by Jeremy Lelek
During the past year, I have had the privilege of working very closely with Paul Tripp in the development of the Center for Pastoral Life and Care. That experience has given me a deeper understanding of the particular stresses and temptations experienced by pastors in ministry, and will considerably inform the comments that follow as it regards the questions, “How much should you share about your depression with a congregation? How do you explain it?”
Given the diversity of church cultures represented in the body of Christ, offering a blanket statement on the appropriate quantity of information to share with a congregation would seem a bit myopic. Instead, I believe it to be more beneficial to consider several components that may serve to shape a wise decision as a pastor considers disclosing personal struggles with depression.
1. If married, have you shared this struggle with your spouse?
Men in general tend to wrestle with transparency when it comes to personal struggle. When depression is involved, fear of appearing weak or less spiritual might incline a husband toward silence and isolation. While the question posed involves the broader community of the church, it is imperative that a pastor be considerate of the most significant person in his community—his wife. This is a responsibility of an overseer in that he is called to “manage his own household well” (1 Timothy 3:4). Failure to manage this detail prior to confessing one’s depression to the entire church would lead to further stress on the family while exacerbating the emotional strain on both he and his wife.
2. Have you discussed your struggle with your board of elders or ruling authority?
The book of Proverbs says, “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 11:14). As a pastor, resist any temptations toward isolation. The concept of church government ordained in the Bible is not established exclusively for disciplinary purposes. Ideally, church government should exhibit a strong redemptive ethos in which a pastor is able to struggle openly with those in authority hoping to receive encouragement and wisdom from fellow brothers in the faith. This spirit is illustrated in 1 Timothy 5:17 where Paul instructs, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” When a person is spiritually weary, he is wise to pursue the safety found in the abundance of counselors so as to avoid destructive decisions that could ultimately be detrimental to the flock over which he presides.
3. Have you sought to foster a gospel-saturated culture within your church?
My pastor once stated in a sermon, “The gospel doesn’t make you free from struggle, but it makes you free to struggle.” This statement correlates well with Paul’s words in Romans 8:33-34, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” Operating in the liberating freedom of the gospel of Jesus Christ frees believers (pastors included) from functioning under the yoke of legalistic slavery (Galatians 5:1). Have you sought to foster such a culture within your own church? Have you offered rich biblical understanding of the gospel as it pertains to sin and suffering so as to equip those in your congregation to expect you to be as human as they? Or, have you developed a persona as pastor that you and those in leadership should be immune to the effects of depravity in a fallen world? Answers to these questions will strongly inform how much you share as well as how you explain your current situation.
4. Consider your motives for sharing.
Why do you want to share with your congregation? Is disclosure viewed as your pathway to relieve a heavy burden of guilt? Is it your means of finding an escape from the pressures of ministry? The depressed person longs for relief and will often utilize desperate measures to find it. Make sure, as you visit with your spouse, close friends, and elders that your chief aim of confessing and sharing is centered in a love for God and neighbor. There is profound redemptive value in wise transparency.
As you consider what and how to share with your congregation, be compelled to esteem the supremacy of Christ in your suffering. God is always working, and his agenda in all things is quite specific: conformity to the image of Christ (Romans 8:28-29). How might Jesus be glorified in your confessing a significant bout with depression? How might your own struggle serve as a means of encouraging others who are facing their own seasons of hardship? Seek to emulate the example of Paul as he shared his struggle with his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Seek to esteem the sufficient grace of Christ as you expose your own vulnerability to a fallen world.
Strength Made Perfect in Weakness
While the list of considerations for pastors facing depression far exceeds what can be covered in a single article, those above may serve as a baseline. As to the “how” of explaining, many of the same ideas also apply. Sharing your struggle with others can no doubt present significant challenges (on top of the depression you are already experiencing). In these moments, remember your call, even in weakness. You are an ambassador of the gospel of Jesus Christ! Even your encounter with emotional darkness may serve as an opportunity to bear witness to this sacred message. Paul mentions his willingness to endure many hardships, afflictions, calamities, beatings, and sleepless nights in order to prevent any obstacles from hindering his followers from hearing his gospel-saturated message (2 Corinthians 6:1-10). May such courageous grace compel you to do likewise. May God lead you in wisdom on this matter so that you, like Paul, may be able to say in the end (without shame), “We have spoken freely to you... our heart is wide open” (2 Corinthians 6:11).