larry, “the truth will set you free.” Please do consider that ministry roles, when optimized for the Lord’s generous gifts, become sources of excellence, passion, fulfillment, and success beyond what we can even imagine.

        Excited, or depressed?

      • Heartspeak says on

        Peter’s comments point to the great disconnect in the church world today. We are trapped in our ‘way of doing things’ and don’t know how to get out. We excuse our rejection of shared leadership and of interactive assembly (I Cor 14:26). We focus 95%+ of our energy and resources on the Sunday morning event–and yet we wonder why our pastors break. We hire our shepherds who necessarily have the primary focus of their income, their families welfare and their congregation’s fiscal realities. This is in no way a criticism of the many dedicated servants of God who give solely for the Kingdom and eternal rewards. But you who are doing this are working within a terribly flawed model that now, in today’s world, is breaking far too many.

        God’s Truth is unchanging but we have strayed from what we do know and given many ‘reasons’ why we’ve ‘had to’.

      • I am one of the 9 who has not retired from the pastorate. All those statistics are very sobering. Why oh why don’t they prepare these men & women in the seminaries & Bible colleges. Nothing & I mean nothing of the troubles a pastor goes through was ever mentioned in the Bible college I went to. I’m 67 now. I have given this considerable thought. One reason I think is that they don’t want to lose perspective pastors by the discouraging information. Perhaps, it would be better to share that information so the student can decide if this is the coarse he or she would want to take. I think the schools & seminaries do a great injustice. I think it might be better than 1969 when I went to college. I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of amazing negativity I received. Now, I realize I was very young & had much to learn but I wish these things were taught in Bible college. I also know you have to go through these situations, you’ll never get away from them but I would’ve like to be better prepared. Also older pastors should mentor the younger ones. Once again this wasn’t to any degree done in the denomination I am apart of. I think if the colleges, seminaries & more experienced pastors would do this kind of preparation the number of 1 out of 10 pastors retire from the pastorate would increase dramatically. I only wish these resources were available when I was young. Young pastors, take advantage of these resources, it will save you a lot of heartache . God bless!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Those are revealing statistics, Peter. Thanks for sharing.

    • Staggering statistics. Amazing, yet profoundly real.

  • Kevin Austin says on

    I truly believe that a pastor needs a strong group to walk with him every step of the way. We have a 32 year old pastor and we have realized that we can’t let him think he is on an island by himself. We have a strong Deacon body that will walk thru the fire for him and with him. I have been at our church about 25 years and we have had our ups and downs. We had to come to a realization that we have to seek and then be obedient to God and His vision and direction for His church. Individual agenda and blaming the pastor took us to a very low point in our church and community. We as a church are positive God placed the young man here as our pastor and again we will walk with him thru thick and thin!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      May your tribe increase, Kevin!

      • Frankly speaking, Kelvin you are on the point. Nothing depessed a pastor than for him to serve with all his Strenght and at the end of the received blames for the downward trends of the Church. My 32 years of the ministry taught me that a pastor also needs a pastor, who will serve as a counsellor in time of depression. It cannot be ruled out in the ministry for him not to die alone.

    • What a blessing that your church learned this lesson friend. Every pastor needs to know his men will walk through the fires with him!

      • Kevin- I’m so pleased to hear there are good church deacons out there! My husband and I served as senior pastors at the age of 32 and when the church was failing and in 7 years it doubled to 600 people. However for exactly the reasons on the article my husband suffered with depressssion and our marriage felt the strain. Instead of being supported we were asked to leave and it has spiralled him into a greater depression than before. We are broken pastors and am so thankful to know there are good church governing bodies who stand with their pastor!! It gives me hope through the tears that are currently flowing! Thank you for being faithful to your church and pastor. May you be truly blessed x

  • I agree with your information. I was at a church for six years with no problems, but all of a sudden the personal decided that the pastor had not worked for those six years. When we had a meeting with personal and deacons it was like Satan himself was in the meeting. Yes it hurt this pastor very deeply.

  • Phil Andrukaitis says on

    Hi Thom,

    Thanks for highlighting these underlying causes of depression many pastors experience.

    May I suggest a sixth cause? When your wife’s health has slowly been on a steady decline over many years (in my case 25-years), the toll on my body for lack of sleep to meet her needs and to take care of the domestic responsibilities combined with the aforementioned causes will crush a pastor.

    I have recently retired from my pastoral ministry and am now dealing with how to “make ends meet”; perhaps another cause why pastors struggle with depression.

    Thanks again for addressing these concerns within the body of Christ.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Those are two excellent points, Phil.

      And my prayers for you and your wife.

      • Arnold Urbonas says on

        Lietuvis, brolis, Thank you for sharing. In God’s wisdom we are gifted to serve in a variety of capacities that meet our temporal needs.

    • Arnold Urbonas says on

      Lietuvis, brolis, Thank you for sharing. In God’s wisdom we are gifted to serve in a variety of capacities that meet our temporal needs.

  • Years ago I experienced a period of clinical depression. My wife and I sought counseling and learned that the cause was primarily, as the counselor said, running at full speed, non-stop, for years. “Imaging driving your car on the interstate at 65mph, non-stop, for five years. What do you think that would do to your engine? It would damage it! That’s what has happened to your brain.” He suggested three treatments for my “sprained brain” – rest, “muscle” relaxers (anti-depression meds), and therapy – to understand what happened in order to think things through better in the future to prevent a relapse. These treatments worked very well. Better thinking, the renewal of my mind, was and is the best medicine. If you are hurting, please seek the help of a good counselor and a good doctor.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Well said, Jim. Thank you.

      • Really? Jim might have said it well, but is his solution “well” I have understood that the bible is sufficient for life and godliness (2Peter 1: 3) But Jim says that medication rests the brain. Now that depresses me if that is your solution.

      • Paula Croft says on

        If you had an ailment in another part of your body and the doctor told you to take medication you would do it. Why not for your brain too when it has an ailment? Your philosophy is what hurts people suffering with depression.

      • Jesus said “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

        Does this mean we never have to eat again?
        Would it depress you that I eat to fulfill hunger?

        Are you unsettled if I drink water from thirst after a run?
        Jesus does not lie, and he is the living water and bread of life.

        It is obvious that God provides healing through earthly means.
        Vaccinations, surgery, and mental health medicines are evidence.

      • Russ, I think you a ministers worse nightmare! Paul told Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach’s sake. Probably Timothy had a stomach problem from dealing with people who don’t get the stress of ministry and the effects it has on the body.

    • Amen brother!

      • People take medicine for grave illnesses and get treatments for things like cancer. Mental and emotional illness can be the same. I think it’s ridiculously ignorant, judgemental and uncompassionate for you to think that his problem was as simple as not relying on the word enough. You probably don’t even know the guy. I’m glad you’re not my pastor.

    • Allen Bacon says on

      I experienced my own crash as a pastor. It wasn’t till I was “down for the count” that I recieved help. I was desperately afraid to admit that I was struggling because I was fairly sure it would be used against me. Now years later, post ministry, I have begun a a masters program in counseling in hopes of helping pastors work through their anxiety and depression.

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