Why Christian Leaders Struggle with “Dark Nights of the Soul”

January 15, 2020

By Chuck Lawless 

If you read church history at all, you’ll learn that men as faithful to God as Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon struggled with bouts of at least heaviness, if not depression. I’m convinced more church leaders than we know face these battles. Here are some reasons we do, followed by a simple suggestion when we struggle: 

  1. Our calling is a calling of God. We’re blessed to have that calling, but we still answer to the Creator of eternity. That’s a weighty reality that sometimes gets really heavy.  
  2. We work with life and death. In fact, we work in the light of eternity, reminding people of life and death matters. Just that fact can pound on our shoulders.
  3. We live with our own sin. No church leader I know wants to be hypocritical in front of church members, but all of us know our own sin issues. Our desire to be leaders of integrity  increases the burden of our own sin.
  4. Sometimes, few people respond to our leading. Jesus warned us that many would not choose the right path, but His warning doesn’t lessen the pain when few people respond positively to our ministry.
  5. We carry the weight of the burdens of others. Yes, we can pray and turn them over to God – but our heart still hurts when others hurt.
  6. Many of us have few real friends. Sometimes we’ve made that choice (wrongly, in my opinion), but it’s still lonely when you bear ministry alone.
  7. We don’t always use spiritual disciplines well. For some, disciplines are sporadic at best. For others, we turn to them only as a Band-Aid to try to legalistically fix our issues. Neither takes us closer to the God who wants to heal us.
  8. We tend to be perfectionists. I don’t know many pastors who like to mess up. We want to do well, to please others as we serve God. Any failure brings pain.
  9. We haven’t learned the power of 2 Corinthians 12:10. We preach about strength in weakness, but we haven’t learned how to live it.
  10. We struggle with the dark night, and then beat ourselves up for being depressed. “No strong believer should feel this way,” we think – and the cycle continues.

If you’re struggling with this kind of anguish, I plead with you to talk with a brother or sister in Christ. You’re not the only one facing this battle, but you won’t likely win it if you battle alone. For all of us – let’s say a prayer today for our church leaders.  

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29 Comments

  • Beautiful words of clarity, discernment and wisdom, as are the comments. Thank you so much!

  • My Dad, who was a Pastor for 59 years, told me as I prepared to go to Seminary: “Remember, you can’t have any real friends in the church.” I didn’t like the sound of that and I objected to his comment. Dad replied, “The ones you think are your best friends — the ones who will see you when you ‘let your hair down’ and who know your faults — will use those things against you if (when!) they ever disagree with some aspect of your leadership.” Sad to say, now that I’ve had 31 years in ministry, my Dad was right.

  • The Blog is a great source of encouragement and even timely. There’s so much going on in our world today and some have misrepresented the life in Christ as perfect, without sin and struggle. So to read this post and some of the comments listed here, it’s good to know that I’m in good company with some people who love the Lord and yet battle with and in life to honor him.

    I do love the fact, that this current culture demands and requires a serious level of transparency from church leadership. Those coming into the houses of the Lord now days, don’t desire the fake it till you make it leadership. They are asking leaders to, show me your wounds. What? Yes, we know you love God, we know you are serious about this thing called salvation. But, can you come down here to where we are and let us see your wounds?

    Thing is, Jesus did just that. Left his place in glory, put on dirt (flesh), just to come to where we are, be tempted in all points as we, yet without sin, but gives us grace when we do sin, if we confess it.

    The Apostle Paul, said something that the Lord revealed to me during this sabbatical I’ve been on for the last year or so. Paul, gives instructions to the church at Philippi 3: Paul listed his personal efforts and those things that we deemed important, he let it go to gain Christ, and seeking God’s righteousness.

    Paul, says something that’s deep in verse 12 – he says, I’m gifted and anointed to teach you this, and I believe what I’m teaching you, But, not as though I’ve apprehended or am perfect in what I’m telling, I’m in the press with you to hit the mark in Christ as well. That’s my translation, but it’s salvation to me from trying to present myself in the sense of perfection, and I’m not talking about trashy living either. I press.

    Life to each of you,

    Dre’

  • Spot on coaching for those in ministry. Thanks for the exhortation Thom!

  • The best book I have read to help me understand the “why we are the way we are” as pastors and leaders is Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling. That book is a scalpel for the pastor’s soul, you have to cut slowly and carefully. One of the challenges he addresses is how church leaders do not receive the ministry of the Body of Christ as the rest of the members do. The end result is that a pastor either burns out or is fired by a congregation, only to go to another congregation never having addressed the deeper issues. The new congregation then places on the pastor/leader high hopes and unrealistic expectations, and the cycle of this only plunges us into a deeper “dark night” of the soul. Maybe you have, but I’d love to hear this book reviewed or perhaps Dr. Tripp interviewed on one of your podcasts.

  • I’ve been there and done that. In fact, I was there yesterday morning when I first read this blog. I was getting ready to start a very long day, which included a funeral and our regular mid-week Bible study. I was asking myself if it’s really worth it, and I was wondering if it was time for me to move on. Yet last night, God gave me some much-needed encouragement to remind me that He’s still in control.

    Believe me, I understand the discouragement, but I do encourage my fellow laborers to hang in there. You never know when a blessing is just around the corner!

  • Greg Taylor says on

    Thanks Thom for this encouragement!

  • This is a helpful blog post

  • So many times I have that heaviness and I can’t put a finger on what is going on. This is helpful. Thank you!

  • Incredibly powerful and thought provoking read. We often deem “success” with being overly busy. Congregations will let pastors work themselves to death (and it’s still often not enough), however we must not fall prey to this. Sabbath Resistance by Walter Brueggemann has helped me in this area in profound ways. Take the Sabbath weekly and unplug as much as you can from the daunting tasks of ministry for your own soul care.

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