Yesterday, I spoke into the disturbingly common view that depression and mental health issues may be the result of demon possession. If you can’t be bothered to read that, I explained why I almost certainly did not think that to be the case. But I also highlighted (but passed over) another common assumption that mental health issues, particularly depression, must be a result of sin. Today, I thought I would address that.
However, instead of re-inventing the wheel, here is a section on this from the introduction of my book The Pastor With A Thorn In His Side:
[M]ental health issues – particularly those associated with depression and anxiety – are incredibly common. A 2014 NHS research paper found that 1-in-6 people have a common mental health disorder and according to the mental health charity Mind, 1-in-4 people in England will experience some form of mental health problem each year. The Mental Health Foundation, who have been tracking the effect of the coronavirus pandemic, report that indicators of loneliness, suicidality and an inability to cope with stress are worse now than they were at the start of 2020. Mental health issues are all around us. While it is always hard to quantify these things, it’s not a stretch to suggest that we are living during a time where these issues are particularly heightened.
Despite the prevalence of mental health issues in society, many Christians still believe that pastors don’t really get depressed. Others might struggle in that way, so the sentiment goes, but pastors, surely, are more resilient. At any rate, isn’t the church more nurturing and the Holy Spirit doing something or other (it’s never quite clear what) so that pastors don’t suffer in that way? Others accept that pastors suffer from depression but, as someone once commented to me, ‘I didn’t think pastors got depressed “like that!”’ In other words, it’s perfectly reasonable for pastors to feel a bit down occasionally, but they don’t get so ill that they need to be hospitalised or become suicidal.
This book exists to show that pastors, like every other Christian, are not immune to the trials and effects of depression and anxiety. It features seven short biographies (including my own) of pastors and church workers who have faced or continue to live with mental health issues that have impacted their lives and their ministry. But, more than that, this book exists to equip and help church members and ministers alike to know how to help those who are struggling in this way. It doesn’t argue for prescriptive solutions but by looking at multiple experiences it does suggest that there are helpful or unhelpful ways of approaching mental health issues in pastors.
A piece of research conducted by LifeWay found that 23% of pastors said they had personally struggled with some kind of mental health illness. Although these figures come from the church in the US, they mirror the statistics in the wider population in the UK. In short, they tell us that pastors get depression too, even seriously so. You don’t have to look very far in the Christian press to find such stories.
None of this should come as a surprise. We live in a fallen world where the effects of sin and death are all around us. Regardless of money, status, fame or intellect, people get ill and die. As sinful people living in a sinful world, pastors are not exempt. Few deny that church leaders get sick. When a pastor gets cancer or faces a serious operation, most congregants don’t automatically assume the pastor is at fault for their illness. We recognise Jesus’ teaching that there is no straight line between sin, suffering and illness (John 9:1–3). That doesn’t mean sin never leads to illness (cf. John 5:14). The alcoholic or drug addict who damages himself through his ongoing sinful choices or the person with Munchausen’s syndrome pretending to be sick and receiving damaging treatments that they don’t need are both cases in point. But the line between sickness and sin – according to Jesus – is not typically a direct or causal one.
Even if there were a tight link between health and holiness (and, for the avoidance of any doubt, there is not), our pastors are no more holy than any other believer. If we are in Christ, we are perfectly holy (cf. 1 Peter 2:9; Ephesians 1:4, 4:24; 1 John 3:3; 1 Corinthians 3:17, etc). No Christian can be any more holy than they already are and none of us are more holy than any other believer. We all have Jesus’ perfect righteousness accredited to our account and the Father looks on us through the prism of his Son’s perfection (Romans 5:1-5; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 1:22; 2 Timothy 1:9; 1 Peter 2:9; etc). That means your pastor – as good a man as he may be – is no more holy than you. They sin just like other people but they are as holy as everyone else in Christ who has been made perfectly holy in him. They have the same Holy Spirit dwelling in them that every other believer has received too (Romans 8:9, 11; 1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19; Galatians 4:6; 2 Timothy 1:14). If we recognise that none of these things keep most Christians from suffering the effects of illness, we must accept that pastors will get ill too. Mental health disorders are just one form of illness that has plagued the world since the fall and which affect pastors as much as anybody else.
One pastor who wrote a chapter in this book did not feel able to share his mental health struggles with his church until he read about other ministers who had suffered similar experiences. For some, there is still a stigma associated with mental illness. Others feel a sense of shame and embarrassment. Still others feel they are alone in their experience. This book has been written to assure pastors struggling with depressive illnesses, and churches who recognise that one of their leaders is suffering from a mental health disorder, that they are not alone. These issues are not unique to you. Others suffer with them too and there is no shame in admitting your need of help. Every contributor in this book hopes that this book makes it clear to both church leaders and their members that depression and anxiety respect no person. Pastors suffer from these things as well and they, as much as anybody else, require the care of their churches in tackling these issues.
 McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016) Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. Leeds: NHS Digital, p. 8
 Research Report, Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith, LifeWay, (2014), p. 5, accessed at Acute-Mental-Illness-and-Christian-Faith-Research-Report-1.pdf (lifewayresearch.com)S. Kneale (ed)., The Pastor With A Thorn In HIs Side, Grace Publications, 2021, pp. 1-6
You can buy copies of The Pastor With A Thorn In His Side here.