The Pastor & Despair

Maybe a discouraged pastor will do a search and find this article.  I’ve been there.  It’s hard to be transparent and acknowledge it, but I am a pastor who is subject to periods of despair.  Sometimes I know what is causing it, other times the cause is not evident.  I lose my sense of direction and motivation for ministry.  I’m ready to walk away. I tell my wife, “My demon is back.”

I’ve received help from various sources during these times.  I want to share two here.  Maybe they will help a pastor in despair. The first is from a book, the second is from Scripture.

A few months ago when I was going through such a season, something prompted me to read a chapter in Charles Spurgeon’s Lectures To My Students. The chapter is called, The Minister’s Fainting Fits. He’s an old guy, it’s an old book, and even the chapter title sounds archaic.   But this chapter is gold for the despairing pastor.  He gives some explanations for why pastors experience despair, and he offers practical and spiritual help.  It is helpful to hear a man like Charles Spurgeon acknowledge the experience of despair in the life of the pastor and lovingly lead our dark thoughts in a brighter direction. Dig your copy out (or order it if you don’t have one), get alone for a few hours, and mark this chapter up.  My pencil found these bits of encouragement:

  • “Fits of depression come over the most of us . . . Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited therewith at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts thereon . . . “
  • “Being men (we) are compassed with infirmity . . . Most of us are in some way or other unsound physically . . . . As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off the balance? Some minds appear to have gloomy tinge essential to their very individuality . . . These infirmities may be no detriment to a man’s career of special usefulness; they may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualifications for his peculiar course of service.”
  • “Our work, when earnestly undertaken, lays us open to attacks in the direction of depression. Who can bear the weight of souls without sometimes sinking to the dust? . . . Such soul-travail as that of a faithful minister will bring on occasional seasons of exhaustion, when heart and flesh will fail.”
  • “Sedentary habits have a tendency to create despondency in some constitutions . . . To sit long in one posture, poring over a book, or driving a quill, is in itself a taxing of nature; but add to this a badly ventilated chamber, a body which has long been without muscular exercise, and a heart burdened with many cares, and we have all the elements for preparing a seething cauldron of despair, especially in the dim months of fog.”
  • He encourages walks in nature, which I love and always find refreshing. He says, “The ferns and the rabbits, the streams and the trouts, the fir trees and the squirrels, the primroses and the violets, the farm-yard, the new-mown hay, and the fragrant hops – these are the best medicine for hypochondriacs, the surest tonics for the declining, the best refreshments for the weary.”
  • And one more: “Be not dismayed by soul-trouble.  Count it no strange thing, but a part of ordinary ministerial experience . . . Cast the burden of the present, along with the sin of the past and the fear of the future, upon the Lord, who forsaketh not His saints . . . Put no trust in frames and feelings . . . Trust in God alone . . . “

(Quotes from Charles Spurgeon, Lectures To My Students, Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.)

The second source of recent help for me has been 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.  I was in a dismal state of mind a few months ago, wondering how in the world I was supposed to shepherd my church with all of my past and present sins, my weaknesses and inadequacies, the overwhelming responsibilities.  My heart came to rest on this:

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it.

I take from this that:

  • God is at work in my life, enacting a process of sanctification – growth, if you will.
  • His work touches every aspect of my being.
  • He has called me to this process, and whatever path my life takes is His design in bringing this process to completion. His calling for me includes a life of ministry.
  • He is the faithful one. He is. Not me. He is.
  • He will perform this work in my life. He will enable me to fulfill my calling.  My “success” rests on Him.  Not me. Him.  He is faithful.  He will do it.
  • I can pray these things, because that’s what Paul was doing. So I turn these promises into prayers.  And I am lifted from being a pastor in despair to a pastor with hope.

6 thoughts on “The Pastor & Despair”

  1. I know you didn’t write this to be all about you…but this is why we love you as a Pastor. You are trasnparent, real, humble and eager to grow. I have sat under leadership in my life where the pastor was perfect, his family was perfect, and you’d NEVER know there were struggles. And everyone in the church body was “perfect” too. I’m glad I’m not a part of a church body like that. Sin is real and we all struggle. Satan is very real and we all need encouragement to defeat his ways. Thanks for this post. Thank you for leading our church. Thank you for being real. We need to pray for you more.

  2. Thank you so much! A Pastor that has never suffered it seems would have a harder time empathizing with his flock. (Not that I’m glad you suffered, of course!). This is also a reminder that we all need to pray for our Pastor!

  3. Very very timely. I needed this today. Not just for Pastors but for all of us who trust in the Lord. There is only one God of peace. Thankful that His sanctification (growth) process for us is what will make us complete. Not our own.

  4. Thanks, Dean. Having been diagnosed with depression about a decade ago, I found Spurgeon an instant mentor along these lines. I appreciate your vulnerability. It is so much needed from those of us God has called to Shepherd His people. I’m sure you’ve already seen this, but if not, CT just released an interesting article about this.
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/september/1-in-4-pastors-have-mental-illness-lifeway-focus-on-family.html

    Blessings,

    Mike Thomas

  5. Thank you Pastor, for this timely post. Having been under your pastoral care for over 13 years, I appreciate your continued honesty, transparency, and sharing. The Lord Himself, and you and your ministry, have been an inspiration and a source of great wisdom and comfort in my own period of “extended trials”.
    Having been quite physically active in my “youth” until about 7+ yrs ago, your fourth bullet of encouragement from Charles Spurgeon especially hits “close to home”.
    I’ve never been one to question God “why?” through all of this, but have found myself asking Him just this week “how much…?” – so thank you again for all of this encouragement.
    It is good to be reminded that His work does touch all aspects of our lives, and that He is faithful to complete the work that He has begun in us.

    May your hope continue to grow Pastor, and thank your for your continued awesome teaching and exposition of His Word!

    In Him,

    Jim

    James 1:2-3

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