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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  • Mark Armstrong says on

    I have experienced depression in ministry. When I reflect upon my seminary training (in Australia) little was done to prepare me for the theatre of war which is often the church. If I’d known what was coming, I would have been better prepared. My wife would have been better prepared. I went into ministry rather naive and not realising the trauma that lay ahead. Being trained to deal with the future may not have solved everything, but it would have helped significantly.

  • Rev Hector Torres says on

    thank you Pastor Rainer for addressing this important subject. I might add, most pastors tend to hide and deny their problems and emotions, we tend to create a character to hide those things that people say “can’t happen to pastors” like depression, anxiety, being tired….
    we are human, we aren’t superheroes or from other planet.
    I’ve been dealing with anxiety my whole life and it got worse in my first pastoral experience, I was 26, single, away from my family. most people tried to tell me something was wrong, “pastors can’t have anxiety, God is with them”. I went to get professional help and a Psychiatrist told me: “Rev, did you know Jesus had anxiety??? the night before his arrest He asked his father to release him from the burden, he was trying to deal with the cross the night before, that is anxiety”.
    I got better the instant I heard that….

  • Tom, this is an insightful and helpful article. 25 years in ministry this year, 3 years into a church pastorate and I see the contours and the details of the 5 reasons across my experience in ministry and acutely in the position of pastor.

    I’m not a member of churchanswers largely because ‘listening in’ from a non USA based church I don’t know if there is enough confluence in the cultural differences for it to be helpful and also wonder if churchanswers is designed to be an international community. But I think this post would have been more helpful without it looking like it gets to the ‘join church answers’ as a solution to the problems of pastoral struggles with depression. I know that’s now what you’re saying.

    I hugely appreciate listening to your podcasts and reading your articles – many have helped, inspired, challenged and encouraged me over the last three years in pastoral ministry. Thanks.

    • “I know that’s now what you’re saying.” should have read “I know that’s NOT what you’re saying” 🙂 Sorry – typo making a comment look awful.

      • It’s amazing how leaving out one word can change the whole tone of your comment. Believe me, I’ve done it more times than I’d care to count! It’s nice to know I’m not alone. 🙂

  • james & lois taweel says on

    God bless all Pastors. I believe it to be more difficult today than 50 yrs ago. So many people in the church wanting to captain the ship. Being a lay person I recognize there are really two roles for the Pastor. Lead the flock & also part of a business organization that is a BIG part in the church of today. I am reminding you the brain is our most necessary organ and man can not make a machine to equal. It needs guarding. We are so far behind that it is still a soft science. Pastors need to nurture each other–Frequently.

  • Mike,
    Of course the answer is “hope in God”. I doubt anyone here would dispute that. There are times and situations however where wisdom dictates an appointment with one’s physician is in order. None of us are qualified to say otherwise. When you’ve fought the wars some of the warriors here have fought, perhaps then you may see things a bit differently. Or not, whichever the case may be.

  • Joel Sarrault says on

    Yikes, Thom, what were you thinking by posting this one on Monday morning!? This is my 30th year in the ordained ministry and I’ve experienced all five of your “reasons pastors struggle with depression”. #6 might be because we read too many articles about pastors in depression. Seriously. I’m certainly not saying depression isn’t real and all too frequent with clergy but perhaps sometimes we confuse vocational depression with vocational boredom. Too often I’ve witnessed my fellow pastors sliding down the murky slope but refusing (pride? unawareness? laziness? defensiveness?) to take some proactive steps to slow the slide or halt the damage. The pastoral calling can be beautiful….and it can be brutal. But its a Calling and if we stray too far from the One who Called us we leave ourselves wide open for the evil one. I have an old George McDonald ministry quote on my bulletin board that I refer to when need be (about every other day) 3 things in ministry you need to know: 1. It’s never as good as it seems. 2. It’s never as bad as it seems. 3. The greatest myth of all is that you can fix it. It never gets “fixed”. He who called you is faithful and He will do it.

  • A very timely article. I struggle with all 5 of the categories mentioned. I gave up everything to go into ministry, and I’d do it all again, because that’s what God has required of me, but it’s a monumental struggle at times. I’ve experienced overwhelming success, and I’ve experienced inexplicable failure and derision from every direction. It’s like a really big roller coaster. It’s a lot of fun at first, but if you stay on it long enough, you’re going to get sick. Thanks for the article, Dr. Rainer.

  • Mbang Emmanuel Tasah says on

    want to sincerely thank you for this post Thom. But could add that sometimes my depression comes from what to me appears to be lack of motivation from my hiercharcy and my church. then i simply find myself between the hammar and the anvil. Here the church fails to give comfort and heirarchy plays for time or votes for conscious naivity.
    The greatest way out for any servant of the most High God against depression at times is first and foremost to KNOW AND WELL THE GOD THAT HAS CALLED YOU AS WELL AS WHAT YOU ARE CALLED TO DO.

  • While there are certainly situations and circumstances that can make it harder to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and our hope squarely in God, the idea of “clinical depression” or any other diagnosis of depression is purely godless. All mood disorders are diagnosed purely on frequency and duration of behaviors. There is nothing medical to them.

    I get the desire to find a quick fix in the form of mind altering chemicals, but (and I know I’ll get abused for saying this) the cure is hope in God rather than situations and circumstances (Psalm 42/43 and others). I would commend a medical checkup for physical causes such as hypothyroidism and Martyn Lloyd Jones’ excellent work Spiritual Depression for those interested in a less worldly approach.

    • Mike,

      I really struggled with whether or not I should even respond to you and, if I did, how to do it with grace. I’m not sure that I can. Have you successfully cared for and treated people with chronic depression? The implication from your assertion, “the idea of ‘clinical depression’ or any other diagnosis of depression is purely godless” is that those who deal with depression need to be more spiritual. We need to, in the words of Psalm 42/43, tell our soul to, “put your hope in God.”

      My wife has struggled with depression for over thirty years, as did her father and her siblings. She is a prayer warrior (because she has the gift of mercy growing out of her ailment) and a spiritual giant. No amount of spiritualizing ever brought her out of debilitating depression. My season of depression which lasted for two years was a time of intense focus on God and immersion into the psalms. My hope was intensely focused on God. My faith was very healthy. Jesus was and is my only hope. And yet, I still struggled with symptoms of depression. Medication made it much more manageable and made me more easy to live with.

      Medication doesn’t treat the source of depression; it makes the symptoms manageable so that the person can address the underlying causes. I’ve heard responses like yours before. I’ve known deeply spiritual people who have struggled with depression relate how well-meaning people in the church (perhaps like you) have only piled on guilt with their depression, making things much worse.

      I suspect I won’t change your mind. And I also hope that you won’t learn otherwise through painful experience. All of that to say that I couldn’t disagree with you more and I hope that you will dig a little deeper on the topic to find a more empathetic approach.

  • Duane Riley says on

    Dr. Rainer, thank you for bringing to light one of our severest problems in the Pastoral Ministry. I am a “retired” pastor and a denominational servant who has struggled with depression almost all of the years I spent in full-time ministry.

    I am now 85 years old and trying to “get by” on a meager income that leaves me with more month at the end of my money. I believe financial insecurity is one of the main causes of ministerial burnout and depression. The last full-time church where I served as Pastor was divided consisting of those who were liberal and the conservatives. Being a conservative I was caught in the middle which resulted in my resignation without having another church to go to. The Lord opened a door of opportunity for me to take a position with an organization within the State Convention. I serve there for almost ten years in a very stressful environment of a different sort. A new leader fired me without any stated reason for his action. I was 58 years of age at that time.

    Churches in our SBC do not want a pastor who is “getting old.” So I was left out in the cold a wounded warrior who had been shot by the religious system through which I had served all of my adult life.

    During that time when I was cast to the far side of the desert by my denomination, no one seemed to care. Talk about depression! I felt so all alone, but then Jesus showed up! The lesson I learned is I could not count on any human being for anything. But I proved over and over during those dark days that I can indeed depend on Jesus.

    During this time in my life, I feel closer to my precious Lord than ever before. I will be honest. I still struggle with depression now and then. But thank the Lord for that little blue pill my Doctor prescribed for me.

    So Pastor slow down. Take it easy. Stop preaching those “be perfect, impossible, guilt-ridden, whipping post, legalistic sermons” to yourself and your church members. Stop trying to mold your flock into your image. Give them hope! You may have to “take the hide off” now and then but for your sake and that of you long-suffering flock, lighten up and give your fellow humans a break. Love them and lead them. Feed them instead of beating them. Stop trying to please them. Be yourself and not some prototype your denomination deems you should be.

    Learn to delegate responsibilities to your staff (if you have one). Assign your deacons some of the hospital visitations. Educate your church on the revolutionary change from “the way it has always been” where the pastor is expected to be the full-time Hospital Chaplain and Priest.”

    Well, I will shut up. I hope something I have shared will help some poor pilgrim who is struggling with depression.

  • Robert White says on

    I work with a ministry called Care for Pastors. We exist to help pastors and their families navigate through the tough Waters of pastoral ministry. Thank you for your ministry to pastors and their families. You are a blessing.

  • A.J. Baker says on

    I’d like to add that the growing numbers of bi-vocational pastors like myself are a source of depression as well. Trying to work in adequate sermon prep time and prayer time into a schedule that includes working another job is a challenge, to put it lightly. We never approach the pulpit feeling adequately prepared, and the mythical “day off” is non-existent. And to add insult to injury, the “pastoral how-to” books are mostly written for a Pastor who is being paid a full-time wage with full-time hours. It’s tough… but nobody said it would be easy.