What Kind of Church Welcomes Those with Depression?

Depression is a very serious matter that is not being properly addressed by the church. What can we do? How can we change the way depression is viewed?

What Kind of Church Welcomes Those with Depression

Recently I was shocked to hear the news of another young man, a pastor, who had taken his own life, leaving behind a beautiful wife and three gorgeous kids. It is heartbreaking.

This article could go in many different directions. But I’m choosing the direction that seems to me to be most obvious. The world needs a church where the sick are welcomed, and where even the senior leaders are allowed to be sick even in their appointed seasons of ministry.

Why? Because it happens.

The system of the church must be able to cope with it, especially given that the church is a hospital for the sick.

What I talk about here is not a physical disease, but the mental, emotional, spiritual maladies that so many of us have been dogged by. I have had three major bouts of depression, I have suffered panic attacks, and I have endured enough grief to understand and accept that suffering is endemic to life.

So why is there a perception that those with depression are not welcome in the church?

Why would there not be the appropriate support and counseling and programs of training to help sick people? Well, sometimes there are resource constraints.

Part of the reason, perhaps, is that our modern world is so geared around smooth and efficient operations, and pastoral leaders feel driven to replicate that in the church.

This perfectionism that can never be satisfied has become part of modern church culture.

So many young and not-so-young men and women in the church today are under enormous pressure to serve well enough to please the people they serve as well as the church boards they work for.

The church needs to be a place where we can be rewarded for our honesty regarding our weaknesses.

After all, it’s a biblical idea that we receive Christ’s strength when we admit our weakness. The trouble is we live in a day that has forgotten biblical tradition, and that has bought the lie that successful church must be competitive, and that successful ministry must be both effective and founded in excellence. A church is run like a business, competing for its members, with its sales and marketing strategies, instead of simply rooting itself in living out the gospel.

There are many reasons why churches may not embrace the concept of strength-in-weakness within their ministries. Many forces collide. Part of the issue is the intrusion of prosperity, name-it-claim-it, doctrine.

It seems to me that if we are to improve the acceptance of mental health issues like depression in our churches we need to embrace them across the board. What would Jesus have us do? Deny the reality? By no means!

I cannot think of a better way of doing this than one of the pastors or key leaders being completely transparent about a current struggle. Oh, I know that that used to be a no-no. As a pastor, you would not share on anything unless you had overcome it. But pastors also need to lead the way in vulnerability which shows humility.

Pastors need to show courage, ironically in their weakness by being vulnerable, to encourage others in their weakness.

That sort of example of weakness begins with the pastor! But churches don’t seem to like their pastors being weak. This is because we’ve fallen for the lie that leaders are strong.

In many things in life, however, ‘overcoming’ is fanciful, as if we could click our fingers and overcome depression. Anyone who’s been depressed knows that is nonsense. We don’t have that sort of control over this black dog. And this is entirely biblical. The Bible would lead us to the lament psalms, Ecclesiastes, the book of Job, the prophetic writings, and in the New Testament, Second Corinthians, and specifically, that thorn in Paul’s side, among many others. The idea of suffering is central in the Bible. Moses, David, Jonah, Elijah, Jeremiah, the list goes on and on. Can the suffering servant Jesus of Isaiah 45-55 not understand our depression, especially in the light of the cross?

Why is it that pastors need to project the image that they have it all together? None of us do; even our heroes in the Bible didn’t.

There seems to be a system of development for pastors that does not allow much leeway for them to have genuine and ongoing struggles. Like, that kind of weakness counts against them or counts them out. This tradition forgets about some of the best pastors who suffered, like Spurgeon. I know from a writing perspective that I am more deeply connected to God in the words I write when I am struggling. There is a deeper kind of ministry that we may tap into in our depression, so long as we don’t feel overwhelmed by it, and so long as a deeper kind of ministry would be allowed. Acceptance is a powerful economy.

Pastors with depression must be embraced all the more! Pastors who have suffered depression are all the better equipped for ministry. And churches need to wrestle more with how effectively they support people in the darkness. Smoke machines, brewed coffee, and stealth-like efficiency make a mockery of the tenets of the church with its book on suffering.

Churches are complex environments for those who work in them, whether they are paid or volunteers. Those who are paid always put in many more hours than they are paid for and those who are volunteers give hundreds of hours per year for the love of it.

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It would be okay if it was satisfying work, but many times it’s not worth the conflict, or the constant not meeting of the high standards many churches set, and I do not meaning standards of holiness, but standards of effectiveness. The workplace environment in churches can be more toxic than the comparative workplace environment in secular workplaces. The sense of inadequacy, the conflicts that don’t go away, the pressure from leaders and members, the pressure to lead, and the spiritual warfare that is part of the environment all contribute to the chaos that broods in a pastor or ministry leader and threatens to burn them out in a spirit of despair.

Surely, we could understand that there are a plethora of precursors that predispose people in the church to suffer depression and anxiety-related disorders.

I suggest that the kind of church that accepts and even embraces those with depression, especially those within the ranks of its pastors, is Christ’s church.

It must grieve the Spirit of God that so many pastors, and anyone for that matter, are suffering alone, not to mention the ones that are dying!

Here are some things that the church provided that I found helped me when I suffered depression in ministry:

#1. Even more so I was embraced within leadership, as the leadership understood that I needed the support of fellowship. When we are feeling weak, we need much encouragement, and the best encouragement comes from those who are most mature in the faith. Leaders who are suffering from depression must be around leaders who are compassionate and wise.

#2. There was a culture that embraced both weakness and honesty. Both are needed. We are only strong until we become weak, and it is only a matter of time. When we are weak, we need to be honest, and the church must build a culture that demands honesty and provides safety for everything that is disclosed.

#3. There was a devotion to prayer, which is another way of saying that the ministry of healing is God’s business; that those within the Church understood that clichés and advice had limited or even damaging effect.

#4. As I shared my burden and my incapacity, I was still allowed to do what I felt I needed to do, but other leaders took on the more onerous responsibilities. This often meant that they would delegate off single tasks to others which was an opportunity to develop them. What I found most encouraging is these other leaders would not make me feel guilty. They simply understood. Churches need to nurture a culture that exemplifies empathy and compassion.

Written by Steve Wickham

Steve Wickham is married to Sarah has three adult daughters and one son. He is a pastor, counselor, mentor and chaplain. Having experienced marital brokenness, his passion is marriage counselling. A Christian writer and blogger for over ten years, Steve has degrees in science, divinity, and counseling. Steve has a passion for peacemaking and is a student of grief.

2 thoughts on “What Kind of Church Welcomes Those with Depression?

  1. How are there no comments here? Huge topic in the Church. At many different levels we have people suffering with various things, and it’s not uncommon, from seasoned mature pastors to children. I remember a church leader confided in me once, when i asked about a man who’d left that particular church, or i hadnt seen him in a while. The leader said, the man always said he felt alone and wanted to meet women and get married one day. I can understand that, having felt that same wqy before. But then the leader said something I didnt expect at all, he said he’s glad the man left, he was whining all the time to him about it and many other things. We may all have a friend or more like that, they’re frequently needy, lonely, dissatisfied, negative, unhappy, whiney. They need help with that, and where else can they go to find friends who care for them? Maybe the leader was stressing that the man may find that elsewhere, because this was a small church and not many single women. On the other hand, I can understand that everyone going to the leadership with various things is heavy on the pastor, or elders. Pastors, leaders, need support as well as anybody else, and where do they get it? I dont know, other elders in the church, other pastors in the community? Ive been through not a few tough church seasons, that is to say, a new church i started attending, within months the pastor up and ran off with another woman. I was just speaking to him, asking for regular mentorship. He said he wasnt available, too many commitments already. After the situation came to light, woah, I understood.

    Same church, an associate pastor, youth pastor, went through marital difficulty and i believe separated and eventually divorced perhaps, they both up and went somewhere else. Im pretty certain the elders knew of these situations and were trying to work with the pastor (and his wife), and the associate pastor and his wife. But things went sideways for these men any way. It was all very disruptive and disquieting for the congregation. But what was to be learned by these difficult situations? Takes a village to raise a child, conventional wisdom says,.. And perhaps takes the whole congregation to support a minister, or anyone in the Church’s midst for that matter.

    The Word says, they will know us by our fruit; they will know us by the love we show to one another. We should be reminded all the time of Christ’s command to love one another as he loved us, and all the more as the world grows darker. We ought to make new commitment to one another in Jesus, that the love and support we expect in and of the Church, exceeds worldly standards by far. That’s not to say in those situations, those in the know weren’t loving or focused enough to help. These men made their own choices, even with counseling. Maybe the thing is, we could suffer with our brother more, encourage and help them, without it becoming so much a burden, if we weren’t ourselves suffering something. No one of us can handle everything or everybody who hurts all by ourselves, we were made for fellowship and leaning on one another and not least upon Christ. That should be so self evident in the Church. There shouldn’t be anyone who falls off, saddened, disillusioned and befuddled, maybe even quite angry, becoming a Christian who used to attend a fellowship but now stays home in relative isolation. Its really hard to get those Christians to come back into fellowship Ive found. And i do hear there are a growing number of those who do just that, stop fellowshipping because they think a lot of fellow Christians dont really care about them. Although, its also true that some of them expect to much. You’re losing your home to foreclosure, and because youve given so much to the church all these years, the church should pay off your mortgage? That’s really unreasonable. But perhaps the church could take more interest, and help you find a job, or help where youre short in mortgage payment.

    Life is hard, no doubt about it. Struggles, we’re guaranteed to have. We should however find some comfort with God’s people. Even as we do find they’re just people like us too, with their own varied difficulties.

    Thanks for your thoughtful posts, Ive enjoyed reading and thinking about them. God bless you and much love!

  2. You right. It’s never treated as an important topic but a sun topic to the pastor’s preaching. Haven’t seen a kind of church though.. prolly we should intercede with the Holy Spirit for guidance

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