The following is an article from a friend of mine named Matt Bassford. He is a gospel preacher. I asked him if he could write something on preaching and depression. Thank you Matt.
All my adult life, I’ve struggled with depression. Stretching back to my last year of high school, I count at least eight significant depressive episodes. Three were due to various relationships (the dating game was not kind to me), three more to various kinds of family illness/death, but two were the result of my work as a gospel preacher.
I think that of the various professions, preachers are more exposed to depression than most. This is due to the intensely emotional and concentrated work of the evangelist. When things at church are going well for a preacher, everything’s going well! He gets to savor deeply meaningful work and deep relationships with good people.
However, when things at church go bad, everything goes bad. Instead of lauding your preaching to the skies, now people are saying behind your back (and maybe even to your face) that you aren’t getting it done in the pulpit. Most of the time, some of your adversaries are people you used to count as trusted friends. For men who are struggling in secular work, church is a sanctuary from their problems. For struggling preachers, church is not a sanctuary but the problem!
These problems are made worse by the isolation that accompanies preaching. I’ve heard preachers say that they want to be treated as sheep rather than hirelings, but I think that we inevitably fall somewhere between those two extremes. No matter how much we love the gospel, the reality usually is that we are with a particular church because they have agreed to support our preaching habit. The involvement of money changes things for preacher and congregation alike.
To pick an extreme example, imagine that a member in some congregation comes to the elders, acknowledging that he has committed adultery. The elders will react with sympathy, praise for his forthrightness, and assurances that they will help him get his life back on the right spiritual track. By contrast, the preacher who makes the same confession effectively has given his two weeks’ notice.
I think that railing against this double standard is pointless and may well be unjustified (God certainly judges teachers more strictly!), but the difference does exist. In consequence, preachers often are unwilling to confide in members of the congregation for fear that it will affect their employment. Such detachment provides fertile soil for depression.
Though I’ve not seen statistics on the prevalence of depression in brotherhood preachers (I think the work of denominational pastors is different enough that comparison is difficult), my anecdotal impression is that a majority of my peers wrestle with it at one time or other. I also believe that it plays a nearly universal, though unacknowledged, role in preacher burnout and the resultant preacher shortage among churches of Christ. This is a problem we need to confront, preachers and ordinary Christians alike.
For preachers, several preventative and palliative measures suggest themselves. The first is having people (preferably men, ideally wise preachers) whom you trust and can talk to. I am blessed with brothers and friends in the Lord who will patiently listen and help me work through anything, and having a sounding board outside of your congregation is invaluable. Prayer is as vital in this area as in any other, but God gave us other Christians too, and He did so for a reason.
Second, preachers need to be in tune with their own mental health and take whatever measures are necessary to preserve it. Maybe that means cutting back on commitments (I myself am terrible at this). Maybe it means seeing a counselor. Maybe it means taking meds to get out-of-whack brain chemistry back under control. I will not attempt to offer solutions for each of the infinite number of problems that may arise, but I will say that there is nothing godly or noble about ignoring problems until you have a breakdown.
Finally, all of us, whether we are in the pulpit or in the pew, need to work on being more vulnerable, forthright, and empathetic. If a preacher is battling depression, he probably needs to gather his courage and talk to somebody in the church leadership about it. When this happens, the leadership needs to put aside whatever problems they may be having with the preacher and deal gently with their brother.
Similarly, when the relationship between a preacher and a church goes bad, it’s generally been going that way for a while. Either the preacher has been unhappy about something and hasn’t raised the issue, the church has been unhappy and hasn’t raised the issue, or both. All of us tend to avoid having difficult conversations in favor of stewing in our resentment, but this is self-indulgent, unhelpful, and only makes problems worse. Instead, we need to master the skill of presenting our concerns to others in a Colossians 4:6 way so that all involved can work toward solutions instead of a catastrophic blowup in a year or two.
This skill is no less valuable when a solution isn’t possible. Preachers don’t like hearing that it’s time to move on. However, it’s much better to hear that in a calm, straightforward, loving conversation than in an angry explosion in a men’s meeting, or, worse still, never to hear it at all, instead being subjected to passive-aggressive hostility that grows more toxic with each passing month. The Lord never played games like that, and neither should His people.
For as long as this world continues, depression will continue to bedevil gospel preachers. However, though we never will be rid of this problem, we can at least work on ameliorating it. Part of this involves honesty about the nature of depression; the other part involves honesty about ourselves. When both the preacher and his hearers devote themselves to healthy, godly relationships and strong relational skills, his burdens will be greatly lessened.
I have also published this article on my website specifically designed for preachers. The website is www.preacherhealth.com. If you are in need of help, please reach out.