Vocational ministry, they say, is not for the faint of heart. In seminaries and in churches, professors and seasoned pastors alike often play the part of weathered sheriffs in an old western, warning their young successors of the dangers that lie ahead.
When I entered the ministry, I was prepared for the challenges of taxing pastoral care, recalcitrant church members, and the unending demands of the pulpit. I was not prepared for the challenge that vocational ministry would present to my mental health as I was still coming to grips with the weighty task of parish ministry in my first church. I found myself caught up in the throes of clinical depression.
For me, living and ministering with depression is akin to running in chest-deep water; technically, you can do it, but it is twice as hard, and you become fatigued quickly. I occasionally wondered if God had forgotten about me as I strove to be faithful in a difficult context and with a difficult condition to boot.
Recent statistics demonstrate that clergy are prone to high levels of stress and burnout, factors that contribute to the likelihood of depressive episodes. A challenging job combined with certain biological features in the brain can result in major depressive disorder in clergy, regardless of race, age, or theological tradition.
At the same time, the church has often been silent, or at least guarded, on depression—not for lack of caring, but for lack of understanding. Lay Christians and church leaders struggle with the apparent cognitive dissonance between depression and the Christian life. “If Jesus has achieved the victory, why am I so sad? If God reigns and is working to redeem creation, why am I mired in hopelessness and exhaustion before the day begins?” Those are the questions we may ask ourselves.
Meanwhile, a more insidious misunderstanding surrounding depression exists in the church, that depression is, without exception, the direct result of personal sin. Until recent decades, authoritative figures in the church might have described a depressed Christian in words similar to those once used by Martyn-Lloyd Jones; that a depressed Christian was “a contradiction in terms, and a very poor recommendation for the Gospel.” If a pastor was depressed, it was assumed that some secret sin was lurking in his heart. If he would only repent, the depression would lift.
While the church hasn’t intended to wound those who suffer from depression, a lack of understanding has often done that. Thankfully, as medical science continues to learn more about the brain and how to effectively treat conditions like depression, misconceptions surrounding depression are being dismantled.