What I Wish the Church Knew About Mental Illness: Part 4

Mental Illness in Ministry

đŸ“¸ : ThomRanier.com

If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve likely heard of legendary 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon. Some call him the “Prince of Preaching,” as he has published highly regarded sermons, commentary, books, devotionals, magazines, poetry, hymns, and even an autobiography. But after preaching one of his revered sermons, he would lock himself in his room the rest of the day and weep.

Spurgeon suffered from clinical depression before we gave it a name. Yes, this monstrous disease affects even those blessed with life’s highest calling. In the 19th century, “mental health” was a foreign concept, and the symptoms of mental illness were socially unacceptable. Spurgeon felt immense guilt over his stresses, and his critics pronounced them a judgment from God.

We’ve come a long way. Modern pastors who are mentally ill have the resources to understand what they’re going through. But that doesn’t mean they have it easy.

In the course of this series, “What I Wish the Church Knew About Mental Illness,” we have explored together myths about Christians and depression, the struggle to build relationships, and the stigma still pertinent within the church. In this final post, I would like to address what ministry looks like with a mental illness. To start, I’ll state the obvious:

Yes, it Can Be Harder

I won’t sugarcoat the truth; mental illness can create obstacles to ministry. Church members who struggle know where to go, even if they don’t feel comfortable going there. But where do you go when everyone is looking to you? How do you bear the burdens of others when yours are already so heavy?

Unfortunately, Satan can use mental illness as a weapon of spiritual warfare. A friend of mine, a pastor’s wife and worship leader, has struggled with anxiety since childhood. She would often suffer anxiety attacks as soon as she stepped onstage. “I hated that I struggled to do the one thing I knew God has called me to do: minister to people through word and song,” she shared. “I often found myself asking God why he gave me the talent to sing if I would have such a struggle doing it.”

But it’s not just the symptoms of the illness itself that create those obstacles. As strong as the stigma is around Christians and mental illness, it is stronger still around ministers with mental illness. Ed Stetzer, pastor, author, and researcher, helped conduct a study on depression and the church through LifeWay Research. 23% of pastors surveyed reported struggling with mental illness. A reporter asked Stetzer if he believed those pastors were openly talking about it.

“My answer was ‘probably not,’” he shared with Christianity Today. “Actually, as I see it, there seems to be only a couple of places where pastors regularly and safely share. The first way they share is when they are in a prominent role where it is safe to say they struggle because they’ve already achieved their ministry goals. The second way is in writing after-the-fact, often after they have retired or stepped out of ministry. What is a lot less common among pastors is sharing the struggle while going through it. For example, telling a search committee, or sharing with a bishop who might appoint you, that you struggle with mental illness is pretty uncommon.”

Struggling pastors are suffering in silence at the threat of losing their credibility and their ministry. Why? The church has bought into the lie that challenge somehow cancels out a call from God. Where do we read in scripture God calling forth the strongest, most talented, most likely candidate to do his work? Moses stuttered. Paul wrestled with a thorn in the flesh. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,” we read in 1 Corinthians 1:27. Nothing, not even mental illness, can hinder the ministry of those who God has called.

But, We Can Still Be Effective

How does someone with a mental illness minister effectively? Ultimately, the same way that all ministers are called to operate: by leaning solely on Christ. Where we are weak, He is strong. His grace is sufficient, even for the days when it’s hard to get out of bed.

My pastor’s-wife/worship-leader friend has even come to view her struggle as a blessing. “Having an anxiety disorder doesn’t limit you in ministry, unless you let it. It has given me an opportunity to be totally dependent on God,” she said. “It’s such a peace when He gets you through every time. But that shouldn’t be a surprise, because He is faithful time and time again.”

Her ministry has even benefitted from her struggle with anxiety: “I can relate to so many who are lost and hurting. Being open and honest about my struggle has helped so many people with their own struggles,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt your ministry; it helps your ministry. There are so many who are broken, and you know exactly what they are going through because you’re broken too.”

Another friend of mine can recall his childhood pastor’s struggle with depression. When he opened up about it to his congregation, hearts previously hardened toward mental illness were softened. His example sent my friend a message: ‘you’re not alone. It’s okay to open up.’

That same friend later pursued a call to ministry himself. The impact of his pastor’s openness can be felt by those he now serves, as he embraces vulnerability instead of hiding. In fact, he has also found that to be the better approach. “I can better relate to people who have been through similar things and minister to them in a different level than someone who hasn’t been through those things,” he said. “Everything we go through here is purposeful.”

That is one of many promises on which struggling ministers of the gospel can stand: in the hands of the Lord, their pain is not wasted. They may have a tougher road than their neurotypical peers, but His grace is sufficient. We as the church must commit to believing that promise for them. So today, pray for your pastor. Pray for the 23% who have faced mental illness. Pray for your friend who doubts their calling because of their own mental illness. Let God use you to build up His chosen messengers, knowing that it is not their strength that saves, but His.


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